Bayern Munich: How they became Champions League dark horses
While English teams are finally returning as a factor in the Champions League, the Bundesliga champions seem to have been forgotten by some. Could they be the winners?
Up until this point, the 2017/18 season has been a kind one to the Champions League’s English sides.
Manchester City and Liverpool are all but through to the next round after their first legs, Tottenham have a slender away-goal advantage against Juventus, and Chelsea and Manchester United are gearing up to take on La Liga’s finest.
The Premier League sides who make it through to the last eight will deservedly be talked about as potential winners. Most of them already are, along with the usual suspects of the El Clásico contenders, perma-finalists Juventus, and Neymar and Co.
Somewhere along the way, though, Bayern Munich seem to have lost a little of their lustre. They haven’t been immediately talked about as potential winners as they have so often in the past.
A steady bet for the last four at least, this raises the question: why have they been forgotten?
Why aren’t Bayern being talked about?
In many respects, the answer to this question may simply be that Bayern’s opponents in the Round of 16 are not deemed worthy enough to merit discussion.
Drawn against Beşiktaş, their tie isn’t likely to draw a lot of attention on British shores other than from fans who go out of their way not to watch one of the English sides.
Had they drawn Chelsea or United, or had Arsenal been around for their traditional first-leg spanking at the Allianz, they would have been talked about more. For the time being, though, they may be happy to lurk in the shadows.
The dark horses’ dark horses
There is something odd about a team which is currently 19 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga being labelled as dark horses. However, after their 6-3 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid last season, the Bavarians will be keen to set the record straight.
Having such a buffer at the top of the table could be part of the problem; some have suggested that the Bundesliga has fallen behind the other big leagues in the last couple of years.
While Bayern strolled through a simple group behind PSG, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig both went out in the group stages.
Their own early-season under-performance under Carlo Ancelotti drew headlines and may have contributed to the chipping away of their unassailable aura on British shoes.
An aging squad
One reason that Bayern Munich may have been written off in recent months is the fact that their squad is rapidly approaching a critical point: with a number of their first-team players approaching an age at which they will have to retire, questions have been asked about their capacity to perform at the highest level.
The classic Robbery partnership on the wings is now approaching a combined age of 70 but youngsters such as Niklas Süle, Kingsley Coman, Corentin Tolisso and Joshua Kimmich have shone while James Rodríguez, inexplicably still only 26, has been given a new lease of life after escaping the toxic pressures of the Bernabeu.
With Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry surely coming to the end of their careers at the very top level, this may be their last chance to remind the rest of Europe why Bayern have been so feared in the past.
Though Manuel Neuer is still out with a long-term injury, the ominous presence of Robert Lewandowski up front means that they can be confident of scoring against anyone.
Heynckes can future-proof his team
Yet the lack of real competition in the Bundesliga this season should allow Jupp Heynckes the possibility of breathing new life into an aging squad and could help him keep his players fresh for the knock-out stages.
With the winter break already returning some strength to tired legs, Bayern have the league title all wrapped up. Meanwhile, four of England’s five hopefuls are scrapping it out for qualification next season, Juventus are locked in a relentless charge for the Scudetto with Napoli, and Real Madrid are under immense pressure to rescue some dignity in a league campaign which currently sees them in fourth.
Bayern can rest Lewandowski and play winter signing Sandro Wagner, should they desire. Rodríguez, Tolisso, Javi Martínez, Arturo Vidal, Thiago and Sebastian Rudy can be rotated in midfield however Heynckes sees fit, without an obvious weak link. Martínez can move back alongside any of Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng and Süle in a similarly fearsome defensive line.
Bayern will be happy to escape the media glare
Put all of this together under the stewardship of a double Champions League-winning manager and it is difficult to see any reason why they shouldn’t be one of the immediate favourites. It is, then, surely only the lack of media spotlight that has seen them slip under the radar so far in England.
For a club known as FC Hollywood, this may well represent a pleasant change of pace, though the expectation on them in Germany is never likely to abate.
Beşiktaş aren’t likely to roll over, particularly on home turf, but one would expect Bayern to come out on top. Another favourable tie in the next round – Shakhtar or Roma, perhaps, or an English side distracted by the race for the top four – could give them a clear shot at the title.
Bayern may not be the first side that comes to mind when discussing this year’s Champions League winners – but forget about them at your peril.
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