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Apr 14, 2009

Fearless Bayern found wanting

On Friday, it was Roberto Carlos's birthday. More important to me, however, was that it's also my good friend Elmar's birthday. He grew up at Lake Constance, on the shoreline that belongs to the federal state of Baden-Württemberg. These days, he lives in Munich.

Since I presumed he was away from home, I didn't call but, instead, sent him a text message with my best wishes. Ten minutes later, there was a reply. Here's what he texted back:

"Thanks, Uli. Greetings from the city of the losers. It's not the easiest of times for us Swabians over here. Elmar"

I don't think I have to explain what he was referring to. Bayern's devastating 4-0 loss (feel free to replace this with "historic debacle" or "shameful disgrace", as even the club's officials used such terms) away at Barcelona still dominated the headlines and made coach Jürgen Klinsmann a target for the critics.

Since it has also rendered the return leg almost meaningless as a sporting contest, let's look back, not forward. Let's return to the Night of the Long Knives and the Short Passes.

If you're halfway familiar with German football, you won't be surprised to hear that there was an awful lot of gloating last Wednesday, for quite a number of reasons. One is that, as the old saying goes, at least half of the German viewers tune in to a Bayern game to see them lose. A second is that we are, somewhere deep down inside, all voyeurs. Like people who can't take their eyes off the car wreck on the other side of the road, we stared at the screen with the mixture of horror and excitement you supposedly get from watching an autopsy.

Third, people like to be proven right. And very many people had actually predicted exactly such a drubbing for Bayern. Ten minutes before the kick-off, Premiere's field reporter was standing next to Uli Hoeness on the Camp Nou pitch and the last question of his pre-match interview was:

"Are you scared of this game?"

I doubt any Bayern official has ever been asked a question like that, but Hoeness didn't even start. He was neither surprised nor offended. Through clamped teeth, he replied: "No, we're not scared. We are Bayern Munich."

Well, no actually. The main reason people were expecting a convincing Barcelona victory was that this was patently not Bayern Munich. Bayern Munich, they argued, do not lose 5-1 at Wolfsburg and are not made to look like a hapless pub team in the process. Bayern Munich do not concede three goals in fifteen minutes at Leverkusen. Bayern Munich do not lose three of their first four games after the winter break. Bayern Munich do not concede three goals at home against Bochum. Bayern Munich do not concede five goals in 37 minutes at their own ground against Bremen. And so on, and so on.

Finally, even the team-sheet on the night told you that this was not Bayern Munich. Breno, who has started a grand total of two Bundesliga games and two European matches (three of which were lost) since joining the club sixteen months ago, in central defence, facing Samuel Eto'o?

Right-back Christian Lell, no more than a decent Bundesliga player, at left-back, facing Lionel Messi? Veteran goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt, who couldn't get a game at Benfica and who has made more appearances for Bayern's reserves than for the first team, between the sticks?

In brief, most people's reaction was: are you kidding me?

Which is why even Bayern fans expected a drubbing. And I have the sneaking suspicion quite a few even hoped for it. That's because I spoke to a Bayern fan on the day before the match who said he wouldn't mind getting, as he put it, "murdered". His reasoning was simple: "We'll probably get eliminated anyway. But if we really embarrass ourselves, they'll have to get rid off the Swabian," he said.

The Swabian is, of course, Klinsmann. He was unpopular among the Bayern faithful back when he was appointed, and the last eight months have certainly done very little to improve the die-hard supporters' opinion of him.

Now the pressure appears to have got to him because he's beginning to make mistakes. After the Wolfsburg game, he said: "I've put my head on the block for ten months, but now the time has come for the players to accept responsibility and ask themselves whether they've given their all for Bayern Munich FC."

Something like that would've never crossed the lips of Ottmar Hitzfeld, who always protected his players in public and never left any doubt that he was in charge and thus, ultimately, responsible.

It also made little sense. You don't have to put your head on the block during the first few months, because you're new to the club and haven't had much time to work with a collection of players you haven't selected. But after eight, nine or ten months, it's different. By then it should be your team. Which also means your head, and no-one else's, should be on that block - especially after losses as bitter as the defeat at Wolfsburg.

However, I don't think Klinsmann's team selection in Barcelona was a mistake. Oh, yes, with the benefit of hindsight he would've probably done things differently. But he had to make a decision and, given his personnel, that decision was defensible. Even fielding Hamit Altintop after his long lay-off was a gamble you could make. Klinsmann's problem was he lost this gamble.

Altintop had an off-day the likes of which you seldom see. That was the worst news imaginable for Bayern on the night. All season long, the wings have been a big defensive problem for the club. Franck Ribéry on the left is a self-employed free-roaming genius, meaning Philipp Lahm is very busy indeed. On the right, Massimo Oddo is too slow and more of an offensive wingback than a true right-back, which is why Bastian Schweinsteiger is usually given a lot of defensive duties.

Unless, of course, Klinsmann plays Lell on the right, which he sometimes does to lend some stability to his defence. But he couldn't do it in Barcelona because Lahm had to be replaced. That triggered a chain reaction, at the end of which stood the coaching decision to start Altintop on the right-side of midfield.

In theory, it was a good choice, as the Turk is so versatile that he's even played right-back for Turkey at the European Championships. In practice, however, it backfired. Once it became obvious Altintop couldn't close down his wing, there was never any chance Oddo could stop Thierry Henry, which in turn forced Mark van Bommel and Schweinsteiger to edge over to this side, which in turn left the other flank, Messi's flank, even more vulnerable. And so Bayern toppled like a row of dominoes.

Thus the first lesson to be learned from the Barcelona game is not that Klinsmann isn't a good coach or that the chemistry between him and his team is not right. Both may be the case, but let's not forget that there were also some instances last season, under Hitzfeld, when Bayern completely collapsed, such as when the side disintegrated away at Zenit St Petersburg.

The first lesson is that the squad isn't well-balanced. And not at all geared towards the high-tempo offensive game Klinsmann has in mind. Because, perhaps paradoxically, such a game does not stand and fall with great offensive players, it depends on solid defensive players.

Since I cannot see Klinsmann changing his approach, I guess Bayern's officials will have to make a decision. Either they bring in a considerable amount of new personnel, or a new coach. If they do neither, Uli Hoeness may soon learn the meaning of fear against Europe's top teams.

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