Bayern Munich joy, Wolfsburg woe as Champions League quarterfinals end
Bayern Munich and VfL Wolfsburg might be in the same league but they continue to inhabit very different planets when it comes to international football. While the Bavarians' status as one of the best three teams of the current decade was confirmed by making it to a fifth consecutive semifinal appearance in the Champions League, Dieter Hecking's men had their dream of gatecrashing the elite's party cruelly destroyed.
After the 3-0 defeat at the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Lower Saxons (8th in the Bundesliga) woke up the a demoralising reality: they might not make it back to the Bernabéu or similarly glamorous grounds any time soon. For Bayern, however, getting to the last four for the sixth time in seven seasons was as pleasing as the result in Lisbon itself.
"It's incredible," said captain Philipp Lahm who became Germany's longest-serving player in the competition with his 103rd appearance. "This is evidence that we've been one of the top teams in Europe in recent years and continue to prove it again and again."
The second part is key. When Lahm became a regular in Munich a decade ago, Bayern were hopelessly adrift of the very best international sides, hampered both by a relative lack of finances and a combination of both unimaginative transfers dealings and conservative coaching methods. Their best players, like Michael Ballack (Chelsea) and Owen Hargreaves (Manchester United), felt they had no choice but to leave in order to find Champions League glory. The transformation since Louis van Gaal's arrival in 2009-10, the year that saw Thomas Müller and David Alaba debut, Bastian Schweinsteiger's conversion into a central midfielder and the introduction of a tactical system that fully utilised the skills of wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, has been remarkable.
For all the progress they've made under Pep Guardiola's meticulous tutelage, Bayern weren't entirely convincing in this year's two knockout rounds so far. They conceded six goals in four games, rode their luck at crucial times (a late 2-2 equaliser by Müller vs. Juve, Benfica missing chances in the first leg, Javier Martinez flirting with a red card at the Estadio da Luz) and haven't quite hit the heights in terms of fluid attacking football.
"There's no need to look for the fly in the ointment," Lahm replied when confronted with some soft criticism in the ZDF TV studio. Standards have reached rather high levels in Munich.
What was undoubtedly impressive, however, was the way the team dealt with all their problems, self-afflicted or otherwise (injuries to Jérôme Boateng and Arjen Robben have hurt them), and simply carried on. Even when Manuel Neuer "flew through the air as if the wanted to compete with the Benfica mascot, eagle Vitoria" (in the words of Die Zeit) to help Raul Jimenez to the home side's equaliser, Arturo Vidal soon equalised with a stunning half-volley from outside the box. The depth within the squad, and a deep confidence that comes from trusting in your playing style, enables Bayern to get results with a regularity that was hitherto only seen domestically.
"You are fantastic at the moment," club boss Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told the players at the midnight banquet as they edged closer to a repeat of the 2013 treble.
Guardiola didn't sound at all apologetic when he said "sorry" for reaching the semifinals again. "We're here," he said, but quickly added that Bayern were of course there in the two previous years as well and now needed to "make it one step further."
The pressure will still very much be on the coach to show that he's learned the lessons of 2014 and 2015, but Wednesday night was one of those rare occasions when Bayern allowed themselves to look at the bigger picture. And they like what the see: with renowned Champions League specialist Carlo Ancelotti coming in to take over what will be a largely unchanged side, they should continue to challenge for club football's biggest prize for years to come.
Wolfsburg, on the other hand, realised immediately after the final whistle how far away they still are from meeting the likes of Real Madrid regularly, let alone as equals. "We understand how hard it is to make it back to the Champions League," Luiz Gustavo said, full of regret.
The Brazilian midfielder had been closed to tears at the end of the game. So, too, was Maximilian Arnold, who'd given the ball away ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo's first goal. "It was a catastrophic pass," said the 21-year-old, the sort of mistake you simply cannot afford in a quarterfinal.
Without golden boy Kevin De Bruyne, who was sold for a Bundesliga record sum of €80 million, Wolfsburg exceeded expectations in Europe, something sporting director Klaus Allofs rightly pointed out. Seven wins in 10 games had the former Germany striker insist that his team had played "a fantastic Champions League season" and could be "incredibly proud of the way we have performed."
It's hard to disagree with any of that, but Allofs' praise contained an unspoken accusation: all the mid-week excitement has come at the expense of their Bundesliga campaign. The best Wolfsburg can hope for is qualification for the Europa League now, but there's no guarantee the team will turn the huge disappointment of throwing away the 2-0 lead into a positive reaction. "We have to pick ourselves up, that's the next challenge," Hecking said. "It won't be easy to turn the corner." Wolfsburg are currently six points behind the European places.
Allofs reassured supporters that parent company Volkswagen, still working through trouble caused by the emissions scandal, would continue the financial support that helps the club from Lower Saxony punch well above its natural club. Their general outlook has considerably worsened over the last twelve months, however. Going forward, Wolfsburg are in competition for the two remaining Champions League places below Bayern and Dortmund with two clubs who are more consistent (Leverkusen, Gladbach), an awakening power in Hertha and a Schalke 04 team who will be aiming to bounce back with new sporting director Christian Heidel in charge.
If Volkswagen don't tighten the purse-strings, Wolfsburg will remain competitive. The bigger problem for them is being able to sell prospective recruits on a story that includes a Champions League chapter, attracting players who truly want to win things and see the club progress at all levels.
Without that sort of promise, they're left to rely on paying better wages than some of their peers. But a few extra zeros can only you take so far, as Bayern know all too well - from the time when they were only occasional guests at Europe's most exclusive dinner table.
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.