By Enis Koylu
When the Bayern Munich squad lined up for the penalty shoot-out against Chelsea in last season's Champions League final, there were a few players who seemed certain to take one. Mario Gomez, the star striker, Philipp Lahm, the captain, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the talisman, all duly obliged.
One name ostensibly missing from their penalty takers on the night, though, was that of Toni Kroos. A month later, he was made a scapegoat as Germany crashed out of Euro 2012 to Italy at the semi-finals. Many began to doubt whether the boy, then 22, would ever become a man.
Fast-forward eight months, though, and it's a completely different story. Kroos has responded to the criticism in style. After early-season injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger and Arjen Robben allowed him to stake his claim for the first team, he has not looked back.
While he had always been accused, perhaps rightly, of a lack of productivity, despite his obvious talent, this season he has somewhat silenced his critics. His goal on Wednesday took him to nine for the campaign and got Bayern off to a flyer. Add seven assists to that tally and it is a steady return for the No.10.
| HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE EMIRATES
|7'||GOAL!!! Muller gets down the right and pulls the ball back, and Kroos is there to pounce on some static defending and smash home an effort|
|21'||Kroos swings in a corner from the right and Van Buyten's header is parried as far as Muller, who scores
|35'||Mertesacker hits a volley in the box well, but Kroos blocks the shot to keep the Gunners out|
|60'||Kroos and Ribery exchange a neat series of passes before the Frenchman drives at goal|
| PLAYER RATING
|3.5||Opened the scoring with a sweetly-struck volley that came at him at a difficult height. Consistently threatened by drifting into pockets of space.|
His place in the team has not just yielded benefits going forward, though. His training as Schweinsteiger's back-up has given Bayern a certain defensive awareness which they lacked before, when the triumvirate behind the lone front man was made up of three attack-minded players, Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller.
Quite simply, he has now surpassed his former mentor Schweinsteiger as the essential cog in the middle of the park for his side. While the 28-year-old's slow-but-steady game has been criticised of late, his younger colleague has flourished and taken up the mantle.
And his influence was no more obvious than at the Emirates in the first leg of their last-16 tie with Arsenal. Not even seven minutes had passed when he powered a fantastic 20-yard drive into the back of Wojciech Szczesny's net.
The Polish goalkeeper would never have stopped it, such was the force and finesse with which the ball was struck.
And Kroos continued in that impressive vein throughout. Arsenal pushed and probed for a path back into the match, but as Bayern got men back, it was he who kick-started counter-attacks with his fantastic array of passing, playing in team-mates, constantly finding space when there seemingly was none.
He had a hand in the second goal, too - a lovely out-swinging corner which found Daniel van Buyten, was headed at Szczesny, who parried right at the feet of the fortunate Muller.
Kroos was at the heart of everything at the back and going forward as Bayern dominated the first half.
After the break, he may have become less prevalent as his side sat back, but he still had his threatening moments as his acute understanding with his fellow attackers crafted chances on the break, reminding Arsenal they could turn on the pressure, but that Bayern were still in charge.
Such has been his rise over the last six months, that he can count himself amongst the finest players in Europe in his position, perhaps as the best of his age group, and his brilliant form has come at the right time.
After last season's humiliation in all three competitions, Bayern are angry. The Bundesliga is all but wrapped up, and they are progressing well in the DFB-Pokal, but the trophy they really want is the Champions League.
They possess a class team, a squad of superstars, all of whom are in the form of their life. And with Kroos' current performances, anything is possible. Any opponent they face will have to pay the closest attention to the former Bayer Leverkusen loanee.
Arsenal could not keep him quiet, and they were suitably punished for it. Whoever Bayern face next in Europe, if indeed die Roten progress and do not crumble under the pressure like last season, will have to learn from the Gunners' mistakes, or risk the same fate.
And, come May, he may well be able to make up for the disaster at the Allianz Arena with another trip to London.
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