Arturo Vidal powers Bayern Munich past gritty Benfica
MUNICH, Germany - Three observations from the Allianz Arena as Bayern Munich topped Benfica 1-0 in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal.
1. Vidal leads Bayern forward
During the opening half of this tie, Bayern's Arturo Vidal was everywhere on the pitch. He was on target with a header, converting a perfectly timed Juan Bernat cross to give Bayern a lead in just the second minute.
He won tackles in midfield, in defense, dropped deep to collect balls and distributed them. And he did the same near the Benfica box, posing another threat to Ederson Moraes' goal with a 36th-minute header.
Bayern stormed out of the gates with Vidal's early score, and for 15 minutes, they dominated their opposition, who slowly recovered as Bayern took it easy. Bayern were aggressive, granted, but except for Franck Ribery's inspired runs on the left, they lacked the will to push for a second goal.
This was especially the case in the second half. The outsiders from Lisbon created the better situations in the attacking half, whereas Bayern were sloppy in the distribution, and did not push for the second goal.
Just like in their Bundesliga match against Frankfurt this past weekend, Bayern had to settle for a 1-0 win despite a huge chance in the dying seconds when Robert Lewandowski, instead of going for the goal, attempted a pass to Philipp Lahm; the club captain only reached close to the touchline.
Still, Bayern have shown against Juventus that they can step up if they really have to. They are the Bundesliga leaders, are on course for a German Cup final appearance in May, and the 1-0 victory should provide enough of a boost for them to go on and secure their passage to the last four in Lisbon next week. But they will not be able to take it easy.
Pep Guardiola now has a maximum of 12 games left as the Bayern Munich coach. The final two months of his reign will shape the way the Catalan's name will be written in the club history in the future. On Tuesday night, Vidal, a Bayern transfer, helped him make the next step toward the grand finale.
2. Benfica show grit
Last weekend in Portuguese domestic play, Benfica reached the landmark of 100 goals in all competitions when they pulverised Braga 5-1. The Lisbon side travelled to Munich without their injured goalkeeper Julio Cesar, so 22-year-old Ederson returned to goal after his Champions League debut at Zenit St.Petersburg in the round of 16.
Coach Rui Vitora lined up his players in a 4-4-2 formation, and after two minutes, right-back Andre Almeida and centre-half Victor Lindelof were caught by a perfect Bayern combination on their side.
It took the Portuguese side a while to shake off the initial shock, but as Bayern slowed down, Benfica managed to keep the ball away from their goal for the majority of the first half. The back four of Eliseu, Jardel, Lindelof and Almeida played high, and with both attackers tracking back, they narrowed the space for the Bavarians, who found it hard to get between or even behind the lines.
Yet, Benfica's attacks were mostly harmless. Part of it was a result of poor distribution from central midfield, with Renato Sanches' long and high passes just not precise enough for the attackers to be picked up. Benfica worked hard as a collective, with Argentine captain Nicolas Gaitan pushing his team time and time again, but they lacked the guts to exploit Bayern's complacency.
When Jonas elegantly twined around David Alaba after 56 minutes, and only had Manuel Neuer to beat, Benfica could have scored that crucial away goal, but the Germany international parried the 32-year-old's shot. Some 10 minutes later, Javi Martinez got in the way of a Jonas shot.
Going into the second leg next week, Benfica still have a chance to cause one of the bigger upsets in Champions League. It's just that their starting position could have been even better.
3. Ribery renaissance
It is a joy to watch Franck Ribery. The 32-year-old Frenchman is back. He dragged his opponents to the middle with a run along the box, which created Vidal's early score. Ribery's pass found Lewandowski, who saw that Juan Bernat had acres of space to cross the ball into the middle.
Both Bernat and Ribery were limited to only a handful of appearances in the first half of the season because of injuries, with the former needing time to find his feet after a muscle injury sustained in October.
But on Tuesday night, their partnership not only made the difference, but also illustrated the depth of Bayern, who had to do without Arjen Robben once again. Against Benfica, Ribery dribbled, entertaining Almeida on the left, while Bernat overlapped him to draw Lindlof out of central defense. Quick crossfield passes by Vidal or Thiago Alcantara then made use of that space and gave Bayern good chances to double the score. But in central attack, both Lewandowksi and Thomas Muller had a rather quiet night.
Last season, Bayern fell at the semifinal hurdle when they were without Ribery and Robben. This term, should the Bavarians progress to the last four, bar any new injuries, Guardiola will have an abundance of wingers with Kingsley Coman, Ribery, Douglas Costa, who was less thrilling on Tuesday, and maybe even Robben.
Against Juventus, Muller and Lewandowski have shown they are there when needed, and the attacking line could be a crucial factor for Bayern in the reverse fixture and in Guardiola's final Champions League matches as Munich's coach.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.