On the shoulders of a 24-year-old Polish international, Germany reached the apex of European soccer, and while we’d normally wait until a country has actually claimed the trophy before entertaining such hasty conclusions, four goals from Robert Lewandowski force even the most ardent La Liga fan to face reality. After today’s 4-1 win over Real Madrid opened what’s now a dead semifinal, there’s no doubt one of Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich will claim this year’s title, with the clubs destined to meet at Wembley on May 25.
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After 45 minutes, today’s match looked like an actual contest, a refreshing change from yesterday’s 4-0 rout. BVB and Real Madrid started today’s second half tied at one, with an early goal from Lewandowski pulling his side even just before half time. With the visitors having deflated a soaring Dortmund start, Madrid looked well-position to survive the night.
But the second half was as lopsided as yesterday’s Bayern-Barça affair. Real Madrid never threatened, putting only two shots toward Roman Weidenfeller between the 46th and 88th minutes. In that time, Lewandowski scored three times and had a potential overall fifth goal denied by a diving Diego Lopez. By the time José Mourinho made his second half adjustments, the tie was over. Dortmund was up 4-1 in the 66th minute.
For a team that almost cut it too close in the quarterfinals, it was resounding evidence of a lesson learned. Today’s performance showed a group cognizant of the stakes, unwilling to let their Champions League inexperience lure them to an edge they’d already faced.
Dortmund crushed Real Madrid, and while the Merengues road goal leaves them with more life than their Spanish rivals, Real needs a category five storm to bring the sea change that will turn this match.
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Palpable power of the two attacks
From the opening kickoff, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s instantaneous dash down Real Madrid’s left flank, you sensed the power of two attacks – a force clumsily pried at with long-shanked screwdrivers before an explosive release. As Borussia Dortmund started their forays forward, you could imagine the exasperation a monstrous, athletic Madrid defense would feel after 90 minutes spent chasing BVB’s pacey attackers. And at the other end, you knew it was only a matter of time before a talented but mistake-prone Dortmund defense scuffed their flatheads and cracked themselves open.
But it was the home team that made their mark first. In the seventh minute, Marco Reus took the ball just inside his own half and turned toward an abandoned Real defense. In front of Madrid’s hasty retreat, Reus cut across Pepe and moved to the right of goal, forcing a diving save from Lopez. The keeper’s block sent the ball to the far post where Lewandowski, unable to temper his own momentum, overran the ball before sending it out for a goal kick.
It was a harbinger of what was to come. One minute later, Mario Götze’s cross from the left found the small, back post window where Lewandowski, at full extension, got his right foot beyond Pepe’s. Opening what was destined to be a historic day, Lewandowski deflected the ball inside Diego Lopez’s left post for the opener.
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A period of calm and potential
If you stopped the clock at the eight-minute mark, you could have predicted the final score on form alone, yet over the course the half’s remaining 37 minutes, Real Madrid found a grasp on the game. After a couple of moments of consciously settling – passes along the back and through the middle establishing a modicum of control – the visitors started pushing the Dortmund defense, losing early challenges at the feet of a BVB phalanx entrenched at the edge of the penalty area.
The fouls came, leaving Real Madrid with set pieces and little else. Easy clearances of low percentage chances kept Dortmund in control.
Soon Dortmund found their counterattacking verve. In the 32nd minute, Jakub Blaszczykowski had a chance. Moments later, it was Reus. Near the 40-minute mark, the roar of an appellate crowd begged that a non-foul from Raphael Varane be allowed to send the home side to the spot. It was waved off.
Moments later, Real Madrid were back in the game, and in predictable fashion. For as much acclaim as Mats Hummels has gained over the last three years, the German international remains remarkably mistake-prone for an elite defender. He’s pathetic backpass in the 43rd minute allowed Gonzalo Higuaín to go in alone on goal from 32 yards out. Drawing out Weidenfeller, the Argentine played across the area for Cristiano Ronaldo, creating the star’s 12th goal of the campaign.
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Another wakeup call received
Just as their close call in the quarterfinals forced Borussia Dortmund to take inventory, Hummels’ mistake was a wakeup call. Halftime gave Jurgen Klopp’s side 15 minutes to answer, realizing the threat of goals was no good if they were still going to go to halftime tied 1-1. This was Málaga all over again.
In the 50th minute, a disorganized back line that saw Pepe late to push up allowed BVB to find Lewandowski onside nine yards from goal. Right foot trap, plant, turn, and Lewandowski had an easy finish from just outside Lopez’s six-yard box. Sergio Ramos immediately sprinted from his right back spot and appealed to the assistant, but it was no use. The flag stayed down (the right call), and Lewandowski had his second.
Five minutes later, Dortmund had another. A cross from the right was deflected through the box, allowing left back Marcel Schmelzer to blast a cross back into the area. A deflection slowed the ball down enough for Lewandoski to turn and finish into the top of Lopez’s net, making it 3-1.
With no letup from Dortmund, another goal seemed as inevitable as it was vital. With a two-goal lead going into the Bernabeu, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Real Madrid sending BVB out with a 2-0. A three-goal lead, however, feels different. A 3-0 loss is far more preventable.
That’s the result Real Madrid will need after their mistake gifted Lewandowski a record goal. In the 67th minute, Xabi Alonso blew threw the back of Reus as the BVB attacker waited in the right of the area to play a ball. The obvious penalty gave Lewandowski his fourth goal of the night, converting through the middle as Lopez dove to the right.
Nobody had ever scored four in a Champions League semifinal. Lewandowski did it in 66 minutes. Real Madrid had never given up that many to an opponent in European play. After tonight’s semifinal, Lewandowski stands alone in that record book.
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Changes that just didn’t work
Real Madrid were forced into two major changes, neither of which worked.
The suspension of Alvaro Arbeloa moved Sergio Ramos to right back, leaving Varane and Pepe to start in central defense. With Reus playing through the middle (while Götze went wide), Real Madrid’s fastest defender was unable to help against a pacey attacker who constantly broke down the Merengues defense. If you’re making a list of tactical battles won, the switch of Götze and Reus goes down in Klopp’s favor.
The insertion of Luka Modric also flopped. With Angel Di Maria out (having arrived late from Spain after he and his wife welcomed a child), José Mourinho elected to move Mesut Ozil wide and start Modric in the middle. The result decreased Ozil’s influence, exposed Modric’s defensive weaknesses, and left Ramos with little help on Götze.
As was the case yesterday, we’re left asking what more the Spanish team could have done. Perhaps Mourinho could have kept Ramos in the middle (starting Michael Essien) and chose Jose Callejon over Modric, but it’s hard to see those choices working any better. Dortmund’s advantages – their speed, precision, and cohesion – transcended Mourinho’s countermeasures. They weren’t going to be stopped by Michael Essian or Jose Callejon. It was going to take a stellar performance from Real Madrid, and in the face of a standout effort from their hosts, the Merengues were left tamed, flustered, and all but eliminated.