Football: Motor Matthaus

Kieran Daley says the veteran libero remains Bayern's key man
THREE MONTHS ago, after the group stage had been completed, Uefa asked the editor of Germany's most prestigious football publication, Kicker, to predict the Champions' League finalists. Rainer Holzschuh had no hesitation. He went straight for Bayern Munich and Manchester United.

"I was convinced they were the two best teams," Holzschuh said yesterday. "I was impressed by United's speed and technique and by Bayern's physical strength and tactical awareness. Forget the fact that neither of them had won their respective league titles, they were the two most complete sides in the competition."

What Holzschuh cannot now do is predict the outcome on 26 May. He, like everyone else in Germany, including the Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, calls it 50-50. The potential confrontations are intriguing, not least that between Alex Ferguson and the equally canny Hitzfeld, who masterminded Borussia Dortmund's semi-final elimination of United two seasons ago and is plotting a repetition.

"Everyone respects him," Holzschuh said. "What he has been able to do is to get everybody pulling together. He isn't at all impressed by reputations and he isn't afraid to leave players out if they are not performing."

Only Bayern's goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, whose early saves on Wednesday kept his side on level terms until Mario Basler's 35th-minute winner, has been spared Hitzfeld's policy of rotation. Even the maverick of German football, Stefan Effenberg, has had to fall into line with Hitzfeld's law. Effenberg, 30, oozed authority as Bayern started shakily against Kiev but ended up comfortable winners, despite the slender scoreline.

Effenberg was sent home in disgrace by Berti Vogts during the 1994 World Cup for an obscene gesture. Vogts said he would never pick Effenberg again but recalled him for a couple of friendlies in Malta last year. Effenberg called Vogts' bluff by saying that he had decided that he never wanted to play for his country again. Vogts has since departed but Effenberg has concentrated on his club form. Germany's loss has been Bayern's gain. Many observers believe that Effenberg is now playing the finest football of his career. He and Jens Jeremies ripped the spirit out of Kiev just when it seemed the Ukrainians, all in white and playing like the old Real Madrid for 15 minutes, might grace the final with their sublime skills.

With their Brazilian Elber out for the rest of the season with knee- ligament injuries, Bayern missed a hatful of chances in the second half, with Alexander Zickler the main culprit. Given the same space against United, he is unlikely to be as profligate, though there is nothing in Bayern's attack for Jaap Stam and Co to be scared of.

It is in midfield and from sweeper where Bayern pose the greatest threat. Lothar Matthaus, looking as fit as a 25-year-old, remains a master of reading the game at 38. Hitzfeld, aware of Matthaus' inexorably waning physical powers, rests his libero for meaningless matches, leaving him sharp for the big occasion.

As Bayern prepare for a treble of their own, they have one distinct advantage over their English counterparts. They are already 10 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, an indication, if ever one was needed, of their new-found impregnability under Hitzfeld.

Today Bayern go into one of their most highly charged matches of the season, the derby against the city's blue-collar team, Munich 1860. Unlike Manchester United, they can afford to lose it.