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Semi on a Real knife-edge

REAL Madrid suffered the indignity of boots and shirts being stolen from their dressing room prior to kick-off -- Cristiano Ronaldo lost three pairs of his garish, monogrammed footwear -- and were then left undressed by Bayern Munich in the first leg of this epic Champions League semi-final.

They did some pilfering of their own, however, and a crucial away goal preserved their modesty and also kept them as favourites for next week's second leg to earn the right to return to this glorious stadium and face either Chelsea or Barcelona. A single, unanswered goal would do it.

But it will not be easy especially as there is that X-factor of a mind-and-body-sapping El Clasico to contend with on Saturday. Also, Real coach Jose Mourinho is not the only one sensing a date with destiny, hoping to face one of his former clubs, with Bayern desperate to become the first team to play a Champions League final at their own stadium. They have much about them and the celebrations at the end showed that there is confidence they can progress.

If it was a testing night for Mourinho, who appeared to get his tactics wrong and didn't seem comfortable, then it was one also for Howard Webb. The Englishman was the referee here and amid a flurry of yellow cards -- nine in all, six for Real -- and frantic penalty appeals, he held it together to oversee an evening of great European football and pure theatre.

Webb also got all the big calls right, although Mourinho cried foul over Bayern's first goal, thumped home by the superb Franck Ribéry after Sergio Ramos woefully failed to clear a corner, claiming it was offside.

"I have no negative feeling for this," Mourinho declared, towards Webb, in one of those rapid press conferences he does when he is feeling piqued.

Mourinho was piqued. He had bridled against claims of history, that Bayern were some kind of "bogey team" for Real, that the Spanish club's record of never having won in Bavaria was significant -- and yet here they were failing to gain a victory at a 10th attempt and have only recorded one triumph in Germany in 23 matches.

Mourinho specialises in debunking history, of course, but la bestia negra, the black beast, as Bayern are known in Spain, remain formidable opponents marshalled superbly by their wily coach Jupp Heynckes, and with a goal-scorer in Mario Gómez who seems destined to find the net.

Who would bet against Gómez at the Bernabéu next Wednesday? If the forward, who has 12 Champions League goals this campaign, does strike again it would take this enthralling encounter to another level.

"It's not a bad result but it means we have to win at home," Mourinho added. "It's not the biggest turnaround in history but we still have to do it and we can do it."

Bayern and Heynckes was equally bullish. "We will play for a win in Madrid," he declared. "Real will stick by their style and I won't think defensively."

The demand for this match had been extraordinary with 90,000 fans left disappointed after their applications for tickets were turned down. It really was the golden ticket and with 66,000 crammed into this luminous bowl, every one of them appreciated the momentous occasion.

The cast was stellar -- Ronaldo, Mesut Özil, Karim Benzema, Ribéry and Arjen Robben but there was also an eye-catching, elegant German midfielder in Toni Kroos, who conducted matters. He was certainly a star amid a glittering constellation that saw Kaka confined to the bench.

Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer had saved smartly from Benzema before Bayern's opening goal and then Real 'keeper Iker Casillas had also parried a Gómez shot, but chances were at a premium.

But, once behind, Mourinho's players seemed to panic a little although he regrouped them at half-time, with Özil's equalising goal a product of intense pressure which had seen Neuer save from Ronaldo before the Portuguese eventually delivered the ball to his team-mate's toes almost on the goal-line. Özil bundled it over. If that was intended to deflate Bayern it failed to.

They redoubled their efforts, pushing Real back and forcing Mourinho into defensive substitutions. It became increasingly frantic with Gómez suddenly central to everything.

When Philipp Lahm overlapped for the umpteenth time, he crossed low and there was Gómez to force a winning goal and cue the scenes of delicious celebration.

Bayern nicked it.


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