Bayern Munich might have won half of their Champions League finals, but you won’t haven’t heard much about them in Europe this season.
It’s a strange kind of dark horse that can call on Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller, but the Germans have plodded through the current campaign without the slightest upset. A 5-0 win at home to Besiktas last week meant they were the first team to secure a place in the last eight, whilst the Bavarians remain 20 points ahead of the rest of the field in the Bundesliga.
It isn’t business as usual though. At the start of the season, Bayern were tepid and frothy under Carlo Ancelotti, with several senior players decrying his pedestrian coaching. The club were languishing in the European qualifying places by the time he left, with a 3-0 result against Paris Saint-Germain proving the final straw.
1 The return of the master
Jupp Heynckes assumed the reins at Bayern for a fourth time in October, and the upturn was significant and immediate. Bayern were back on top heading into the winter break.
For all their blessed talent, the coach remains Bayern’s greatest asset. Despite winning a treble in 2013, including his second Champions League after an earlier triumph with Real Madrid fifteen years earlier, the wily Heynckes is bizarrely underrated on the continental stage.
A five-year absence from the game has shown no sign of diminishing his tactical acumen, with Bayern’s flexible 4-2-3-1 steamrolling all comers over the past six months.
2 Considerable assets
Heynckes’ tactics might be exemplary, but the quality of the playing assets at his disposal is stark. Bayern have the best starting 11 in European football, with even Sven Ulreich, deputising in place of the injured Manuel Neuer, raising his game considerably this season.
Every position boasts a player of immense capability. Joshua Kimmich has a claim as the best right back in Europe; so too does David Alaba on the left flank.
Arturo Vidal is angry and rash, but violently brilliant at the same time. Any chances that Kingsley Coman and Arjen Robben deign to miss, meanwhile, will be snuffed out by one of the continent’s most predatory strikers, Robert Lewandowski already has 33 goals this season.
Oh, and they have James Rodriguez and Thiago Alcantara too.
“We are still one of the three, four teams that everyone wants to beat” Thiago boasted in midweek. He praised the “aggressive” but “balanced” approach of a manager that has led his side to 25 wins and one draw in their past 27 fixtures, but he was also clear about his ambitions for the season.
"Winning the Champions League is the point of being at a club like Bayern."
3 Experience the key ingredient
Mentality counts for something in the competitions’ latter stages. Bayern have significant and recent experience of making it to the showpiece final, something that clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City, for all their acknowledged brilliance, cannot hope to claim.
The Bavarians have been getting the job done for a generation, and are well-used to the pressure and expectations that accompany an advance towards the final.
Heynckes men, then, should be a natural bet to win the competition outright. The most recent odds have Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Real Madrid and Barcelona ahead of them in the stakes, but FC Hollywood have the wherewithal to dazzle them all.
If anybody is to get the title ahead of this grand club, it will be hard-earned indeed.
4 Bayern maintaining their level
If you take the four favourites for the competition, Bayern, Barcelona, Manchester City and Real Madrid, there is something that separates the German side from the other contenders.
Their early season struggles aside, Bayern Munich are perhaps the only side to have maintained their brilliance over the past few seasons.
Yes, Barcelona have only lost two games all season and are unbeaten in Europe, but you still feel it is not as strong as a few seasons back when Messi, Suarez and Neymar were flying.
As for Manchester City, they have improved considerably under Pep Guardiola and are the most entertaining team in Europe to watch. But this is a side that has never made it beyond the Champions League semifinals, and knowing how to win in Europe is a crucial factor. Juventus's win over Tottenham at Wembley shows that the old guard are tough to knock over.
Real Madrid, the winners of the last two Champions League finals, have seen a dip in form this season. Los Blancos are 15 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, losing five times, and finished second in the group stage behind Tottenham. Their experience in the competition may get them through to the latter stages, but their lack of conviction this season will deny them of a third successive crown.
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