Bayern Munich bail out Pep Guardiola with courageous fightback vs. Juventus
Had Bayern Munich faded into the night with a whimper, their manager would have risked the meekest of exits, too. Pep Guardiola has not always courted popularity during his time in Bavaria, ruffling feathers with the announcement of his move to Manchester City and occasionally displaying a prickliness to the media, and the condemnations would have come easily if his quest to depart with a Champions League trophy had faltered at the last 16. Instead, Guardiola might feel he is charmed: he and his players emerged from an enthralling night with a winners' ovation -- and with the sense that his legacy may yet go according to script.
There is no doubting that Guardiola struck lucky on an evening whose air was freezing but whose action was played out to a crackling nervous tension that transmitted itself all too evidently to the home players. Bayern should have been comfortably beaten by Juventus: their pressing was nullified to the point of nonexistence for the first hour, and the visitors had enough opportunities to be out of sight. The atmosphere inside the Allianz Arena before Thomas Muller's dramatic equaliser had sunk slowly into resignation; a palpable end-of-era fog shrouding a venue for whom three years in the company of one of the world's most vaunted managers had never quite reached the promised heights.
The picture is infinitely brighter now. Everyone has an off day, and as Bayern laboured through theirs, Guardiola was a tornado of exasperation on the touchline, his gestures becoming increasingly urgent as their chance looked as if it were slipping away.
"The comeback was performed emotionally, not tactically," Guardiola said afterwards as if pointing to the force of will emanating from his technical area, and that was true in part. The inch-perfect crosses from Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman that laid on Bayern's first two goals were certainly not from his standard copybook, and they had spent most of the first 70 minutes trying unsuccessfully to play through a massed black-and-white striped wall that, with Paul Pogba setting the perfect example from the midfield, regrouped behind the ball formidably.
But Guardiola was equipped to exploit the fact that Juventus, missing several key players, eventually suffered for the lack of options available to them.
"It was difficult for us to deal with [Alvaro] Morata," Guardiola said. "But when [Mario] Mandzukic came on we were able to control it better. He is dangerous in the box, less so out of it."
That was true. Morata had led the line superbly for Juventus before slowing up and being replaced by the less mobile Mandzukic in the 72nd minute. Even more important was the introduction of Coman, who immediately took a slot on the right wing to attack Juventus wing-back Alex Sandro -- another player who had put a phenomenal shift in during the 90 minutes.
"It takes more than 11 men to win a game," Guardiola said, reflecting on the match-winning contributions of Coman and his fellow substitute, Thiago Alcantara. "Alex Sandro was tired and Coman was fresh with great pace."
That proved decisive, as did the surge into the penalty area -- something rarely achieved by Bayern's central midfielders during the preceding 107 minutes -- that brought Alcantara his goal. Guardiola had the tools to finish strongly and used them well, but it is still worth asking whether Alcantara, who scored twice against Werder Bremen at the weekend, might have been a better choice from the start against opponents who are reliably difficult to pick through.
Guardiola's seven seasons in management have now brought seven appearances in the Champions League quarterfinals; falling short here, where expectation has been so high, would have left a lasting scar and prompted uncomfortable questions about his forthcoming commitment to City. There is no doubting Guardiola's assiduous devotion to his work. But Bayern's first-half performance, in which they barely laid a finger on the Italian champions, could have led mischievous minds to suggest thoughts were distracted and add to the lurking sense of dissatisfaction -- not hard to grasp around the club -- in the dying embers of his time in charge.
There is now the chance that Guardiola and Bayern will face City in the last eight; indeed, football's narratives move in such a way that nobody would be remotely surprised. Guardiola flat-batted questions about the draw in his post-match news conference. He was simply relieved to be in it, aware that comebacks from two goals down against Italian sides are a precious commodity.
Guardiola's opposite number, Massimiliano Allegri, faced the media wearing an expression indistinguishable between a smile and a wince. Perhaps it was both. "This was a massive test and we performed really well for 65 minutes, creating good opportunities," the Juve boss said. "I am satisfied but disappointed. But football is sometimes all about little details, and in the end it was a detail in the last minute when Muller made it 2-2."
And what a detail. Muller had been anonymous for nearly 91 minutes before his salvage operation, but this is the kind of intervention through which he has won major titles and the ramifications may be long-lasting. Bayern will rightly feel they have -- by hook or by crook -- vaulted one of the most formidable hurdles between them and a place in this season's final. Guardiola might wonder whether the tone of what had seemed certain to be an awkward winding-down at the Allianz Arena will now be completely reversed. A few more evenings that end like this, and the break with Bayern could yet be as amicable as they come.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.