Watch out for Mighty Munich
A month ago the critics were rounding on Bayern. Now, after a remarkable goal-spree, they are Europe's form team and may be heading for a dream home final
Wednesday 28 March 2012
Europe's form team continue their Champions League campaign this evening, resuming their march to a dream night at the Allianz Arena in May. No, not so much Barcelona – good as they are – and their quest to be the first team to retain the European Cup since 1990. But Bayern Munich; unambiguously the best non-Spanish side left in the last eight, probably Europe's finest team beyond the big two, and almost certainly the continent's red-hot team.
Jupp Heynckes' side have been on a remarkable run, responding to accusations that their season was drifting beyond their control with three furious displays, yielding 20 goals in total, playing football that would grace and maybe even win a Clasico. Marseilles beware.
The run started with a home Bundesliga game against Hoffenheim on 10 March, which they won 7-1. Three days later Basle came to the Allianz Arena, with Bayern worried after losing the first leg. But they were slashed to pieces, beaten by a 7-0 scoreline that almost felt like an understatement. Next up was a 6-0 win at Hertha Berlin, before two rather more modest wins, one of them on penalties.
It may sound surprising, but immediately before this goalfest Heynckes was under pressure. Bayern had slipped seven points behind the Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund, and had lost their Champions League first leg in Switzerland. The fans were worried and speculation had begun.
"We sorted things out together," explained the French international Franck Ribéry, looking back on his team's transformation. "There were lots of discussions. Bayern are a huge club and as soon as we don't win one or two matches, there's lots of pressure from outside. It got to the stage where we started to feel a bit of stress inside the club as well, which disturbed us a bit. But we were able to react and rediscover our form from the first half of the season. We're playing like a team again. We attack and defend together."
The transformation has been astonishing. "This came after a bit of a crisis time," the German football journalist Ben Gladwell told The Independent. "There was a lot of pressure on everybody, and they just seemed to explode in that game against Hoffenheim. Arjen Robben hit form, Ribéry hit form at the same time and the Germany striker Mario Gomez scored almost at will. Every time he touched the ball in the six-yard box it was a goal."
Those three players, along with the brilliant young German Thomas Müller, who lit up the 2010 World Cup, make up a forward line combining variety with exceptional high-quality. Gomez is at the vanguard, and scored eight of their famous 20-goal burst. Robben, who plays from the right, scored seven.
As Manchester United might agree after he knocked them out of the Champions League quarter-final two years ago, Robben, when fit, is arguably second only to Cristiano Ronaldo as the world's best wide player. And his recent improvement, after a poor spell, has been as important to Bayern's sudden charge as anything else.
"Robben had a few problems with Gomez personally," Gladwell says. "He was being blamed by Gomez for being a bit too greedy. There were a lot of people saying he was a greedy player, and he was on the bench for a few games.
"The Basle game in Switzerland was his first match back after three on the bench. And you could tell from his attitude that that spell on the bench had hurt his pride. He played really well in that Basle game, even though Bayern lost. He just had a different attitude. You get the impression that he can be arrogant or greedy but the fact that he was dropped for three games made him realise. He came back and then there were the three games when they scored 20 goals – and a lot of that was down to him. He's changed his attitude."
Robben and Ribéry frequently swap sides and while the Dutchman is the man in form, tonight's game might mean more to Ribéry than anyone else. The match is in Marseilles, where Ribéry used to play and he is keen to remind the French media what he can do. "It irritates me," he said of coverage he receives in his home country. "It should not happen like that, they get carried away. It should be as it is in Munich. In Germany, I'm happy, I'm having the time of my life."
Ribéry was fiercely criticised in France for his conduct during the disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign, and clearly feels underappreciated. "Of all of them probably the most motivated will be Ribéry, especially for the game in Marseilles," Gladwell added. "Because he used to play for them, and because he missed the 2010 Champions League final because he was suspended. Also he has complained about the coverage he gets in France because he was made a scapegoat for their failures at the World Cup. So he's got three points to prove."
That 2010 final might have come too soon for this Bayern team. They were beaten 2-0 by Jose Mourinho's Internazionale but it was only Robben and Gomez's first seasons at the club. Now they are fully settled with their core of younger German players: Müller, defender Jerome Boateng and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
They also have the wonderful Bastian Schweinsteiger – the team's leader – although he may not play tonight as he has an ankle injury that limited him to substitute appearances in two of their large wins. He has not started a game since early February. Bayern's earlier struggles had been blamed on his absence. Arsène Wenger recently explained a surprise defeat for the national side with the words: "Germany cannot play without Schweinsteiger."
But clubs as healthy as Bayern Munich rejuvenate themselves, and 22-year-old Toni Kroos has impressed many in Schweinsteiger's absence, scoring three in the last four games. "He's one of their best players at the moment," Gladwell said. "He doesn't seem to get as much of the limelight, he's one of those quiet players, but at the moment he's in very good form. He's currently playing more as a defensive midfielder, but he's got an excellent shot and scores a lot of goals."
It is worth remembering that Bayern had to qualify for the tournament in August because of their poor position last term. "They've had a long way to come to get here but the final being in Munich gives them an extra motivation, you could see that in that second game against Basle," adds Gladwell.
"As soon as they walk out in the Allianz Arena they have a different attitude. They know that they could be playing the final there in May. It's something that they desperately want."
Beat Marseilles and Real will probably await in the semis and then possibly Barcelona in the final. It's a tough ask but with Robben, Ribéry, Müller and Gomez in their current form, they could just be celebrating a home win on 19 May.
March madness: Bayern go goal crazy
In seven days earlier this month, from 10 March to 17 March, Bayern Munich scored a total of 20 goals in just three games:
7-1 Hoffenheim (h)
Mario Gomez got a hat-trick, alongside two for Arjen Robben, and one each for Toni Kroos and Franck Ribéry in this Bundesliga win.
7-0 Basle (h)
Gomez carried on his prolific form, the Germany striker hitting four as Bayern recorded the biggest-ever victory in the knockout phase of the Champions League as they overturned a 1-0 first-leg deficit.
0-6 Hertha Berlin (a)
Robben scored a hat-trick in this league rout at the Olympiastadion, two of which came from the penalty spot. Gomez got his eighth goal of the week with another penalty.
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