Bayern Munich appeared confused when they walked off the pitch last night after a draw in the first leg of their quarter-final showdown with Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League played at the Old Trafford Stadium in the outskirts of Manchester.
It was a game in which they were picked to win, given the stuttering form of their opponents, and their own massive collection of talents. But after falling behind to a Nemanja Vidic header, it was a relief for them that they could even salvage a point at the end, with a fine finish from Bastian Shweisteinger, who later saw red in the closing stages of the match.
At the beginning of the game, after a containing an early United raid, Bayern settled into their domineering ball-passing rhythm, and pinned United down to inside their 18-yard box and just outside it for much of the first half. Phillip Lahm, Shweisteinger and Thomas Krool were very quick in their pressing game in the middle of the park, and quickly retrieved lost balls. They looked imperial and swaggering in their control of the game.
But United had a tactical ploy that they had worked on surely, and that was to allow Bayern have a lion share of possession, but making sure they didn’t have any meaningful sight on the goal David De Gea was manning. Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick and Maroune Fellaini formed a triplet that patrolled the area just outside a back four that lacked their two first team full backs. At left back, Alex Buttner came in for suspended Patrice Evra, while Phill Jones was deputy for injured Raphael Da Silva.
After the quarter-final draws were made United knew that to stand a chance against Munich, they had to shed a lot of the scintillating attacking football they’ve been known for over the years. They had and still have to keep it very tight at the back, defending in large numbers, in no-nonsense blocs, and then try to exploit Bayern’s high line with sporadic bursts of speed and counter attacks. This was always the most pragmatic strategy against foes with better technique, greater confidence and looking like even a better side than the one that strolled to win the tournament last year.
With veterans Rio Ferdinand coordinating affairs in central defence, United players worked their socks off to starve the German attack of any meaningful chances. In fact, had Danny Welbeck not tried to be too clever, United would have had a perfect first half just a few minutes to the interval. A quick Wayne Rooney pass found the England international one-on-one with Bayern keeper Oliver Neuer. He elected to go for an extravagant chip which didn’t fool the keeper.
Watching United’s resilience at the back, how they put their bodies on the line to block ferocious bullets, how they doubled up on the marauding and nimble-footed duo of Bayern’s Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery when they had the ball in the flanks, and their overall ‘come and break us down’ attitude in the match, brought back memories of how Chelsea turned improbable to possible two years ago in the same competition, when they won it by adopting a stout defensive tactic against more fancied opponents, at a time their domestic English Premier League campaign was disintegrating (though in a mildly less severe fashion than United’s this season).
When Vidic headed in from a corner kick following a rare United attack, there was an air of deja vu about the match. Once again, heavy defensive approach was threatening to conquer the more attacking and ball-dominating team.
Though Bayern Munich got an equaliser with arguably their only real chance of the game when Schweisteinger blasted in just about 8 yards from United’s goal off a clever headed pass from substitute Mario Mandzukic, United’s players knew that the minimum requirement of having any hope of qualifying at the cauldron of Munich’s Allianz Arena was to not suffer a home loss. Bayern pressed for a killer punch, but United held firm till the end.
The Germans remain favourites to qualify still, especially with an away goal in their kitty, but getting a goal in Munich and defending with a little more doggedness might just see United through to the semis of the Champions League.
It must be noted, though, that defending as United did for most parts of the game can only be viewed as a default tactic for the Red Devils. The transition to a new manager in David Moyes and the other changes at the board level prior to this season has hit United so hard, that they now see trying to win the Champions League as something that must be achieved by any means legally necessary so they can remain amongst Europe’s elite.
It is hard to imagine United’s fans accepting to be so dominated at home in a Champions League game in the past or in the future. They like to pride themselves as having England’s finest side, and it would have been unthinkable for a manager to offer them a cowardly formation during better times. But these are no ordinary times for the Red Devils. They were expected to lose this match easily; such was the perceived gulf in strength between both teams. But United threw pride away in a way they didn’t do at home against local rivals Liverpool and Manchester City when they suffered embarrassing defeats by trying to play open attacking football with teams that were simply better than them. This time they defended for the most part with large numbers at home, and in the end they gained some pride back as their fans cheered their efforts and clapped them off after the hard earned draw against arguably the best clubside in the world.
Just after the game, Jason Le Mierre, a football journalist with the International Business Times, tweeted about Man United fans reaction after the game: “Shows how quickly diminished expectations can set in. Manchester United keeping a tie alive after first leg is seen as something to celebrate.” It was a sly dig that many United fans wouldn’t mind accepting, and if their darling team can pull off a shock in Munich by progressing to the semis, then their ‘celebration’ now would be better justified.