If you were seeking the distillation of the confidence playing for Bayern Munich breeds in its players, especially this recent gilded generation of Germans, then watching Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller face questions yesterday at Wembley was an emphatic reminder of how they regard themselves.
Never more so than the moment when someone asked Müller what he considered Bayern Munich’s weaknesses to be and he responded as if the notion had never really occurred to him. “Our weaknesses?” he replied. “Maybe you should ask Dortmund what our weaknesses are; I can’t say we have any weaknesses.”
Later he was pushed on the thorny question of penalty-taking, not usually a problem for the Germans until their nerve went against Chelsea in the Allianz Arena last May and they lost a final that the whole club considered a home banker. “There’s always some players better than others when it comes to penalties,” Müller said. “You have to be realistic but, look, I don’t think anyone is going to wet their pants over it.”
This is FC Bayern, a club that scarcely encountered issues of self-esteem even when it was not considered the new force in Europe. Now they are strutting into their third Champions League final in four years, that belief seems unshakeable. Their coach Jupp Heynckes hailed his side yesterday as the best team in the last 50 years of the Bundesliga and the recent history is indeed hard to argue with.
There is the 7-0 aggregate demolition of Barcelona in the semi-finals, the 25-point winning margin in the Bundesliga, the fact that they have not conceded in 21 out of 34 league games this season. We could go on. Never mind that a poll by German television network RTL found that only 25 per cent of the German population wanted Bayern to beat Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final. This is Bayern and they are here to win.
The Great Room at the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane is already booked to accommodate 1,800 people for what Bayern expect to be the post-match victory party. They are ready to put right what they consider the aberration of not beating Chelsea last year in what should have been one of their finest hours. This time, they fully expect to add European Cup No 5 to the list and go level with Liverpool in third in the all-time titles list.
Surely they won’t screw it up this time, will they?
That is what makes it such an intriguing game. There are subplots, like the growing mood that German football is about to take over the world, with the Deutsche Fussball Liga (DFL) expectation that the rights for the Bundesliga will double in value from €72m (£62m) a year to €150m (£129m) on the back of this year’s success in Europe. There is the clash between the coaches, the 68-year-old Heynckes and the enigmatic Jürgen Klopp, 23 years his junior.
But what makes this game most absorbing is the prospect that for all the good football sense, meticulous planning and sheer belief of the Bayern machine, this team of theirs is flawed. And that tonight is to be another one of those occasions when they allow the big prize, the second part of a potential treble, to slip through their fingers. Müller might say that none of his team-mates is about to wet their pants but that was, figuratively speaking, what happened in Munich.
In an interview for the match programme, Klopp outlined, in beguiling fashion, his football philosophy of “energy, speed, aggression, hard but fair duels, a lot of goalscoring chances, hitting posts and the bar and a lot of corners – that is what I call attractive.” He is the relative newcomer to the elite level, beloved of that oh-so-cool breed of European football connoisseurs. He is the edgy coach to defy the corporate, all-conquering monolith that is FC Bayern.
This is Klopp on Barcelona. “Others like how they play, dominant with only a few duels – the opponent can’t get into them because they play so quickly: it’s just about passing the ball around from side to side and then forward, and when Lionel Messi gets it, it’s a goal. What I like is something that’s still a bit rough, a bit flawed, something that isn’t perfect. And that’s our game, but it is so lively that the mistakes we make are [for the crowd] whitewashed by the experience.”
Even the absence of Mario Götze tonight gives Dortmund that element of unpredictability. There are no doubts as to what the Bayern XI will be but in the absence of the playmaker who will move to Bayern next season, there is not the certainty about Dortmund. The likelihood is that Kevin Grosskreutz will come into the side on the left and that Marco Reus will play behind Robert Lewandowski, but it is not definitive.
In spite of Bayern’s awe-inspiring league form this season, and their victories over Juventus and Barcelona in previous rounds, recent history is largely on Dortmund’s side. Bayern have won just one of the seven previous competitive games between the sides, a German Cup tie in February. Both league fixtures this season were draws and Dortmund won all four in the two preceding seasons.
Take a step back and the picture changes again. Looking at Bayern’s record in European Cup finals, the overwhelming feeling is that they should have won more. As it stands they have lost more finals, five, than they have won. Their first three trophies came in consecutive years in the mid-1970s, their only other triumph in 2001, two years after their greatest-ever choke in the Nou Camp against Manchester United.
There seemed to be a reluctance from Heynckes to admit that his team had been practising penalties. He avoided the issue for a bit, labouring the point that the pressure of a penalty shootout in a final cannot be replicated on the training ground. Then eventually he conceded that, yes, his players had practised penalties every day for the last week.
When he was asked to compare himself to Klopp, Heynckes bristled, preferring to concentrate on his greater “experience” and a determination that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. Klopp, on the other hand, admitted that he once “tore a muscle celebrating too much” on the touchline. You get the feeling that Bayern can deal with pretty much anything that is thrown at them, with the possible exception of this remarkable Dortmund team and their manager.
Wembley way: European Cup finals at the home of football
1963: Milan 2 Benfica 1
Milan became the first Italian club to win the European Cup and prevented Benfica, winners in 1961 and 1962, from completing a hat-trick with a 2-1 win in front of 45,000 spectators.
1968: Manchester United 4 Benfica 1 (AET) Benfica lost out again in London as United became the first English club to win the trophy. Ten years after the Munich air disaster that decimated the “Busby Babes” side, United won in extra time.
1971: Ajax 2 Panathinaikos 0
Rinus Michels led Ajax to a convincing victory over the only Greek side to reach the final.
1978: Liverpool 1 FC Bruges 0
Kenny Dalglish’s 66th-minute goal proved to be enough against Bruges, who are so far the only Belgian club to reach the final. This was the second of Liverpool’s five European Cup successes.
1992: Barcelona 1 Sampdoria 0 (AET)
It seems hard to believe after recent success that Barcelona became European champions for the first time in 1992. Ronald Koeman’s unstoppable free-kick won the match.
2011: Barcelona 3 Manchester United 1
Barcelona were crowned champions for the third time in six years, outclassing Manchester United in one of the finest Champions League displays ever seen with goals from Pedro Rodriguez, Lionel Messi and David Villa. Wayne Rooney got his name on the score sheet for United.