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May 17, 2012

Bayern on the spot

It takes a special side to come back from the pain of losing a Champions League final; it takes an even greater one to win the competition just two years later. After the last-minute suffering caused by Manchester United in the unforgettable Champions League final in Barcelona in 1998-99, Bayern Munich had bounced right back and in 2001 met Valencia in the final in Milan. They would end a 25-year drought on penalties and finally ensure that German football was back on top of the European scene.

The Bayern Munich side of the mid-1970s had developed a winning mentality: three successive European titles from 1974 to 1976 broke the Dutch domination of Johan Cruyff's Ajax and the likes of Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller wrote themselves into the history books.

Muller in particular led the way with 67 goals in 49 games in 1972-73 - a record that has only recently been broken (by Lionel Messi) - but the success dried up with the last of their European wins over St Etienne, and the subsequent victory in the Intercontinental Cup over Cruzeiro in 1976, and it was not until the turn of the decade when Paul Breitner and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge led them back to domestic glory.

In Europe, though, Bayern still struggled to recreate their glory days and reached just two finals: 1982 and 1987. They came agonisingly close in the former - a 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa in Rotterdam, when Peter Withe's tap-in sent the trophy to Birmingham - and Porto's comeback left them runners-up again in the latter in Vienna. Continued success in their homeland had made them one of the biggest clubs on the continent, but without the European prize to back it up there was discontent and anger at their failure to stand up and be counted when it mattered.

What some clubs may have viewed as a major continental success, the UEFA Cup, was small fry compared to the glory on offer in the mainstream competition, so a 2-0 home win and a 3-1 away success against Girondins Bordeaux in the 1996 final was scant consolation. The title, though, was important as it came against the backdrop of a public row between star players Lothar Matthaus and Jurgen Klinsmann that ultimately heralded the end of the 'FC Hollywood' era of the club that had placed more weight on the 'star' players than the team ethic.

In 1998, Bayern had turned to mathematician, former teacher and former Borussia Dortmund coach Ottmar Hitzfeld to bring them success in the Champions League and bring about the change in mentality that was needed. The wiley tactician impressed immediately and won the Bundesliga at the first attempt, but the events in Barcelona in the final game of the season against Manchester United overshadowed the campaign and almost set the seal on the club's place as 'chokers' in the new European landscape. With the likes of Stefan Effenberg and Oliver Kahn forming the spine of the side, more was expected by the fans.

The pain of the United defeat was still fresh in 1999-2000, but Hitzfeld led Bayern to the title again and backed that up with the German Cup. It seemed like the club were back to winning ways before a familiar story unfurled itself: in Europe, the Bavarians reached the semi-finals but bowed out to Vicente del Bosque's Real Madrid side, who eventually picked up the trophy with a 3-0 win over Valencia.

They say revenge is best served cold, but Bayern did not have to wait long to right two wrongs. In a Bundesliga season that ended with another title as they ended the final day one point ahead of Schalke, Bayern's European campaign of 2000-01 was exactly the right tonic.

Dispensing with the PSG in a relatively easy group in the first group stages, Arsenal and Lyon were the major victims in the second and, overall, the Germans only lost two of their 12 games before the knockout stages. Without setting the world alight, a plethora of 1-0 wins proved enough to see them through to a showdown with Manchester United in the quarter-finals and a chance to bury the ghosts of Barcelona.

"The United final is history," Effenberg said. "No player should have to carry those memories." And, indeed, a 3-1 aggregate win courtesy of a late 1-0 win at Old Trafford and 2-1 success at home saw the 1999 champions beaten and the pain laid to rest. Next up came the defending champions Real Madrid and, with a radio reporter before the game telling Hitzfeld that ''the God of football is Spanish", there was much to prove after the 2000 semi-final defeat.

Once again, the German machine held firm away from home and Elber's goal set up a 1-0 win at the Bernabeu. A relatively routine 2-1 win at home - if there is such a thing at that stage of the competition - and Bayern were through to the final to face Valencia, the previous year's beaten finalists. Another Spanish team, yes, but the God of football was smiling on the Germans this time.

