The potential elimination of the defending European champions, 1-0 down after the first leg, would in normal circumstances appear to be the most pressing issue of tonight's meeting in Munich between Internazionale and Bayern; however that was before last week's remarkable announcement that the German champions would be dispensing with manager Louis van Gaal, but only at the end of the season.
The respected but autocratic Dutch coach has been portrayed as a lame duck by the German media after accepting that his contract will be terminated a year early with the team still outside the top three places in the Bundesliga and a place in next season's Champions League.
The announcement brought instant reward, with die Roten completing their biggest victory of the season, a resounding 6-0 triumph on Saturday over Hamburg thanks to a hat-trick from the former Chelsea winger Arjen Robben. The result moved Bayern up to fourth place, two points behind Hannover in the coveted third slot, but still 16 points adrift of leaders Borussia Dortmund.
The decision to order the slow-motion sacking of van Gaal was taken by the Bayern Munich hierarchy to prevent the unthinkable from happening – that they might miss out on the Champions League next season. Much like Chelsea, Bayern's squad is full of experienced internationals, but it is proving to be a tall order finding a way to keep them motivated and focused on the less exotic fare of the domestic league.
It is a stunning fall from grace for Van Gaal, who won the domestic double in his first season in charge at Bayern, and took the club to the final of the Champions League, where they lost 2-0 to tonight's opponents. The 59-year-old, however, is paying the price as much for his arrogant, abrasive style of management as for the paucity of recent results. The evidence had been mounting for some time that the dictatorial approach that had won Van Gaal success in the past, most memorably when he coached to victory in the Champions League in 1995, did not sit well with the superstars of the Bayern side. His management style, reportedly marching round the dressing room calling himself God, did not suit the FC Hollywood reputation of Germany's leading club.
The former Bayern striker Luca Toni recently revealed that Van Gaal once pulled down his trousers to show the players his testicles, to prove he had the balls to leave star players out. Toni said: "Van Gaal simply didn't want to work with me, he treats players like interchangeable objects. The coach wanted to make clear to us that he can drop any player, it was all the same to him because, as he said, he had the balls. He demonstrated this literally. I have never experienced anything like it, it was totally crazy. Luckily, I didn't see a lot, because I wasn't in the front row."
Other players were also critical, including Inter defender Lucio who was sold to tonight's opponents in July 2009 after he had turned up late for training. "Van Gaal hurt me more than anyone else in football," the Brazilian later said.
The manager's confrontational approach was less of an issue last season, when Bayern were winning. Van Gaal followed his instincts and introduced youngsters like Thomas Müller and Holger Badstuber to the team, and brought out the best of Bastian Schweinsteiger by turning him into a central midfielder. The twin threat of wingers Robben and Franck Ribéry made Bayern unstoppable, and they went close to lifting the Champions League trophy.
However, in the summer Van Gaal set himself on a collision course with the Bayern president Uli Hoeness over how to build the team, with the Dutchman refusing to sign new players. The authoritarian approach continued into this season, and the writing was on the wall when Hoeness appeared on German television last October, and said of Van Gaal: "It's very difficult to have a conversation with him. He can't accept it when someone has a different opinion to him. He deals with some very experienced players at Bayern and he should be a bit more cautious."
Van Gaal's hubris no longer had the results to back it up, and the coach became increasingly isolated. Mark van Bommel then left the club in January and moved to Milan, blaming Van Gaal directly for his decision to leave. A 1-0 defeat to Hannover 10 days ago sealed his fate.
The decision to leave Van Gaal in place until the end of the season is a puzzling one, however. Needless to say, it was a compromise decision. Hoeness, by all accounts, wanted the Dutchman out, while chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge tried to make peace. Captain Phillip Lahm told the board the players were broadly behind the manager, so a highly unusual compromise deal, allowing Van Gaal to continue in the short term, was brokered.
It was smiles all round on Saturday when Bayern won 6-0 in their first game since the decision.
Van Gaal has been phlegmatic about his impending departure, saying: "I hope that I can leave this club through the front door, I want to leave with my pride intact. It is important for my honour as a coach."
The tantalising scenario for Van Gaal is to leave the club as Champions League winners. They host Inter tonight having won at the San Siro via a single goal from Mario Gomez, and are favourites to progress to the quarter-finals.
A second Champions League winners' medal would help soften the blow for Van Gaal, who has spoken in the past of being "first on the list" to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and has also been touted as a potential successor to Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea should the Italian move to Roma in the summer.
"If a nice challenge comes up for me, I will consider it," Van Gaal said last week, at a press conference to announce his departure. Repeat the success of last season, and lead Bayern to the final, and he would not be short of offers.Reuse content