A Lionel Messi inspired Barcelona defeated Bayern Munich in their UEFA Champions League semi-final first-leg to put one foot firmly in the final. The seven time finalists left it late as they pounced on Munich’s injury-ridden squad to claim the important victory.
Barcelona pressed as a unit early on in the match, suffocating Munich and forcing them to turn over possession. The Munich defenders were constantly left troubled by the pace of the Barcelona forwards, with the front three of Neymar, Messi, and Luis Suarez causing all sorts of problems.
Goalkeeper Manuel Neur was forced into a save on 11 minutes, denying Suarez with his feet after the Bayern defense was carved open. Messi, in particular, was always eager to dribble past defenders and play the ball to his teammates. Neymar had an effort blocked, winning a corner for his side, as Barcelona piled the pressure.
Bayern coach Josep Guardiola, played striker Robert Lewandowski up front on his own, with Xabi Alonso and Bastian Schweinsteiger playing long balls to the forward. Bayern were without influential players Arjen Robben—who has been ruled out for the season—and Franck Ribery through injury. As a result, Bayern lacked the deadly speed on the counter-attack that has made them a dangerous side this season.
Lewandowski missed a chance to give Munich the lead on 18 minutes after he found space behind the Barcelona defense, but the big forward couldn’t connect with the ball, missing the net from six-yards out. Bayern failed to register a shot on target the entire first-half, wasteful with their chances. Xabi Alonso, in particular blazed over the bar from a free-kick opportunity.
Munich did well to cope with Barcelona’s quick counter-attacks, but they were under constant pressure. Midfielder Andres Iniesta was afforded plenty of space to move the ball forward for Barcelona, before picking out passes to the front trio.
Neur was the reason Bayern didn’t concede, with Barcelona eager to grab the lead before half-time. The World Cup winner stopped a Daniel Alves shot from close-range after his team had struggled to clear their lines.
Bayern weren’t creative enough, and their crosses were easily cleared by the Barcelona defenders who haven’t conceded a goal in six matches in all competitions. Barcelona, in contrast, had plenty of pace down the wings as they always looked to widen the play, and stretch Munich.
The German champions began the second-half much stronger as Guardiola switched his formation from a 4-1-4-1 to a 4-3-3. Munich were pressing higher and passing the ball much more fluently and confidently, winning free-kicks in dangerous areas, but still couldn’t register their first shot on target.
Barcelona were calm, and continued to counter-attack, winning their own fouls in the Bayern half. The La Liga leaders were more direct in their approach as they began to make intricate, short passes on the edge of the Bayern box to force their way through the Bayern defense.
Neur was reliable, rushing off his line to deny Neymar a break-away, but his team were wasteful with their only shot finally coming after 70 minutes after Thiago Alcantara’s deflected effort was smothered by Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
The shot seemed to motivate Munich, but after a short spell of dangerous possession where they began to switch play well and threaten to open the scoring, they found themselves behind after Messi scored.
The Argentine collected the ball from Alves before taking a touch and beating Neur at his near post from 18-yards out. The goal came after Guardiola had brought on Mario Goetze in search of a crucial away goal, but Bayern were caught in their half, turning over possession, before failing to clear their lines.
Barcelona doubled their lead three minutes later, and it was Messi again who ran into space, dribbling past the statuesque Jerome Boateng, and chipping the ball over Neur. The goal was Messi’s 77th Champions League goal. The Barcelona superstar broke the record that Cristiano Ronaldo had previously set in Tuesday’s semi-final.
Suarez missed a golden chance to extend Barcelona’s lead, before Neymar sealed an emphatic win in stoppage time, running in behind Bayern’s defense and tucking the ball coolly past the helpless Neur.
Bayern will be optimistic about their chances of reaching the final, having comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the previous round against FC Porto to beat them 6-1 in the return leg, sealing a 7-4 aggregate score line. However, the Bavarians are winless in their last three matches in all competitions now, and have only scored once—in the German Cup semi-final loss to rivals Borussia Dortmund.
Barcelona, who have now scored 17 goals in their last three matches in all competitions, look favorites to reach the final and possibly lift the Champions League trophy as well. The last three finals that Barcelona have reached ended with their names being carved on the trophy. The Spanish side have lifted the trophy more times (3) in the past 10 years than any other club and will be confident that they can do it again on June 6th in Berlin.