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FC Bayern München
Almost. Bayern Munich were just one step away from the treble of the Bundesliga, German Cup and Champions League last season. But in the European final Italian champions Inter just proved to be too strong. Now Bayern have tasted blood, though, and are eager to make amends in 2011. But does the team have what it takes to conquer the continent?
STRENGTH & WEAKNESSES
Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben (notwithstanding his long-term injury woes), shooting star Thomas Mueller, Mario Gomez, Ivica Olic and Miroslav Klose – Bayern Munich’s offensive power is impressive. Last season Bayern reached the Champions League final due to this great forwards - especially due to Arjen Robben and his brilliant goals. Midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger has evolved into one of Europe’s finest, too.
But to Real Madrid’s 'white ballet in former times, coach Louis van Gaal’s team shows weakness in their defensive sphere. One year on Bayern fans still wonder why the club sold Brazilian defender and world champion Lucio to European victors Inter – after all, he’s still one of the top defenders in international football. Imposing centre-back Daniel van Buyten can sometimes be a little clumsy, youngster Holger Badstuber is highly talented but lacks consistency, and the recent travails of Martin Demichelis need little explanation. Meanwhile the 'new' left back is Diego Contento, another talent from Bayern’s famous youth teams. A very quick and offensively-minded player he is, but van Gaal’s trusting in the untried against teams like Barcelona could prove a downfall.
Because of Germany’s reaching the semi final in South Africa, many of Bayern’s internationals missed most of pre-season. This could become a physical problem in the course of the campaign proper. And that’s before we ask who will replace Arjen Robben!
STARS & KEY PLAYERS
He might not be the most spectacular, but next to captain Mark van Bommel he’s Bayern’s second strategist. It could only be Bastian Schweinsteiger. Since van Gaal changed his position from the wings to the central-defensive part of midfield, 'Basti' has shown his real ability. He demonstrated at the World Cup that he has nearly reached the quality of Xavi or Andres Iniesta.
Then there’s Thomas Mueller. From the youth teams to being the top scorer at the World Cup in South Africa in just a year is no mean feat, and he’s won the hearts of the fans as a result. But Mueller’s great challenge will be to keep this level of play constant. Meanwhile a distracted and injured Franck Ribery endured a torrid 2009-10: this season the Frenchman has promised 'the old Ribery' will be in top form again. Spectacular dribbling is his trade mark.
One who’s always underestimated is striker Ivica Olic. The Croatian is a bundle of energy who runs and runs and runs… a true team player, and usually one off the bench. He’ll never be a goal-a-game forward but he tends to hit the back of the net when it matters - just ask Manchester United.
COACH & TACTICS
Bayern Munich and Louis van Gaal were not an easy fit. They needed time to adjust to each others’ attitudes. But the great victory against Juventus last year cut the Gordian knot. Since then team and coach have found common ground. It’s emblematic of what van Gaal said during his first days in Munich: that he is “process coach” who trains not only player’s body but also his mind. That doesn’t happen overnight.
Last season van Gaal preferred a 4-4-2 with two central-defensive midfielders and two wingers. This summer he changed his system to a 4-4-1-1 with only one striker, with Toni Kroos slotting in behind the lone forward. The former Bayer Leverkusen loanee and ranks among the classical playmakers and as such a striker has to sit on the bench to accommodate him. Yet because of their and high-quality squad van Gaal can be very much selective in his tactical preferences.
Bayern’s successes – where to start? Bayern have twon German championship 22 times and the German Cup 15 times - both national records. In the mid-1970s the Reds dominated European football, winning the European Cup three times in a row from 1974. The greatest success during the last decade, meanwhile, was the Champions League title in 2001 against Valencia. After 'the mother of all defeats' against Manchester United in 1999, this was the biggest possible satisfaction for all Bayern fans. In 1976 and 2001 Bayern became the best team in the world after beating the winner of the South American Copa Libertadores.
The Allianz Arena is a new arena which displaced the traditional Olympiastadion in 2005. This unique stadium is as impressive inside as it is out: its exterior covering is lit up to shine in the colour of FC Bayern (red) or of local rival 1860 Munich (blue), depending on who is playing. It’s a state-of-the-art facility and a real improvement on the old Olympiastadion, which was big enough but had an intrusive athletics track. Meanwhile the Allianz has a capacity of 69,000 - it’s sold out for nearly every game - and has no track. Still, the atmosphere could do with some improvement, not least for league games. The Allianz Arena will host Champions League final in 2012, but before Bayern can think about taking part in that game they have this season to worry about.
HERO OF THE FANS
It’s still Franck Ribery. Forget his injuries and controversies: when he’s on song he’s one of Europe’s best, and a joy to watch. But as Bayern president Uli Hoeness recently said, “After the club’s last season, Ribery now has an obligation to provide.” Of course local heroes like Thomas Mueller and Holger Badstuber are highly regarded as well.
Bayern Munich are not the absolute favourite, but must be deemed one of the candidates to win the Champions League. As such a Group E containing AS Roma, FC Basel (coached by former Bayern midfielder Thorsten Fink) and CFR Cluj can’t prove too difficult if they’re serious about their challenge. The opener against what is probably their strongest opponent, Roma, will be a serious test of competitiveness, but if they come through it they can look at progression. From there, though, they might not progress beyond the final four. Barcelona, Inter, Chelsea and even Real Madrid seem stronger this time around, especially in defence. But last season Bayern proved that in football everything is possible.
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