The tears of 1999 and the laughter of 2001 are Bayern’s last memories of the latter stages of the Champions League, and the Munich based club have, in recent years, been regularly outclassed or simply outdone in Europe’s showpiece club competition. Last season, the Bundesliga giants were outplayed by eventual winners Barcelona, much to the embarrassment of then coach Jürgen Klinsmann, but now the landscape is transformed, and there is hope for real progress.
The Germans found themselves in the unfamiliar UEFA Cup in the 2007/08 season, having finished fourth in the Bundesliga, and exited to Russians Zenit St. Petersburg, losing 5-1 on aggregate. The football world could scarcely believe what had happened and there were even ridiculous allegations that Bayern had been bribed to lose the tie.
In the 2006/07 season the club were in the Champions League and found themselves in a tussle with AC Milan. While the first leg had ended 2-2 at the San Siro, and Bayern had been strongly tipped to go through, the Germans self-destructed and lost 2-0 to the Italians at the Allianz Arena.
Now, in the last 16 of the Champions League, the Bundesliga giants deservedly take a 2-1 advantage to Italy against Fiorentina, via perhaps some assistance from Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo. Rather than negatives, the tie provided plenty of positives for Bayern, although arguably Miroslav Klose and captain Mark van Bommel should have been sent off, rather than Fiorentina’s Massimo Gobbi. Klose’s winner at the death was also, embarrassingly for Ovrebo, clearly offside.
It’s also easy to argue that Bayern played very poorly. The Germans looked incredibly hurried at the start of the match and resorted to too many long balls. Bayern failed to build up a passing rhythm and Franck Ribéry found it increasingly difficult to lose the two men tasked with marking him. Yet, despite this, Bayern created chances and might have gone ahead via Mario Gómez and Thomas Müller in the first half. After Gobbi got his marching orders Bayern could have scored two or three times.
Their inability to finish to take those chances created eventually led to the controversial Klose winner. However, the positive note, lose in the post-match debate surrounding referee Ovrebo, is that Bayern are a force even when a team builds a “violet wall” to stop them. Ribéry might have been halted, but Arjen Robben gave Gobbi a terrible hammering on the night. During the return leg, Fiorentina will have to come out and attack. The Bayern defence might not be at its best but their attack is undoubtedly excellent. And why shouldn’t it be?
Any European team would take Bayern’s two wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. And no side would turn away a youngster as potent and dangerous as 20-year-old Thomas Müller. Ivica Olić too, may be 30, but he is a force to be reckoned with, and while perhaps not as talented as Ribéry or Robben, the contribution the Croatian makes counts double as his work-rate is unimaginably high.
Up front Miroslav Klose and Mario Gómez are not exactly the same type of player. The first is a veteran with a fantastic nose for goal, while the second is a talented youngster able to create something out of nothing.
Mark van Bommel and Bastian Schweinsteiger currently drive the Bayern engine room. The Dutchman is the captain and a hard man every team needs, famous for his tough tackling, and was voted the Bundesliga “stink boot” – an award handed out by tabloid Bild for the most hated player in the league – in 2008. Schweinsteiger is Bavarian from the heart and lives to play for ‘die Roten’. While the German international can play as an attacking midfielder, he can also tackle with the tenacity of a centre-back. Hamit Altintop and Ukrainian Anatoliy Tymoshchuk are also two versatile midfielders in the squad.
In defence Philipp Lahm is considered by some to be the best full-back in the world. Lahm is famous for cutting into the six yard area once in a while and popping up with the odd goals. The German is a quiet no-nonsense defender, a little like Holger Badstuber, the 20-year-old, a centre-back by trade, but who has been filling in as a full-back. In the centre Daniel van Buyten and Martin Demichelis might not have been at their best against Fiorentina, but both are good experienced defenders. Diego Contento, who also featured, is just 19 and has plenty of vision.
Between the sticks are the safe hands of 35-year-old Hans-Jörg Butt. The experienced keeper has just signed a new contract with Bayern, reaffirming the club’s faith in him. Overall the entire squad is packed with talent and experience.
There are however, in evidence against Fiorentina, a few holes that Bayern need to fix. The Germans can easily be caught out on the counter-attack, and this has happened in the Bundesliga as well as in Europe. Currently, though, it seems Bayern’s policy is “if the opposition scores three, we’ll score four.”
With a squad such as Bayern have, they will be expected to make progress in Europe. Reaching the quarter-final is just not enough for a club which has won the competition four times. The big question however remains: Is Louis van Gaal the man to lead them to the big prize?
This question wasn’t answered in the first leg against the Italians and won’t be unless and until Bayern reach at least the semi-final of the Champions League. With the 2012 final due to be held at the Allianz Arena, Bayern should be ready to send a message to their European rivals that their time is coming once again, and the Germans will be ready to take back the trophy sooner than most expected.