Champions League: Bayern Munich hold back Liverpool, and the inevitable, for one more night
Bayern Munich’s time has passed. This incarnation of Bayern Munich, anyway, this team with Manuel Neuer at one end of the field and Robert Lewandowski at the other, this team that has taken up residency at the summit of the Bundesliga, this team that has been such a fixture and a force in the final rounds of the Champions League.
The wear and tear has been showing a little more with every passing season: Pep Guardiola left, and Jupp Heynckes could not be persuaded to stay; Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso retired. Bayern, this Bayern, was creaking, though it was not always possible to hear, not with the pop of Champagne corks as another title was sealed, or the roar of the crowd as another Champions League semifinal sailed into view.
And then, this season, as these things tend to do, the slow burn caught light, and it all unraveled, all at once. Too many components had degraded or been replaced, and all of a sudden the mechanism ground to a halt. In the silence, what had been a background hum of unease, of discontent, came rushing to the ears, loud and clear.
Bayern’s coach, Niko Kovac, was not good enough, appointed to the job with an air of anticlimax and living up to his billing. The squad he was bequeathed was a shadow of its former self, too vulnerable to the ticking of the clock, its stolid dependability rendered obsolete by the obscene wealth of the Premier League, of Paris St.-Germain, of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The cadre of former players that serve as the club’s power brokers — Uli Hoeness, the president; Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chief executive; and the sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic — stood accused of overseeing that decline, and doing nothing, or not enough, to stop it.
In December, at the club’s annual general meeting, Hoeness was booed by a sample of Bayern’s members; one, Johannes Bachmayr, was bold enough to take the microphone and lambast those on stage for everything from their failure to sign Kevin De Bruyne to Bayern’s commercial relationship with Qatar Airways.
Change, everyone agreed, was not only necessary but overdue. The season itself bore witness to that: Bayern, winner of the last six German championships, has spent much of the season behind Borussia Dortmund, at one point dropping as low as sixth in the Bundesliga table.
Results have ticked upward since the winter break, though performances have been sluggish to follow suit. Dortmund’s lead is down to only 3 points; it is a measure of Bayern’s competitive spirit — and proof of how concerned the club has been — that when news of Dortmund’s 0-0 draw at Nürnburg on Monday made it to the Liverpool restaurant where Hoeness and the board were dining that night, there was a rousing cheer, and a little singing.
Whether a seventh consecutive title will follow or not, this will be the last season of this Bayern. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribèry will leave in the summer. Lewandowski, Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng are all 30. Thomas Müller is not far behind. Neuer is well ahead.
Bayern has set about replacing them with the clearheaded efficiency that has been its hallmark in recent years. Alphonso Davies arrived from Major League Soccer’s Vancouver Whitecaps last year. Benjamin Pavard’s signing was announced in January, though the French World Cup winner will not join the squad until the summer. Only Chelsea’s obstinacy prevented Bayern from bringing in Callum Hudson-Odoi, an 18-year-old English winger who has never started a Premier League game, for $40 million last month. Bayern Munich has the air of a club that feels it has wasted enough time on emotion. Change was needed, and it is coming.
None of that was changed by a goalless draw against Liverpool at Anfield on Tuesday in the first leg of a Champions League round of 16 series. None of that should be dismissed because Bayern held out against a Liverpool team without its three first-choice central defenders. Reports of Bayern Munich’s demise have not been greatly exaggerated. They may, though, have been misinterpreted.
This Bayern team had not been to Anfield before: Individual players had visited, of course, but never en masse. There had been no competitive meeting between these clubs since 1981. Lewandowski, for one, acknowledged in the days before the game that he was eager to sample it, to tick another iconic stadium off the list. The German news media focused no little energy indulging the (occasionally overblown) lore of Liverpool’s home, bolstered by the host’s run to the final of this competition last year.
And yet not for a second did a single Bayern player seem fazed or unnerved or overawed by the location, by the occasion. Even in the first few minutes, as Liverpool tried to build up a head of steam, scratching and searching for a single stray doubt, Bayern played with an ease, a composure, a control.
Liverpool carved out a handful of openings, half chances and snatched chances and glimpses of goal, and the crowd surged, sensing possibility, and Bayern did not blink. Neuer kept on playing disdainful passes on the edge of his box, unruffled by risk. Thiago Alcantara glided around the midfield. James Rodriguez floated into vacated space.
It is true that this Bayern team has passed its peak. It is also true that, once that point is reached, the descent tends to be steep. It is not, though, consistent, and it is not immediate.
This is still a team that contains a multitude of World Cup winners and Champions League winners and serial Bundesliga winners. It is still a team that has ranked as one of the four best in Europe in all but two seasons this decade. Its problems, its flaws and its shortcomings are relative. When Bayern Munich falls, it does so from a great height. It can still take people with it on the way down.
At the end Tuesday night, as Liverpool’s players pumped their fists and embraced their coach Jürgen Klopp — rightly celebrating a hard-earned, hard-fought night — Bayern’s strolled to their fans, packed into one corner in the Anfield Road Stand. They stood there, laconic, as they took their applause and offered it back, as they have done hundreds of times before. These are the stages on which these players belong, and have belonged for years. They will vacate it soon enough, but they will do so, you sense, in their own time.