Jerome Boateng's injury jeopardises Bayern Munich's treble hopes
Bayern Munich resumed Bundesliga action on Friday after a month's hibernation with a lacklustre 2-1 win in Hamburg. But any victory joy was tempered by injury to defensive lynchpin Jerome Boateng.
Despite a far-from-classic performance, Bayern got the job done to secure their 16th win in 18 league games to maintain an eight-point advantage over nearest challengers Borussia Dortmund. Lethal Robert Lewandowski was once again the match-winner, firing a goal in each half, ably assisted on both occasions by the irrepressible Thomas Muller.
Bayern's bitterest pill to swallow on a freezing evening in Northern Germany was the loss of Boateng. The 27-year-old World Cup winner sustained a groin injury just after a spirited Hamburg side had the temerity to equalise. At first glance, the injury looked similar to the one sustained by Mario Gotze on international duty in Dublin last October. Gotze is still out of action following that setback, and Boateng faces a similarly lengthy spell on the sidelines. The club are understandably reluctant to be precise, but German magazine Sport Bild suggests Boateng can expect a three-month layoff at the very least.
Boateng, who recently extended his contract until 2021, is "the best central defender in the world," according to director of football Matthias Sammer. So where does his injury-enforced absence leave Bayern?
Domestically, Bayern will still likely romp away with the title without the services of their imposing leader at the back. Despite Dortmund keeping them on their toes, Bayern aren't suddenly likely to slip to two or three successive defeats, even if Thomas Tuchel's charges continue their hugely impressive form. And it's not as if opponents come to attack in Munich, where Bayern can boast nine wins out of nine at fortress Allianz Arena.
But the loss of their defensive rock could potentially derail Bayern's assault on Europe. Boateng's absence is a huge body blow for a mouth-watering round-of-16 tie against Juventus. The Italian giants are in ominous form on the back of 11 Serie A wins in a row. Boateng's pace, Franz Beckenbauer-esque passing and leadership skills will all be gravely missed against the Old Lady.
The first leg in Turin is less than a month away and Bayern's remaining central defensive options all have a patchy injury record.
Holger Badstuber has made only three league starts this season and is only just feeling his way back into the fray after his latest injury nightmare. The German will have less than fond memories of his last Champions League appearance (against Olympiakos), when he was sent off for a clumsy tackle. On the plus side, he's a wholehearted trier and is sure to enjoy the battle against Juve's bullish forward Mario Mandzukic. The Croatian will be highly motivated to put one over on Pep Guardiola after falling out with the coach late on in the Catalan's debut season in Munich.
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Medhi Benatia is currently out injured and, if truth be told, has never shown convincing football fitness in Munich, suffering eight different muscle injuries since signing from Roma in the summer of 2014. The Moroccan skipper has only managed to last the full 90 minutes on three occasions this season, missing more than a third of the campaign with various aches and pains. Benatia is on track to return in a couple of weeks, but it would be a big ask for him to be at his best against Juventus.
Javi Martinez is a brilliant defensive midfielder but far from completely at home as a natural central defender. The Spaniard may be the Bavarians' record signing, but he has never looked totally comfortable leading Bayern's backline.
However, Guardiola is not short of options and may choose to plug the gap in central defence with the brilliantly versatile David Alaba. The Austrian has pace to burn to make up for the more pedestrian Badstuber, Benatia and Martinez.
Of course, bearing in mind the Boateng injury, there's a real chance that the Bavarians will choose to invest in a fit and fresh defender. It's sure to be an interesting time leading up to the end of the transfer window on Feb. 1. Would it be a surprise if incoming manager Carlo Ancelotti hasn't already handed the Bayern hierarchy a list of talent he fancies? The Italian is sure to have a decent centre-half on his radar and Guardiola badly needs a commanding central defender to keep his treble hopes alive.
Mark Lovell is a Germany-based journalist who covers the Bundesliga for ESPN FC and BBC Sport. Twitter: @LovellLowdown.