Robert Lewandowski’s superb free kick gave Bayern Munich a 1-0 win on the night, but previous results meant that tonight’s losers Atletico Madrid still won Group D.
There was a slightly surreal feel to the occasion, with Atletico already guaranteed top spot, and Bayern sure to finish second and qualify for the last-16 no matter what. Both coaches named strong, if not quite first choice, starting lineups, with the home side’s strength in depth showing with a bench which featured Franck Ribery, Philipp Lahm and Thomas Muller.
The game unsurprisingly started with Bayern dominating possession and Atletico sitting deep and looking to soak it up. But the visitors had the best two chances of the opening stages, with Colchonero attacker Yannick Carrasco twice being denied by Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
Bit by bit Carlo Ancelotti’s side upped the pressure, and they got their reward on 28 minutes, when Lewandowski curled an excellent free kick into the top corner. That did not really change the shape of the game — with Bayern holding the ball for long periods and Atletico unable to disrupt their passing, but also not giving up any clear chances.
Towards half-time Neuer seemed to get a bit bored and came out of goal to near the centre circle, where he hit a one-two with teammate Mats Hummels in open play. The game was not being played at quite the same pace as last May’s semi-final here between these two teams.
Diego Simeone tried to change things by making all three substitutions by minute 68, and visiting captain Gabi showed he cared by deservedly getting booked for a foul on Bayern left-back Juan Bernat. But Ancelotti’s side continued to have most of the ball, without creating too many opportunities, although Arjen Robben had a couple of penalty claims turned down.
Neither side seemed too concerned as the minutes ticked by. Even with Simeone urging them on from the sideline, Atletico understandably found it hard to generate their usual intensity with little tangible to compete for, even if they did mount a late spell of pressure.
Bayern are definitely not playing with the zip and ambition of last year at this stage under Pep Guardiola. But both these teams will improve after Christmas, and nobody will want to get either in next week’s round of 16 draw.
Before the game this had the look of an immovable object [the Atletico defence] against the irresistible force of Bayern’s top-scorer: Robert Lewandowski.
Just before the half-hour mark the age old physics paradox was resolved, when Lewandowski decided to go over the top of the wall and curl a peach of a 25-yard free kick up and down and out of the reach of Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak. The Poland international had not scored a free kick at club level for two a half years, but now has two in five days — following his similar effort in the Bundesliga against Mainz last weekend. #
Lewandowski now has 24 goals in 25 games for club and country this season — including five in six in the Champions League. He kept in the hunt for more, but Atletico centre-half Stefan Savic handled him pretty well in their one-on-ones, until Ancelotti gave him a rest in the second half.
Lewandowski has a huge reputation in Spain, built upon his famous four goals for Borussia Dortmund against Real Madrid in the 2013 semi-finals. Just one was enough to settle tonight’s less high-stakes game.
Atletico might compete as peers with Bayern at the very top level of European football — but the perennially financially troubled La Liga outfit lack their rivals’ deep resources.
As Simeone shuffled his pack tonight, those given a chance were little-used summer signings Sime Vrsaljko and Nicolas Gaitan, along with homegrown youngsters Lucas Hernandez and Saul Niguez.
The most impressive was defender Lucas, who faced a stiff task playing out of position at left-back against Bayern’s experienced flyer Arjen Robben. The confident 20-year-old did not look overawed at all, more than once leaving a foot in strongly and annoying the Dutch international — who is 12 years his senior.
The France underage international was also impressive raiding forward on occasion, setting up an early chance for Carrasco and a late difficult opportunity for substitute Kevin Gameiro.
Gaitan had a less happy night, contributing little in possession from a wide midfield position, as he spent most of his time on the pitch scurrying around off the ball before being removed on the hour mark. The Argentina international cost €25 million from Benfica last summer but has yet to show his worth for his new side.
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