Bayern Munich hold off Benfica to advance to UCL semis as favourites
Three quick thoughts from Bayern Munich's 2-2 draw with Benfica at the Estadio da Luz on Wednesday, which secured the Bavarians' passage to the Champions League semifinals via a 3-2 aggregate victory.
1. Bayern progress to semis as favourites
Pep Guardiola gambled. Robert Lewandowski, without a goal in three consecutive matches and two yellow cards to his name, started the match on the bench for only the second time this season.
Looking at the names, nine -- maybe even 10, depending on your metrics -- midfielders were in Bayern's starting lineup.
With Ljubomir Fejsa and the physical Renato Sanches closing down the central midfield, the Bavarians were forced to take the match to the wings. Out on the left, Franck Ribery, following a string of several impressive performances, had his difficulties against Andre Almeida and Victor Lindelof. More than once, the Frenchman took the ball and dribbled back toward the centre of the pitch, passed the ball and trotted back to his post on the flank.
In defense, young Joshua Kimmich's performance was marred by an unusual nervousness. His distribution in the build-up play was sloppy at times, he slid past crosses, and only two minutes into the match he committed a clumsy foul that set the tone for a below-par match for the Bayern hopeful. David Alaba, with a rather quiet and sometimes unlucky performance, Javi Martinez and Manuel Neuer all were at fault for the opening goal.
The thing with Bayern, however, is that even when several players are not playing to their best, the individual class of others can lift the team to get over the bar set by almost any opponent in Europe.
When things could have fallen apart, Douglas Costa and Philipp Lahm, who had an impressive match out on the right wing, stepped up and, within a few minutes, created dangerous situations. It was that partnership that led to Bayern's equalizer only seven minutes before halftime. The captain overlapped Costa, received the ball, then swung it into the middle, where Ederson could only box it straight to Arturo Vidal, who finished with aplomb.
2. Young Benfica bold, but not clinical enough
The eagle landed in the Estadio da Luz right before kickoff, the Champions League match ball in his claws. The Benfica fans were noisy, and on the pitch the young Benfica side tried the impossible: knock Bayern out of European competition. A dream. Eleven daring players fired up by a capacity crowd. They knew they had to be patient and wait for their chance.
Rui Vitoria's XI started well. Only two minutes in, they won a free kick in a good central position close to Bayern's box, but Eliseu's attempt was deflected by Kimmich for a corner. Just like in the first leg, Benfica defended high and narrowed spaces when Bayern were in possession, and the visitors soon diverted the match to the wings with long balls, mainly played by Xabi Alonso to Costa.
Going forward, though, it was a different story. Without the heart of Benfica's attack -- namely Jonas, Kostas Mitroglou and Nicolas Gaitan -- it took the Lisbon side more than 26 minutes to get anywhere near the goal for a second time. Sometimes good things take time. A wonderful counter-attack originated with Eliseu -- who until then had been busy shutting down Douglas Costa -- when he sent a curled cross into the box, where Raul Jimenez beat Javi Martinez and Alaba to the ball. Neuer flew past the cross and the Mexican headed into an open net.
Bayern were shocked, and only three minutes after his first, Jimenez could have doubled the score when Kimmich slid past an Eduardo Salvio cross and Alonso just watched in awe. But the Mexican, on target in the domestic league last weekend, was too surprised and rushed his shot. Less than 10 minutes later, the Portuguese side's chances of causing a sensation faded when Ederson's mistake opened the door for Vidal's stunning 18-yard strike.
For parts of the first half, Benfica looked like they could actually go past Bayern, but ultimately it was not enough to hold back the experienced, cold-hearted German champions, who in the second half made no mistake to show their opponents who the favourites to win the Champions League are. Still, Talisca's 76th-minute equaliser will be included in every 2015-2016 highlight package.
3. Vidal adds unexpected element to Bayern
For a few minutes following the Jimenz goal, Bayern were visibly in shock. They nearly conceded a second, and this would have presented them with quite a task to get back into the tie. True, they would still have needed only one goal, but with a complete stadium behind the hosts and doubts about the Bavarians' form creeping in, things might have taken a different turn on the night in Lisbon.
Doubts? Vidal rarely has them. When Bayern were stunned and struggling, the Chilean did what he had to do. He attempted a shot from 25 yards out, sending it high over the bar. But it didn't matter where it landed, what mattered was the signal his attempt gave: Let's go for it; the tie is ours.
A few minutes later, the former Juventus man started a play in Benfica's half. He passed the ball to Costa on the wing, just like Bayern had done so many times in the first half, and watched as the Brazilian passed it on to Lahm. Vidal barely moved. He waited. He sensed he might be in the right place. Ederson jumped to the ball in Superman style. And it flew toward Bayern's No. 23.
He made a few steps, ran into position and unleashed a beast of a shot that would either head straight into the stands or hit the back of the net. It was the latter. Bayern were level, and in total control of the tie once more.
When he joined from Juve last summer, right after winning the Copa America, Vidal was not in his best shape; a new club, a new coach, a new system. With only a handful of matches left to be played this season, the Chile international's hard-working, never-say-die attitude on the pitch has added an unknown element to Guardiola football.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.