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Apr 2012

Forecasts were met on the first day of the second leg of quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. The situations were different though, as it is not the same playing against a French team as it is against an Italian one, Bayern Munich did not disappoint against Olympique Marseille and neither did FC Barcelona against AC Milan. Both are waiting to see who their opponent is in the semifinals, but they will have to wait for the results of today's ties, though in the Real Madrid-Apoel match it seems clear that Real Madrid will go through and they will be the ones to play Munich and in the Chelsea-Benfica tie, it also seems clear that the Londoners are the favourites to meet Barça. However, what we can do now is assess what happened in another intense night of football yesterday evening. And, if you want, we can discuss it. So let's start.

Bayern Munich 2 - Olympique Marseille 0

The first thing to say is that the German team were much better than the French side and, after the result of the first leg, were almost through. The 2-0 scoreline in both legs made it possibly an easier tie than had been expected as it turned out comfortable enough for the Bavarian team.

To start with, in last night’s game, both teams started with a 1-4-2-3-1 system on the pitch. Though, as is usually the case, there were with some substantial differences. For example, Olympique Marseille had four very attacking players in their lines of attack to try to overcome the 2-0 deficit of the first leg. But it was not enough. Bayern Munich settled for using their usual system with the security of knowing that Robben and Mario Gomez were ready on the bench.

Nevertheless, the first major chance of the game (11th minute) came to the French side. It was a great move by Cheyrou who ended up passing to his left, and a shot from Morel was blocked by Neuer’s feet. But as usual in football, a minute later and only a minute later, Bayern scored the first goal. Ribery controlled the ball on the edge of the area, began to dribble drawing the defenders, leaving Olic free who scored after a pass from the French player. That just started the German show and Marseille practically ran out of options to gain a foothold in the match. However, there was a reaction. And, at seventeen minutes we saw a great stop by Neuer from a shot by Mbia, which served to confirm the qualities and potential of the young goalkeeper who has just arrived this season from the Schalke'04.

The game became somewhat open, with penetration by both teams but without much bite. After twenty minutes, two consecutive attempts by Bayern, first one by Kroos with an excellent volley by Tymoshchuk and a minute later an Olic chance, but with the same negative result to alter the score. The match did not have much defensive intensity making it end to end which was good for the spectator.

On the half-hour, came a few chances, again for the home team. First (29 minutes) there was a shot producing a clearance from the goalkeeper Mandandao unorthodox but effective. Then (32 minutes), there was a shot against the post by Toni Kroos from outside the box. And third time lucky, they. produced the second goal. It was on 36 minutes and a good counter attack by Ribery. An excellent run by Alaba and a measured pass in to the 6 yard box, where Olic put it in the net. It was the second and final goal of the match and also his second. The game was over and the tie too, especially since Olympique failed to show many signs of life after this.

The first half ended with a couple of things of note. First, the substitution Rafinha for Muller, who was feeling the back of his left thigh when he was leaving the pitch (38 minutes). Next, a move from Ribery in the area looking for the third goal. It was too easy but didn’t affect the result (43 minutes).

And so to the second period. And a tactical point to start with, although it did not affect the final result. Amalfitano, who played as a midfielder, came on for Morel and Azpilicueta went to left back, with Fanni going on the right and Mbia to centre back. A restructuring which tried to get them back in the game and the tie. An almost impossible task. On the contrary, the chances kept coming for the Bavarian side, like the Ribery chance on 52 minutes, which showed up the lack of defensive intensity by the French, and also signalled a change of plan which the Germans had in store to create even more danger for visitors. Bayern dropped off to use the counter attack when they could.

Next, we should point out another shot by Kroos (61 minutes), Remy coming out of defence and Kaboure filling in, occupying the position in central midfield of Amalfitano who moved to the right (63 minutes), and a yellow card for Alaba. As I said before, none of this had a decisive influence on the development of the game.

Olympique started to show signs of life with a Brandao header who found himself completely free (65 minutes). The game petered out. Apart from the changes (Pranjic for Kroos on 66 minutes, Mario Gomez for Olic on 72 and Gignac for Brandão at the same time) there was only one other thing to look back on. This was Ribery being given offside for a pass to himself which was notable for exactly that, a pass to himself, but the reality is that Olic was in an illegal position at first and did not intervene, but then did try to go for the ball and from the linesman’s perspective, he was trying to gain an advantage from his offside position, so the referee blew and gave the free kick.

In short, it was a comfortable match for Bayern, especially after the first goal after which Marseille knew that it was mission impossible, despite their good intentions at the start. And, little by little, their lack of conviction was reflected in their play. Bayern were the rightful winners as they were always far superior in every way to Marseille.

Barcelona 3 - AC Milan 1

Barça also ended up being better than their opponents and confirming their place in the semifinals. But it was a match which was more difficult than Bayern’s against Marseille. Pep Guardiola had announced pre-match that the opponents would score and they did so to level the match and put the tie in their favour by virtue of the away goal. After that, at 1-1, Barcelona had to work hard to resolve the situation.

