With less than a third of his final season at Bayern Munich to go, focus is increasingly shifting onto Pep Guardiola’s Champions League quest. For the past two seasons he has failed to win the only title that provided him with serious competition. There are, though, reasons for optimism this time around, and the Bundesliga’s renewed strength at the top might eventually prove a boon.
Bayern were once able to turn up to most matches after November with the knowledge that barring any disaster, they would be the champions of Germany. Borussia Dortmund imploded, only recovering this season, and without them there wasn’t another team able to take advantage of the vacuum and provide a meaningful test, although Wolfsburg briefly threatened.
It might have been the ease with which Bayern sauntered to the title that meant Guardiola started seeing obstacles in odd places, and solutions in even weirder ones. Against Barcelona - obviously no easy opponent at the best of times - Guardiola decided that it would be the ideal time to experiment with a man-marking back three. Perhaps, after all, you can still see the lingering effects of Louis van Gaal’s influence on Guardiola, in the inexplicable need to faff about.
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It didn’t work, of course, and the situation was compounded by problems with injuries. Bayern were still basically an excellent side, but they weren’t a match for Barcelona. That made no difference to the Bundesliga, where nobody else came close to them, and they had a muted celebration with another league title. Winning the title for Bayern, though, is an achievement on the scale of watching Ant and Dec successfully present a television show. We all know they can do it competently, but they don’t deserve any praise for it, and none of us really derive any enjoyment from watching it happen.
Things may be different this season, though. Arjen Robben has been out injured, as has Franck Ribery, both of them struggling with age and decay. In the past that would have been a problem, but the summer 2015 transfer window changed that. Juventus aren’t known for their market clangers, but letting Kingsley Coman leave appears to be quite something. While it is a loan for now, it is hard to imagine Bayern not exercising their option to sign a potentially brilliant player, who is still just 19.
Douglas Costa, six years older, arrived from Shakhtar Donetsk, and has already demonstrated that English side’s reluctance to secure his signature was a mistake. These two players have done what the German team needed, but couldn’t get, from the expiring Robben and Ribery. Add to that Robert Lewandowski, with the full confidence of Guardiola, and Thomas Muller there to augment the threat, and Bayern are a more potent side this season.

Bayern Munich's Polish striker Robert Lewandowski celebrate after scoring during the UEFA Champions League, Round of 16, second leg football match FC Bayern Munich v Juventus in Munich, southern Germany on March 16, 2016

Image credit: AFP

It isn’t perfect, though. Mario Gotze’s round face is often on the bench, where it really should be considering the lack of whelm he has displayed in his time at Bayern. It was a good way to destabilise Dortmund, but not the most considered signing they might have made to improve their side most effectively. But it isn’t the attack, or even the midfield, where the side should worry. It isn’t even Manuel Neuer, redefining goalkeeping by occasionally recreating Bruce Grobbelaar, who poses any real problem to the team’s chances. It is the defence.
Injuries to Holger Badstuber and Jerome Boateng have exposed the centre of defence. Against Juventus, they were shown over the course of two matches as vulnerable when actually attacked. Of course, Juventus have the talent to make the most of that approach, and Benfica may not, but other teams later in the competition like Barcelona and Real Madrid, perhaps Paris Saint-Germain, can call on similar talent. You expose yourself to possible defeat if you attack Bayern, by giving room to for them to exploit, but you are more likely to lose if you simply try to hold on.

Messi Boateng

Image credit: AFP

For the best sides, just holding on isn’t a necessary step. Solid, disciplined defending and positional play is, but it doesn’t have to be the only thought on the players’ minds. For Benfica, it is hard to guess how to play. They can hope to cling to a draw in Germany, and then aim to use aggressive intent to steal victory in Lisbon. Or they can aim to repeat the exploits of Porto, who beat them 3-1 at home in the previous year’s competition only to lose 6-1 in the second leg, and try to benefit from the strategy twice. The later stages might not be such a poser for Bayern this time, too, because they will be kept on their toes by a resurgent Dortmund.
For Guardiola, he should be confident that he has the beating of Benfica whatever they attempt. But with this his last season in Germany, and with the worrying possibility that Manchester City could sit out next year’s Champions League, the pressure is more pronounced than ever on the need for him to avoid failure by succeeding in Europe this season.
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