Spanish hoodoo confronts Pep

Bayern Munich's head coach Pep Guardiola (above) shows the anguish of the 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the Champions League semi- final against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday. The game's only goal was a sublime solo effort by Saul Niguez (second from
Bayern Munich's head coach Pep Guardiola shows the anguish of the 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the Champions League semi- final against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday. The game's only goal was a sublime solo effort by Saul Niguez (second from left) - his ninth strike in all competitions this season.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Bayern Munich's head coach Pep Guardiola (above) shows the anguish of the 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the Champions League semi- final against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday. The game's only goal was a sublime solo effort by Saul Niguez (second from
Bayern Munich's head coach Pep Guardiola (above) shows the anguish of the 1-0 defeat in the first leg of the Champions League semi- final against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday. The game's only goal was a sublime solo effort by Saul Niguez - his ninth strike in all competitions this season.PHOTOS: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Pattern of semi-final losses haunts Guardiola, Saul's strike strengthens Atletico's prospects

MADRID • Pep Guardiola is facing elimination from the Champions League at the semi-final stage for the third successive year, after a sensational goal from Saul Niguez on Wednesday gave Atletico Madrid a priceless lead to take to Bayern Munich next week.

Since moving to Germany, Guardiola must surely be tiring of the annual Spanish inquisition that has led to Bayern being knocked out by Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively in the past two seasons.

Atletico will travel to Munich on Tuesday confident of securing the clean sheet they need to reach their second final in three years - not least as they have kept 13 of them in their past 16 Champions League games.

Diego Simeone's side have not conceded in any competition for five matches and an away goal at the Allianz Arena would surely condemn Guardiola to departing Bayern without reaching a Champions League final, which must be considered a relative failure as Jupp Heynckes left the club after winning the competition three years ago.

Saul's stunning 11th-minute solo effort will be talked about for years to come and may come to be considered as one of the great Champions League goals, but Atletico's victory was a real team performance.

Gabi and Augusto Fernandez more than matched the work of their three opponents in midfield, Antoine Griezmann was a constant threat on the counter-attack and Jan Oblak was safe in goal.

Simeone also produced a masterclass, surprising Guardiola with the ferocity of Atletico's initial assault before ensuring that his players defended with their customary composure in the second half to leave his more feted opponent facing difficult questions.

Guardiola conceded that Atletico overpowered and outran Bayern, pressed them all over the pitch and defended well in numbers to limit them to efforts from a distance.

"We have to play at a different pace in the second leg," said the Bayern manager.

Bayern had chances - David Alaba smashed the underside of the bar from way out - but they rarely controlled the game and lacked the hunger of Atletico's all-action unit.

"It was a great goal, but we were at fault, it was a consequence of our low intensity," saidd Guardiola.

The omission of Thomas Mueller, his best scorer away from home in the Champions League, was a surprise that did not pay off, with Guardiola's insistence that he was happy with Bayern's performance not entirely convincing.

Simeone, in contrast, was on firmer ground when claiming that Atletico had produced something close to their best, which may have dispelled the notion forever that he is purely a defensive coach.

"We maybe came close to showing the best version of our team, like against Barcelona," Simeone said. "We imposed (on them) the way we want to play."

Having knocked out holders Barcelona in the quarter-finals, the Argentinian is well placed to book Atletico a second Champions League final spot in three seasons.

If he can mastermind another success in Munich, his growing reputation as a sharp strategist will be enhanced further - much to the envy of Manchester City, who have signed Guardiola for the next three years.

THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline 'SPANISH HOODOO CONFRONTS PEP'. Print Edition | Subscribe