Bayern's lack of domestic competition means they will be judged again solely on European performance
In Ben Lyttleton's book "Match of my Life," Bayern Munich midfielder Franz "Bulle" Roth recalls the sombre mood after his team had won a third successive European Cup in 1976. The club from working- class-district Giesing -- who had been promoted to the Bundesliga only nine years earlier -- were crowned champions of Europe again at Hampden Park but the repetition and a foreboding that the team was about to break up spoiled all the joy. Worst of all, president Wilhelm Neudecker warned the players of the dangers of "winning (trophies) to death," which had a thoroughly demoralising effect. The club had lived for the European Cup, neglecting the league, but found that a third fulfillment of the dream left them with no more worlds to conquer.
Forty-two years later, the German champions are faced with similar existential anxiety, albeit not quite for the same reasons. Despite chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's insistence that the championship constitutes the "most honest trophy," outclassing the rest of the Bundesliga to win six titles in a row has only brought the failure to win Europe's top competition since 2013 into sharper relief.
Early signs are that they will continue to do it to death, domestically. New manager Niko Kovac does not have the pedigree of his predecessors Jupp Heynckes, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola, but he's nevertheless won over the dressing room with his thorough tactical preparations and good footballing instincts for managing the assorted egos. On top of winning all of their competitive games so far, Bayern have mostly played with so much cohesion and urgency that opponents have hardly registered any shots on goal. Desperately poor Bayer Leverkusen, beaten 3-1 at the Allianz Arena on Saturday, and Schalke 04 have compounded the sense that the league is a foregone conclusion. The two much-fancied sides have yet to pick up a single point. Borussia Dortmund, under new boss Lucien Favre, don't look ready to pose a serious challenge, either.
Coming off a summer transfer window that almost didn't open at all at Saebener Strasse -- they sold players for €90 million and paid nothing by way of fees for forward Serge Gnabry (back from his loan to Hoffenheim) and Leon Goretzka (free transfer from Schalke 04) -- their unassailable dominance at home has them once more looking to find a true sense of self-worth abroad. The Champions League might not be an obsession in Munich, but in a sense it's even more important than that: it informs every major sporting and financial decision the club take. The repercussions in Europe are the only ones the board worry about, since the team's ability to win on weekends is more or less a given.
Hemmed in by the relatively low value of TV rights that are an unfortunate byproduct of their own competence, a chicken-and-egg dilemma has arisen. In order to increase their chances of winning the Champions League -- by virtue of buying bigger and better players -- they might have to win the Champions League first.
Last season's somewhat unlucky semifinal defeat to eventual winners Real Madrid showed that Bayern continue to be competitive, but a kind draw for earlier knock-out rounds had certainly helped. Their relatively straightforward assignments in this season's group E -- AEK, Ajax and Wednesday night's opponents Benfica -- should provide Kovac with an extended runway to reach cruising altitude for the bigger challenges in spring. Conversely, however, the meaningful part of Bayern's season is promising to be uncomfortably short once more. A matter of days and a handful of games will decide whether president Ui Hoeness' emphasis on a family atmosphere and financial prudence is enough to get past the Spanish giants, a resurgent Liverpool, or the challenge posed by the nouveau-riche (PSG and Man City).
Until crunch time comes around again, interested looks will be cast across the Alps. Juventus, self-financed and reigning seven-time winner of Serie A, Bayern's Italian equivalent in many ways, have tried to force the issue in Europe by signing Cristiano Ronaldo. Spending that much money on a 33-year-old goes against many Saebener Strasse principles, but the huge upturn in global media and commercial interest that has greeted the Portuguese striker's arrival in Turin is bound to get Bayern thinking about a change of tack, even if winning the Champions league should prove beyond his powers. When a lack of a domestic rival is the problem, the provision of a post-competitive spectacle by a recognised superstar might be the best solution for staving off the ennui that comes with guaranteed winning.