But let’s take it step by step. Let's look first at how Milan lined up on the pitch. They used their normal 1-4-3-1-2 system, with three midfielders in zones (Ambrosini, Seedorf and Nocerino) defending close together and close to the first line of defence and their own area. Boateng was just in front, trying to prevent the development of the game in the zone where Busquets was, and allowing Ibrahimovic and Robinho to do the attacking.

I started with Milan’s system because Barça went with their usual system, but their movements are not fixed and that changes the picture. Alves, as we see in the picture, does not stay alongside Mascherano in the defensive line and he actually spent the first half as a winger, dropping back to help defend only once. Between him on the right and Cuenca on the left, they give width to the pitch to try to create spaces in the centre to be exploited by Messi, Iniesta and Fabregas in particular.

Guardiola has repeatedly sought to play three at the back since the arrival of Fabregas and not always with very good results. But the truth is that Cesc is an important player for his system, because he gets goals coming from deep and that takes some responsibility for scoring off Messi. Meanwhile, the Argentinian is free to move about in attack and therefore he is more difficult for the centre back and opposing defences to mark.

Anyway, as usual, the important things about Barcelona’s game are the players and their own style of play rather than the system itself, so we will discuss more of those actions.

Circulation of the ball and pressing after losing it are the characteristics of this Barcelona which usually produce very high possession figures, which for AC Milan, who in Italy are used to having the ball, again posed a real problem. So, we saw seven or even eight players sat on the edge of Milan box, defending close together to close the spaces in between, where often Pep’s players play millimetre perfect wall passes.

There were constant switches of play between Dani Alves and Cuenca which were necessary to open up the defence and take advantage of numerical superiority in the middle created by Messi and Fabregas, a vital area for any team.

For those who do not look closely at set pieces, we saw how the movements and blocking by Barça won a penalty and produced other dangerous situations for the Italians. That is the problem of marking man to man at corner kicks, it concedes penalties and it is much easier to block a defender and leave an attacker free. Although that is obvious, it is worth noting that all types of marking have their problems.

On the other hand, I will not waste time on whether or not they were penalties, because in the first leg there were also some claims, and more than one was not given, though not much was said about it.

As for Milan, they were looking to upset Barcelona’s defensive balance with the mobility of their two forwards and trying to take advantage of their second-line men arriving to support, as we saw in the Nocerino goal that exploited the space outside the position of Puyol. They also got men back behind the ball ready to use the counter attack whenever they could.

Barca started the second half with Alves deeper, as we saw in the first action when he covered Mascherano challenging Ibrahimovic for a diagonal pass behind the defence. The Italians decided to squeeze out a bit more and try to have the ball, but Barcelona regained the ball relatively quickly and their players found more space in attack.
In the 53rd minute, after a corner for Milan, Messi found himself on the edge of the area with Nesta out of position and Nocerino tracking Fabregas in to the area. His shot was deflected by Mexes and fell to the foot of Iniesta who scored ​​the third goal with the exceptional quality we are so used to seeing.

This just shows how difficult it is to play against Barca and I am reminded of 'the theory of the short blanket'. With a short blanket, if you cover your feet, you get cold at the top and if you cover the top, you get cold feet. That is to say, if you attack Barcelona, you find yourself short in defence and if you only defend, you do not create any threat.But let’s continue analysing the game. Cuenca was still playing on the right from the start of the second half and Dani Alves was getting forward, but less so to lend a hand in defence.

In the 60th minute, Aquilani came on for Seedorf to give more dynamism to the game of Milan and in the 62nd minute Xavi came off with Thiago taking his place. And it is at this stage of the season where sharing game time is important if you want to maintain the quality on the pitch and in this case it was by using the son of Mazinho.

In the 65th minute, Mascherano got a yellow card reminiscent of his time in the Premiership which shows that he never relaxes, never, not even with a favourable scoreline such as they had.

In the 68th minute, Fabregas who was deeper in the second half after the introduction of Thiago, passed to Messi who put the Spanish-Brazilian through against the keeper. His cross shot went just wide.

The data told the story, after 70 minutes Barcelona had had 19 shots on goal against Milan’s three. In a last ditch attempt to save the game, Pato came on for Boateng.

Pique’s injury a few minutes later made Guardiola change his back four, moving Puyol to the centre and putting Adriano at full back, then Keita immediately replaced Fabregas, to bring on fresh legs and have more defensive intensity in the latter stages of the game.

Then Maxi Lopez came on for Pato, which indicated another injury for the Brazilian, and he went straight in to a forward position.

The last few minutes brought another Messi chance which Abbiati dealt with well, a shot from Adriano, who found himself free but tight with the keeper, and a good save from Valdes, as well as yellow cards for Milan players frustrated with the score.

Barcelona concentrated on controlling the game using their possession and thinking about the semi-final which will be their fifth consecutive one, a record few will match.