Are Bayern Munich ready for another tough run at the Champions League?
"The real Champions League starts now," Bayern Munich's chairman of the board, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, told ESPNFC.com last week. For "Champions League," you might as well substitute "season" because this year the Bavarians' campaign hinges almost exclusively on success in Europe.
They have only themselves to blame for this state of affairs, of course. Many observers -- including a few of those sitting in Säbener Strasse offices overlooking the first team training pitch, one presumes -- expected Bayern to struggle in 2014-15. Half a dozen of Pep Guardiola's regulars returned from the World Cup with a gold medal in tow. Surely they would find it difficult to motivate themselves against Paderborn, et al?
Injuries in central midfield to Javi Martínez, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thiago also would take a heavy toll on the team's balance. And the manager's unrelenting tactical experiments were bound to have a negative impact, too.
In Barcelona, you recall, things fell apart in 2011-12 when Guardiola insisted on a new 3-4-3 formation. With VfL Wolfsburg having their best Bundesliga season since winning the championship in 2009, a mere two defeats before the winter break would have seen the Lower-Saxons now breathing down the title-holders' necks. There would be a real title race and pressure like never before on Guardiola to achieve the minimum required of every Bayern boss.
Football is funny like that. As a game of narrow margins and relatively few goals, it doesn't quite work if teams win too big or too easily. A tactically dysfunctional team that stumbles to titles with a heap of defeats and last-minute 4-3 wins will receive universal plaudits for being mentally strong, but if the same team then go on to win all league matches, playing the perfect game each and every time the following season, neutrals will simply bemoan the feebleness of the opposition.
This is not necessarily bias or envy talking. It's just how the mind of a football supporter works. In fact, it's just how the human mind works, period. The guy who runs back into his house to save his cat after accidentally setting it on fire is a hero. The guy who just sits in his house, stroking his cat, is a nobody.
Having ensured that there are no "fires" to put out domestically, the Reds can't expect much by way of recognition for securing another Bundesliga title. "We essentially win to be left alone on a Sunday," one player who didn't want to be quoted on the record told ESPN FC last week. In other words: Bayern can only lose in the league, but they don't. They are walking to a third championship in a row, for the fourth time in their history, and they qualified with ease for the knockout stage of the European Cup.
The attempts of sections of the local media to portray the relatively poor return and performances in the first three games of 2015 as a "crisis" (yes, they did use that word) smacked of real desperation in the absence of any real problems, with a whiff of anti-Guardiola sentiment thrown in for good measure. Some Munich-based reporters still don't forgive the Catalan for shunning one-on-one interviews. He, like his team, have proved untouchable. Annoyingly so, for those looking in from the outside.
You might think that winning all year only to be judged on a couple of knock-out games in spring is a pretty unforgiving place to be for a professional footballer. But after spending a couple of days at the snowed-in, sun-kissed Bayern HQ, you realise that the whole club and staff wouldn't want it any other way. They don't perceive it as pressure, but as a privilege. They have worked hard to be in that position in the first place.
"It's just great to have the chance to always play at the top and to go far in the Champions League," said Philipp Lahm. "That gives us confidence."
Bayern's captain could have famously gone to Barcelona in 2009 but the club officials convinced him that the Bavarians, a relative irrelevance on the European stage since their 2001 Champions League win, would be able to challenge again in the future. Mario Gotze also looked happy, rather than perturbed, talking about Bayern being "well positioned" in all three competitions. He doesn't see the pressure, only the short odds. He'd rather be among the favourites than the underdogs.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BURNING QUESTIONS
- Hunter: Can Real Madrid successfully defend the trophy?
- Horncastle: Is this underachieving Juventus' biggest test yet?
- Marcotti: Will a previous winner manage another triumph?
- Cox: Which English club has the best chance of glory?
- Honigstein: Are Bayern Munich ready for another title?
Every single person I talked to at the club seemed hopeful that Bayern might repeat their treble triumph of 2013. Rummenigge did admit that the team would have to rebuild in three, four years -- possibly with a new manager in charge -- but right now, they're in the middle of a golden patch to potentially rival that of the mid-Seventies.
There's even an argument that Bayern are already doing better than those teams of 40 years ago. Three European Cups in a row came after the team of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerhard Muller and company was already past their best, unable to play consistently across all competitions. The current squad has more depth and far fewer off-days.
That won't mean they will certainly get to the Champions League final in Berlin, let alone win it; knock-out competitions rarely go according to plan, as Bayern know better than most after two final defeats. But the confidence that was so palpable at Sabener Strasse is deep. They believe they have become a better team than last season's -- better than the 2013 team, too, probably -- and they feel happy with a manager who has also become better by way of getting used to his team and learning from past mistakes.
It all adds up to at least two more decent opportunities to win the biggest club trophy. Why worry about failure if your prospects are that promising?
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.