Pep pays price for Mueller gamble
Decision to leave out Mueller backfires as Bayern fire blanks
SEMI-FINAL, 1ST LEG
ATLETICO MADRID 1
(Saul Niguez 11)
BAYERN MUNICH 0
Pep Guardiola thought he had it all figured out.
He got down to the nuts and bolts of what make Atletico Madrid tick.
Little did he realise that when he decided to drop Thomas Mueller from the starting line-up, it turned out to be one of the biggest own goals.
At the Vicente Calderon yesterday morning (Singapore time), Bayern Munich fell 1-0 to Atletico in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final, courtesy of Saul Niguez's wonder goal.
And Guardiola copped the flak.
His gamble had backfired.
As Bayern struggled to break down Atletico's solid defensive block, they clearly missed the German forward who had scored eight goals in eight Champions League appearances, and another 19 in 24 Bundesliga matches this season.
Guardiola reasoned that Mueller was a necessary sacrifice for the greater good of the team.
"I wanted a left-footed left winger and a right-footed right winger, and an extra midfielder," he explained.
So, instead of deploying Mueller in his usual position behind Robert Lewandowski, the 45-year-old Spaniard went for a three-man central midfield comprising Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcantara and Arturo Vidal, and unleashed Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman on the flanks.
Coman and Costa, two wingers blessed with exceptional pace, were tasked to stretch the play and suck Atletico's defensive unit out of the centre and out of shape.
They were also expected to trouble Atletico's backline with a bombardment of crosses to lone striker Lewandowski.
It appeared like a sound premise, except that Guardiola fell into the trap of over-analysing.
He preoccupied himself with tactics and positions, and ignored the impact the exclusion of Mueller would mean to the team.
In a nutshell, Guardiola chose a system over a trusted player.
It was something which former Barcelona striker Gary Lineker found "hard to comprehend", as did many other pundits.
Essentially, Guardiola left out a man always reliable on the big occasions, the raumdeuter, or "space explorer" in German, who has a knack of popping out of nowhere to score crucial goals.
After all, Mueller was the one who scored against Benfica in the quarter-finals and rescued them against Juventus in the Round of 16.
Guardiola had simply forgotten about the influence and mentality the 26-year-old brings to the side.
The prolific Lewandowski endured a night of frustration in his sidekick's absence and was reduced to an anonymous figure, as Bayern never quite forged a link between midfield and attack.
Former Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld found Guardiola's decision baffling.
He said on Sky Sports: "Mueller for Bayern is what (Lionel) Messi is for Barcelona. It's nearly impossible to replace them in the all-important matches."
Ex-England striker Ian Wright feels that the way Bayern handled Guardiola's impending departure to Manchester City meant there was no longer accountability on his part.
He said on BT Sport: "The fact is Mueller is one of their best players, he's (Guardiola) leaving next season, why should he care what happens?
"If he leaves Mueller out now, it makes no difference to him.
"It's terrible the way the whole situation has turned itself around with where it's gone with him."
Eventually, Mueller was unleashed as a substitute, but he is too good to be a 20-minute man.
Not by coincidence, Bayern improved significantly after he came on. It proved too late though.
Bayern paid the price for Guardiola's blunder and it could well return to haunt them.
Messiah or misfit?
STOPPED: Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak (in yellow) smothering an attempt by Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski (in black).
Manchester City's owners may be wondering if they have hired the wrong man to lead them for the next three years.
Pep Guardiola failed to inspire Bayern Munich to victory over Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the semi-final yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Saul Niguez's splendid individual goal gave Atletico a 1-0 first-leg win and leaves Guardiola's side needing a huge performance next week in Munich to prevent a third consecutive Champions League semi-final exit by a Spanish team.
Guardiola is on track to lead Bayern to a third consecutive Bundesliga title, but his three-year spell there will ultimately be judged on whether he can win Europe's elite club competition with them.
His predecessor Jupp Heynckes did that in 2013.
Guardiola won the Champions League twice in four years with Barcelona, celebrating the first triumph in 2009 with club executives Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, who left the Spanish side for Manchester City.
City, who drew 0-0 with Real Madrid in the other semi-final, named Guardiola as their new manager in February, like Bayern, viewing him as the man to lead them to European glory.
However, unless he can work out a way to overcome Simeone's resilient side, Guardiola will have to watch the Milan showpiece on television on May 22.
His new club may even be there without him.
Guardiola conceded that Atletico overpowered and outran Bayern, pressed them all over the pitch and defended well in numbers to limit them to efforts from distance.
"We have to play at a different pace in the second leg," said Guardiola.
Bayern had chances - David Alaba smashed the underside of the bar from way out - but they rarely controlled the game and lacked the hunger of Atletico.
"It was a great goal, but we were at fault, it was a consequence of our low intensity," added Guardiola.
EIGHTH CLEAN SHEET
Atletico coach Simeone had drilled into his side the importance of shutting down Bayern's attacking options, and his players responded by pulling off an eighth clean sheet in 11 Champions League games this season.
Having knocked out tournament holders Barcelona in the quarter-finals, the Argentinian is well place to book Atletico a second Champions League final spot in three seasons.
If he can mastermind another success in Munich, his growing reputation as a sharp strategist will be enhanced further, and perhaps have Man City casting envious glances in Atletico's direction.
Hummels wants to join Bayern
If he has his way, Mat Hummels will be donning the Bayern Munich jersey next season.
His current club Borussia Dortmund confirmed in a statement yesterday that the 27-year-old defender has submitted a request to join Bayern this summer.
"At present, no offer at all has been made by Bayern yet," the club added.
On Tuesday, Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge confirmed that they are negotiating with Hummels.
Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, who was resigned to losing his star, said Bayern would need to "dig deep" for a player worth 32 million euros ($49m). - Wire Services.