If, wandering through Germany back in November, you had asked anyone about FC Bayern’s chances of winning an historic treble this season, then most, other than the wildly optimistic, would not have given them much of a chance. After a stuttering start to the season, drawing with Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen before losing to Mainz, things were not exactly looking up. With Franck Ribery sidelined for as many, or more, games as he was available, Bayern were struggling to put together any serious runs of form.
There were two hugely important events though that saved the Allianz Arena outfit from a season of mediocrity and also kept Louis van Gaal’s bottom firmly on the hot-seat as coach. The first of these was the signing of Real Madrid reject Arjen Robben. Over the course of the season, the Dutchman has popped up again and again with vital goals and actually finished the campaign as the club’s top scorer in the Bundesliga, with 16 goals – well worth every penny of the €25 million Bayern paid.
The second turning point was a win against Juventus in Turin. Bayern were in real trouble at that time and a bad result in Italy would not only have resulted in their elimination from the Champions League, but probably the loss of van Gaal’s job too. Despite going 1-0 down to a 19th minute, David Trezeguet goal, Bayern showed great resolve and determination and finished the game as 4-1 victors after a goal from goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt – the shot-stopper’s third goal against the Old Lady with his third club – from the penalty spot had got them back on level terms.
This was Bayern’s fourth win in a row and undoubtedly the defining moment of their season. With two more victories before the winter break, the Bundesliga giants were set to start 2009 in confident fashion. Their winning streak continued until the middle of February, when Bavarian rivals Nürnberg held them to a 1-1 draw at the Frankenstadion after 13 successive wins in all competitions. As Leverkusen stuttered in the Bundesliga, Bayern took up the mantle and their season just got better and better.
After defeating Fiorentina on away goals in the first knockout round of the Champions League, a 1-0 extra time win against Schalke was enough to ensure that van Gaal’s men would be contesting the cup final once more. Before that, though, they would have to deal with Manchester United. After conceding a second minute Wayne Rooney goal at the Allianz Arena things didn’t look good but, once more, their character and determination shone through and an injury time goal from Ivica Olic meant they would take a 2-1 lead to Old Trafford.
After just 41 minutes at Old Trafford it looked like the Germans were well and truly done for; 3-0 down with United looking completely dominant. That man Olic popped up again though to give them hope going into the second half and after the sending off of Rafael in the 50th minute for his second yellow card, Bayern were in the ascendency. A 74th minute goal for the magician that is Robben set up for a tense final 15 minutes, but Bayern held firm and dealt a cruel, cruel blow to United that probably helped to kill their Premier League charge off too.
A stunning 3-0 win away from home against Lyon, despite the hosts having their fair share of chances throughout the tie, was enough to put Bayern through after triumphing 1-0 at home and, with Barcelona failing to overturn the deficit from Milan, set up a mouth watering tie with Inter in the final. This year will be the first time in five years that an English side has not contested the final of the Champions League and the first time that a German side has since way back in 2002, when the sumptuous Leverkusen were outdone by Real Madrid after a ridiculously audacious goal from Zinedine Zidane, and prime contender for the best ever in a Champions League final, put the Spaniards 2-1 up and effectively killed off the German charge.
Despite winning six league and cup doubles since the 1999/00 season, Bayern have not enjoyed much success in Europe’s elite competition since they won the the tournament back in 2001. In the eight years since, the furthest they have managed has been the quarter-finals, a stage they have reached on four occasions. A disastrous season in 2007, after finishing fourth, meant that FC Hollywood didn’t even qualify for the Champions League in 2008.
However, this season has seen such a resurgence of the sleeping German giant that it has elevated them back amongst Europe’s elite. A lot of credit must go to van Gaal for the way he has masterminded a route back to the brink of bagging three trophies in his debut season with the club, but the real heroes this season have been on the pitch.
Ivica Olic, although not the most fashionable of centre forwards, has been a runaway success. Although he hasn’t scored with prolific regularity, his never-say-die attitude and obvious love for the big games has helped the team pick up points in the league that weren’t deserved. And his contribution in the Champions League has been vital.
An often unsung hero, Mark van Bommel, has been the steel in midfield that has allowed the likes of Robben and Ribery, when fit, to push on high up the pitch in support of the forwards. While Robben and Ribery often take the plaudits, it is players like Olic and van Bommel that have given these wing wizards the space and freedom to operate.
Whatever happens in Madrid and whoever wins the Champions League, one thing is for certain; Bayern, and all their fans, can be immensely proud of what has been achieved in a season that looked set for the scrapheap just six short months ago.