By Akinwale Kasali
Real Madrid moved a step closer to a third straight Champions League title after substitute Marco Asensio hit the winner in a 2-1 semi-final, first-leg victory at Bayern Munich on Wednesday.
The 22-year-old came off the bench to finish a counter-attack and complete the holders’ comeback win, giving Real the advantage for the return game in Madrid next Tuesday.
Bayern took the lead at the sold-out Allianz Arena through Joshua Kimmich, but Marcelo equalised just before the break.
Despite Bayern dominating possession and creating plenty of chances, Madrid claimed a sixth straight win, dating back to 2012, over the Bavarians in the Champions League knockout stage.
Real coach Zinedine Zidane pulled a surprise before kick-off by leaving both Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema out of the starting line-up.
Isco, who was replaced by Asensio at half-time, and Lucas Vazquez played either side of Cristiano Ronaldo, who had a subdued night up front in Munich.
The Portuguese failed to add to his tally of 15 Champions League goals this season, being denied a second-half strike by an offside flag, which would have made it 3-1.
James Rodriguez, who is on a two-year loan deal from Real, shone in Bayern’s midfield and found plenty of cracks in the Madrid defence.
However, this just was not Bayern’s night.
Both Thomas Mueller and Robert Lewandowski went agonisingly close with a string of chances.
The hosts suffered a blow with barely five minutes gone when Arjen Robben limped off to be replaced by Thiago Alcantara.
Bayern changed their system with right-back Joshua Kimmich moving up to plug the space on the right wing, which sparked the opening goal.
When Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich played the ball down the right flank, James released Kimmich with a perfectly-timed pass in the 28th minute.
The Germany international raced clear and caught out Keylor Navas at his near post to stun Real.
Bayern suffered their second early injury blow when Jerome Boateng was replaced by Niklas Suele on 34 minutes — which is also bad news for Germany with the World Cup looming.
Real had a left-off when Ribery went one-on-one with Navas, but stumbled at the crucial moment.
Then from nothing, Marcelo conjured the equaliser on 44 minutes.
When Dani Carvajal headed the ball across the edge of the box, it landed at Marcelo’s feet and was in Bayern’s net milliseconds later after a fierce left-footed shot.
It was the Brazilian’s third Champions League goal this season after also scoring in the knock-out rounds against Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus.
Real escaped again when Navas failed to hold a Lewandowski header just before the half-time whistle and the ball bobbled away to safety.
It shows how far Bale and Benzema have dropped out of Zidane’s favour that Isco was replaced on the left wing by Asensio for the second half, but the move paid off.
Rafinha lost the ball in midfield after a Bayern attack, and Vazquez sprinted clear and put Asensio into space to curl past Ulreich on 57 minutes.
With 25 minutes left, Zidane threw on an extra attacker, as Benzema came on for injured right-back Carvajal.
Moments later Bayern came within inches of an equaliser when Navas denied Mueller with a reflex save.
In the final five minutes, Lewandowski beat Navas, but his floated shot flew just wide of the post to add to Bayern’s misery.
Real have measure of Bayern
Real Madrid have had the wood on Bayern in recent seasons and the Germans now need an unlikely comeback at the Santiago Bernabeu next week to turn the form book around.
The humiliation of a 4-0 second-leg thrashing at the last-four stage four years ago was the lowest point of Pep Guardiola’s spell in charge at Bayern, while Cristiano Ronaldo scored five over two legs as Real won a thrilling quarter-final last season in extra time. Like 12 months ago, Bayern created plenty of chances against the Real defence, but were made to pay for errors at the back.
Changing of the Real guard
It was a rare quiet night for Ronaldo as he failed to score for the first time in 12 Champions League outings, but the absence of Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale from the starting XI called their futures into question.
When Zinedine Zidane reshuffled at half-time, it wasn’t one of the two missing members of ‘BBC’ that he turned to, but Asensio. The youngster scored the crucial winning goal, while Lucas Vazquez provided the assist and excelled on the wing before holding off the dangerous Franck Ribery when switched to right-back after Dani Carvajal’s injury.
Marcelo was all over the place defensively at times and was partly at fault for Bayern’s opener, but he has now scored more goals than any other defender in the Champions League knockout stage.
His seventh goal in the latter stages was a magnificent strike, adding to his goals against Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus earlier in the campaign. For all the gaps he leaves behind on his raids forwards, the Brazilian more than makes up for it by being one of Real’s most consistent attacking threats.
Bayern need fresh blood
Bayern have not bolstered their squad as much as their fellow European giants in recent years and it showed on Wednesday. Ribery, 35, was their best player on the night, but his fellow 2013 Champions League winners Jerome Boateng and Arjen Robben both hobbled off in the first half.
The German champions have barely been tested in romping to seven straight Bundesliga titles, but have repeatedly been shown their shortcomings in Europe.
A 3-0 loss to PSG in the group stage saw veteran coach Jupp Heynckes return in place of Carlo Ancelotti in October, but on Wednesday’s evidence, Bayern also need fresh blood on the pitch when Niko Kovac takes over as coach at the end of the season.
After Liverpool’s 5-2 victory over Roma on Tuesday saw some horrific defending from the Italians, both Real and Bayern were sloppy at the back and in possession during the second semi-final.
Casemiro and Marcelo were caught out of position for Joshua Kimmich’s goal, but goalkeeper Keylor Navas made a terrible error in gambling on the right-back crossing the ball. The two sides were generous in defence at times, with Bayern giving up their hopes of victory on the night with an atrocious pass by Rafinha.
If the final is anything like the two last-four first legs this week, fans can expect a host of goals in Kiev on May 26.