MUNICH — The difference was one pass, one loose, careless pass on a night of many loose, careless passes. Only one was punished, though. Only one shifted the balance of power, perhaps decisively, between Europe’s two great heavyweights.
It was Rafinha, Bayern Munich’s stand-in fullback, who played the ball, who got his angles wrong, failed to read the field, allowing Real Madrid to slip clear on the counterattack and Marco Asensio to give the visitors a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish, and to silence all but one corner of the Allianz Arena. In a Champions League semifinal that was always going to be settled by the finest of margins, Rafinha’s mistake may prove crucial.
Real Madrid against Bayern Munich is Europe’s continental derby, the quintessential Champions League fixture: two genuine aristocrats, teams that share 17 European Cups between them, possibly the only two teams that struggle to count a season as a success if it does not include victory in this competition. Their showdown was the showpiece this year, the vagaries of the draw ensuring that it came in the semifinal, rather than one stage later.
And yet Wednesday’s was a game marked not by its quality, but by its lack of it. For all the fearsome reputations on both sides, for the wonderful backdrop of this stadium, for the dramatic sound-and-light show staged by Bayern to introduce its team, what followed was, by the end, something of an anticlimax.
Real Madrid started better, seizing control and the initiative, only for the hosts to take the lead, with Joshua Kimmich’s shot deceiving Keylor Navas, Real’s goalkeeper. Bayern swarmed and surged, Real’s defense crumbling as it had against Juventus two weeks ago, chances coming in a flood.
Bayern converted none of them, and was punished when Marcelo drew Madrid, the reigning champion, level with a fierce shot from the edge of the penalty area just before halftime. If that was the first blow, Asensio’s goal was the potential knockout. Bayern now must go to Madrid on Tuesday and aim to win by two clear goals.
Given its finishing here — and that curious blend of obduracy and good fortune that Real has made its hallmark in this competition — it will travel more in hope than expectation. One pass. It all hinged on one pass.