The Atletico midfielder produced a remarkable run and finish to give Diego Simeone’s side the upper hand in the tie as Bayern stare at a possible third straight semi-final exit..
An all-too familiar story for Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich. The Catalan coach took his team to Spain for a third Champions League semi-final in a row and after losing the first two of those to Real Madrid and Barcelona, this time they fell to Atletico.
Saul’s remarkable run and fine finish was reminiscent of Lionel Messi. It was a magical moment early in the match and it turned out to be the only goal of the game. Once Atletico edge ahead, they are extremely tough to beat – and Bayern could not manage it.
Guardiola’s record in knockout matches away from the Allianz Arena is poor. Not since beating Arsenal 2-0 in London in his first season at the Bavarian club has he led Bayern to a win in the Champions League when it matters most. And Wednesday’s defeat was the eighth successive disappointment in that unwanted run.
Bayern, of course, last won the Champions League just before Pep joined in 2012-13, when Jupp Heynckes’ side claimed the treble. That was always going to make expectations high for the former Barca boss and in what is his final season in Munich (before he departs to take over at Manchester City), he is once again on the verge of missing out on European football’s most coveted crown.
Atletico rode their luck at times in the second half as Bayern pushed the home side back into their box, but David Alaba’s fierce drive rattled the bar, Jan Oblak made a stunning save from Javi Martinez and Robert Lewandowski dragged a low shot across goal from a tight angle.
Guardiola gestured frantically on the sidelines, but his players were unable to find a way back into the game and it could have been worse as Fernando Torres struck the post at the other end later on.
In the second match in Munich, Bayern will be expected to score. But let Atletico in front as they did with Juventus in the last 16 of this competition and there is unlikely to be any way back. Against Real Madrid in 2013-14, a narrow 1-0 loss at the Santiago Bernabeu did not seem a disastrous result, but Bayern were thrashed 4-0 at the Allianz Arena.
A repeat of that is highly unlikely of course, but Atletico’s advantage means Bayern will need to come out and search for a win, allowing Simeone’s side to wait for spaces to exploit – something they do so brilliantly.
In last season’s semi-final, Bayern kept it tight at Camp Nou before losing out to the brilliance of Messi. On this occasion, it was Saul, a player who has grown impressively in the current campaign and whose potential is tremendous – especially as he is still only 21.
For Bayern and Pep, it is a case of deja vu. Another trip to Spain and another defeat in the last four, with Atletico perhaps now slight favourites to go on and make it to the final where they could meet fierce rivals Real Madrid in a repeat of the 2013-14 showpiece they lost in extra time after Sergio Ramos had headed home a late, late leveller.
Guardiola, for his part, has done very well in Germany. The Catalan coach already has five major trophies to his name for the Munich giants and is on target to win the Bundesliga for a third straight season, but if he leaves without winning the Champions League, it will be seen by some as a disappointment after he claimed Europe’s premier club competition twice in four seasons at Camp Nou.
Back then, of course, he had Messi to win difficult matches like this one and he always admitted that the Argentine attacker made the difference.
Without the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, however, he has been found wanting away from home in Europe – even with a squad brimming with talent all over the pitch like he has at Bayern.
Not that this is over yet. The tie is only at half-time as Atletico and Simeone seek the sole trophy they have yet to win in the past four and a half years and Pep’s charges search for a way back into it.
While Simeone and Atleti aim for the sky, Bayern now need to react with a positive performance at home in Tuesday’s second leg and show they do have what it takes to beat the best in Europe and Spain. Pep’s legacy in Munich may depend on it.
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