Philipp Lahm tells ESPN FC he's hungry for more success with Bayern
During his first game back in the squad after a three-month mid-winter layoff with a fractured ankle, Philipp Lahm could be seen sharing a hearty laugh with Pep Guardiola on the touchline. The joke was on Thomas Muller, or perhaps more accurately, the joke was by Muller; the Germany forward had just scored the opener in the 4-0 win at Werder Bremen with a beautiful left-footed curler from outside the box. Muller doesn't do these type of goals. It felt like an Arjen Robben tribute strike; a bit of physical comedy like his not-quite-serious attempt to challenge Cristiano Ronaldo to a step-over competition in training last month.
But that's not the point of that vignette. The point is that Lahm, the super-focussed, always ready, always football-thinking model professional has been laughing rather a lot in recent weeks. Close friends and advisers admit that they cannot remember seeing him in such a relaxed mood for years, and in speaking exclusively with ESPN FC at Bayern Munich's Sabener Strasse club centre, the impression is underlined: Lahm has never come across happier or chattier.
One hesitates to ask the question, but could it be that the enforced break has done the captain some good? Lahm had not missed a significant chunk of a season since rupturing his cruciate ligament 10 years ago, when playing on loan for VfB Stuttgart.
He's played 525 competitive games since, including three Champions League finals, and featured in a final or third-place game in four of five international competitions with Germany during that stretch. That's a lot of wear and tear, mentally as well as physically. Putting his (injured) foot up over Christmas must have given him time to rest his mind, too, after a year that brought a crushing semifinal defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League and the biggest prize of all in lifting the World Cup trophy at the Maracana.
Has the injury come at a good time? Lahm pauses for a second. "First of all, as a football player and professional athlete, you prefer to be on the pitch and play football," he says. "No injury comes at a good time. I have had a lot of luck in my career; I haven't had many major injuries. I was also lucky with the timing of the big injuries I have had. I have never missed a Champions League final, I have never missed a Euro or a World Cup, so I have had a good amount of luck. One has to accept injuries, they are part of our sport. I've had the luck that it happened now. Half a year ago, it would have been much worse."
There's no doubt about that. Missing out on the World Cup triumph would have been unthinkable, in more than one sense. It was Lahm's team as much as manager Joachim Low's, a collection of quiet, gifted players that added the fourth star to Germany's badge.
Delivering the World Cup ticked the last of the boxes for the Munich-born full-back-turned-midfielder; neither his class nor his mentality nor his leadership can be in doubt any longer. Men in his position could be forgiven for asking if there was anything left to play for, but Lahm has a different perspective.
He remembers the time and effort it took for him and Bayern to get to the point where anything but Bundesliga and Champions League silverware is considered a disappointment. It wasn't always like that. So now is the time to enjoy the possibilities afforded, not fret about pressure or lack of motivation.
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"For a number of years now, we have been at least in the [Champions League] semifinals; it's amazing to have the chance to always play at the top and go far in the Champions League," Lahm says. "That gives us a lot of confidence."
It wasn't always like that. Back in November 2009, Lahm criticised Bayern's capricious transfer policy in an outspoken interview that cost him a hefty fine. He'd just turned down offers from Barcelona and Manchester United, and he wanted to make sure he didn't regret that decision. Louis van Gaal installed a playing philosophy, Jupp Heynckes refined it and delivered the European Cup after the 2012 final trauma vs. Chelsea.
"We didn't win the Bundesliga for two years and lost the final in Munich, we had to really work hard to come back from that," Lahm says. "We know where we've come from. That makes us appreciate where we are now."
And now, in Guardiola, there is a coach who still needs to win the Champions League with Bayern but has already convinced the players that they are perfectly primed to do just that before his tenure in Munich comes to an end. It's that knowledge that puts a smile on the captain's face as he could not be more effusive speaking about his boss.
"It's obvious that the team enjoy working with the coach, that he is an excellent coach and that he really improved the team after taking over after the treble, after we again won the double," Lahm says. "Seven Bayern players then became world champions. Now we are positioned well for trophies again. The manager is a big part of all of that."
The key question, then, is whether Bayern can do themselves justice this year. Last season, the team "did not act the way we usually do" in the second leg against Madrid, Lahm says -- a reference to Guardiola changing to a more direct, attacking lineup. But the problems Bayern ran into that night were not just tactical in nature. Madrid had "more energy" and "they absolutely wanted to win that trophy," whereas Bayern were the defending champions.
"It is no coincidence that nobody has been able to defend their title (in the Champions League era) because there's always a team that is a bit hungrier and brings more energy to the pitch," he says. "I think we have that again this year. We are really hungry again."
They are hungry, but without the "inhumane pressure," as Lahm puts it, he and his side felt before going up against Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 final. They are hungry like a man who knows that both the ingredients and the chef are in place for another special feast, two years after the last one.
Lahm, it's clear to see, has used his time off to work up a healthy appetite.
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.