Of Valencia, the Daily Express columnist Martin Samuel wrote: "Coach Hector Cuper, too, has returned with greater defensive steel, although his team's powers wane away from home turf. Bayern will find it difficult breaking them down, but few look beyond the Germans as eventual winners."

The reason, as Samuel points out in an article entitled 'Is this the best coach in the world?', was the coach: Hitzfeld was showered with praise ahead of the final. "The stock of the man who marshals Bayern has never been higher," he wrote. "If Hitzfeld overcomes Valencia at Milan's San Siro tonight he will cement a reputation that will afford some beautiful career choices in the coming years... At a club where in-fighting made the Borgias look like the Waltons, he has been a revelation."

Hitzfeld himself gave a clue to the philosophy that got him so far in such a short space of time in Munich when he said before the game: "Achieving unity is the most important task at any club. The players' single goal is not to be successful but to be successful together. Everyone should have respect for that."

Samuel wrote that a Bayern success would be important in ''healing their wounds'', but Hitzfeld's learned teachings drew experience from a place of pain. "You can turn anything around in the last minute if you are together - that is what Manchester United taught us," he said.

The Guardian's Richard Williams was at the game and began his post-match piece: "Two teams with their minds more obviously on correcting the perceived injustices of the past than on winning a match through the sort of expressive football that earned the European Cup its reputation fought each other virtually to a standstill in Milan last night."

The match began with "blazingly contentious start" as Elber was felled in the box in the first few minutes, but no penalty was given. Instead, a free-kick to Valencia was awarded and, from the resulting punt upfield, Gaizka Mendieta found himself in the box at the other end.

"A ruck formed with defenders flailing desperately in their attempts to clear the ball," Williams wrote. "This time Dick Jol [the referee] spotted an infringement - possibly a tug on Mendieta, who waited for the dust to settle before side-footing the penalty wide of Oliver Kahn's right hand."

Within two minutes, the German fans cried for a penalty again as Jocelyn Angloma tripped Effenberg as the Bayern captain raced into the area. "This time there was no doubt about the offence but Mehmet Scholl hit his penalty straight at Santiago Canizares, who blocked the ball with his legs."

With only 25 minutes gone, Los Che showed their hand as Amadeo Carboni was booked for time-wasting under some relentless Bayern pressure, but they held firm until half-time. As playmaker Pablo Aimar was replaced by the robust David Albelda at the start of the second half, Hitzfeld decided to reinforce his attack with Carsten Jancker and it paid dividends.

A cross from Elber was aimed towards the giant substitute and Carboni handled; a second penalty was given. "Scholl was not given a second chance to fail from the penalty spot," Williams wrote. "Instead the German captain Effenberg stepped up to slide the kick inside the right-hand post."

Valencia attacked again, but the remaining 39 minutes yielded no further goals, and nor did the extra 30 of extra-time. As penalties in normal time had rendered the scoreline 1-1, it seemed fitting that the game would be decided from the spot. Level at 3-3 after five apiece, Bayern eventually won when Kahn made his third save, denying Mauricio Pellegrino and, after 25 years, the celebrations were long and loud.

With great pride, Hitzfeld said: "It is great to be able to take the cup back to Munich. The Champions League is something unique for any club. Losing on penalties always causes a great pain. It's perhaps unfair and Valencia deserved victory as much as we did.

"I suffer with Valencia. I know what it's like to fall into the abyss. But in football you get a second chance quickly, that is one of the great things about the game. We got our second chance here and I am elated. After 25 years we have won this cup and the pressure has receded on us."

What happened next? The UK press - the Daily Express in particular - gave their begrudging praise to the Germans, and a day later focused on the fact that a man from Manchester won £500,000 for a 30p stake on 15 different sporting events that was only confirmed upon Kahn's final penalty save. Bayern did not win a trophy in 2001-02 but claimed the Bundesliga title again the following season and were back in the final of the Champions League in 2010 when they lost 2-0 to Inter Milan in Madrid.

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