Champions League: Bayern Munich win tactical battle in cagey goalless draw against Liverpool in first leg of last-16 tie

Much had been written and said before kick-off about the mythic aura and transcendent atmosphere of Anfield Road, in particular in Germany, and so it was fitting that UEFA missed the cue with their Hadyn-inspired Champions League anthem as a chorus of ‘You ’ll Never Walk Alone’ drowned out the corporate hymn. It was supposed to be the prelude to another stirring epic, but a German masterclass in discipline and dandy defending prevented Liverpool from seizing the advantage in the tie.

Liverpool’s favouritism had suggested a shift in the balance of power between the Anfield club and Bayern Munich and the Germans seemed to acknowledge as much in their pre-match comments. When had the German behemoths last ceded their favourites tag so benevolently in the past? This was a club that had reached the last four of the Champions League eight times in the last decade, but in the build-up to the tie they had fawned over their opponents.

Champions League: Bayern Munich win tactical battle in cagey goalless draw against Liverpool in first leg of last-16 tie

Bayern Munich players applaud their fans after the Champions League round of 16 first leg match against Liverpool at Anfield. AP

Yet, at Anfield, they revealed little of the transitional and slightly traumatic season — that they have endured on the domestic front. They were disciplined and regrouped quickly whenever they turned over the ball. At times, Bayern knocked the ball around at the back to take the sting out of the game. Up front Niko Kovac’s team threatened repeatedly as Alisson’s poor footwork and feeble presence seemed a determined impersonation of his predecessor Loris Karius or Jerzy Dudek.

The modern game at the highest level no longer allows for keepers who can’t handle the ball with their feet, not that Manuel Neuer, the godfather of modern sweeper keepers, was more reassuring in the Bayern goal. At least he had the solace of a solid defence in front of him. In the first half an hour his defenders were apt in dealing with Liverpool’s high press. Liverpool’s makeshift defence, with the central pairing of Joel Matip and Fabinho, was shaky. Serge Gnabry’s incursions on the right forced Klopp’s rearguard on the back foot. His outing was not unworthy of Arsenal quality, but he faded in the second half.

Liverpool were almost diffident, perhaps because of the pre-eminence of their Premier League ambitions, perhaps simply because their European group stage matches hadn't been all that convincing. It took time for the hosts to jolt into life, but when they did by picking up the pace and picking up the quality a flood of goals always felt within reach. In midfield Jordan Henderson excelled, his omnipresence and decision-making anchoring Liverpool’s game.

Liverpool’s pace turned electric after the half hour mark, but Sadio Mane, swivelling too much, and Joel Matip squandered fine opportunities before the interval. Bayern finished the half without a single shot on target. Somehow they had been in control, yet betraying a fragility at times. It was perhaps a consequence of the lightening pace with which the game was played. Pace is a great asset in the game when used with precision. Both are essential to football. Alas, in the Premier League, the ultimate ‘pace market,’ and increasingly in the Champions League pace isn’t combined with precision, but the ensuing intensity is then often conflated by on viewers with quality.

Liverpool maintained that intensity to kickstart the second half, but Bayern stood firm, closing down their opponents intently. They camped in and around their own box, but posed with a striking calm. They didn’t wilt and Liverpool’s sterile pressure often emanated from crosses. That didn’t trouble the German defenders. Neither did Liverpool’s pace.

As time lapsed, the Germans restored the balance a little. The game didn’t match the hype, but Bayern seemed increasingly content with a goalless outcome, ever concerned with defending and crowding out the opponent in possession with two or three players. For all of Liverpool’s dominance they had just a single shot on a target in 80 minutes — as many as Bayern. At least Bayern, brittle as they were at times, were more precise in their game plan and its execution. That is what ultimately counted, more so than blistering pace in isolation. Not even a deft late diving header from Mane following a low cross from Robertson could change that. Neuer tipped it round the post.

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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2019 15:17:55 IST

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