Ballack's brilliance encourages Bayern

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The Independent Online

By Erik Kirschbaum

in Munich

Michael Ballack put four years of Champions' League frustration behind him with a spectacular goal and an inspired performance in Bayern Munich's 1-1 draw against Milan on Tuesday night, but it was still not enough.

Ballack's match-winning scoring and leadership have put Bayern eight points clear at the top of the table in the Bundesliga, but the 29-year-old midfielder had been missing in action in most of Bayern's Champions' League matches.

Before Tuesday's blast from 25 yards beat Brazil's Dida and put Bayern in front, Ballack had not scored in the Champions' League this season. He had only three goals in four years in European competition for Bayern, including one penalty. His virtual disappearance in the Champions' League this season also reflected Bayern's less than convincing performances whenever they have faced teams outside the Bundesliga.

Ballack had disappointed in the Champions' League since joining Bayern four years ago, after leading a modest Bayer Leverkusen side to the Champions' League final with six goals in that one campaign, along with 17 in the Bundesliga.

"It's not surprising to us that he played well," the Bayern coach, Felix Magath, said, rejecting the suggestion Ballack was overdue a good match. "There's no pressure on him. This was the sort of match he excels in. He's played well in recent weeks and scored many important goals."

But only in the Bundesliga, where he has scored 10 goals this season. "Ballack last played a really strong Champions' League match in the 2001-02 season for Bayer Leverkusen," noted Bild newspaper before the Milan game. "At Bayern Munich, he has yet to put in a truly noteworthy performance."

Ballack did not speak to reporters after the 1-1 draw, but was visibly moved by the goal, pounding his chest during his celebration. "It was a beautiful goal from Michael," said the Germany coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, who was in Munich to watch his captain.

Ballack's lack of punch on the European stage has certainly not helped his chances of finding a new job outside Germany. He has turned down a lucrative contract extension from Bayern and maintains that he has not yet made up his mind what he will do after his contract expires at the end of the season.

"Until recently, I was convinced that Michael Ballack had not had any offer from another club, but his goals will make some people interested in him again," Bayern's sporting director, Uli Hoeness, said.