DAVID SHONFIELD: Humbler Bayern work hard to give manager second chance

Unsere Stadt, Unser Stadion, Unser Pokal — our city, our stadium, our cup.

That premature shout of triumph hoisted on three huge banners in the Allianz Arena last May still haunts Bayern Munich fans, players and manager Jupp Heynckes.

For Heynckes, defeat in the match of destiny that would have ensured Bayern their fifth European title and outright ownership of that cup should have cost him his job, except that his replacement was not ready to take over.

So it was only the club’s director of sport, Christian Nerlinger, who was dismissed and the veteran Heynckes got one last chance to finish his distinguished career on a high, having already guided Real Madrid to the trophy 15 years ago.

Bayern president Uli Höness is not usually known for his sentimentality, or for sparing the axe, but in this case the decision to keep the manager seems to have been vindicated.

New director of sport Matthias Sammer got the backing to splash the cash. Bayern broke the German transfer record by spending €40m to bring Javi Martinez from Bilbao to strengthen their midfield. Another €11.6m secured Xherdan Shaqiri, whose passing did the damage when Basel knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League last season.

The team responded, starting the season with eight straight wins — also a German record — and playing with a power and panache that evidently persuaded Pep Guardiola that it was pointless to hesitate further about joining the club.

Since returning from their winter break they have taken maximum points from five games, scoring 13 goals and conceding none.

Last Friday night — the Bundesliga is a lot more helpful about fixtures than the Premier League — they completed an almost routine 2-0 win at Wolfsburg with a stoppage-time goal from Arjen Robben. To give an idea of their domestic dominance, when Manuel Neuer finally had to produce a save 13 minutes from time it was not just his first of the match it was his first save in more than four hours’ football.

Bayern’s defensive record this season has been phenomenal, despite having to chop and change. One reason is their new Brazilian defender Dante, signed for less than €5m in the summer. He may have looked less than comfortable against Theo Walcott in Brazil’s recent friendly against England, but that’s partly because he was playing out of position. Playing in the centre for his club he has often seemed unbeatable, and at left-back Bayern have David Alaba, who can match Walcott stride for stride.

Arsenal might have more luck against Daniel Van Buyten, who is likely to be Dante’s partner in the middle, but Bayern’s attack this season is even stronger than before. Robben has been as hit and miss (and injured) as ever, but Frank Ribery is a real threat and Thomas Muller has recaptured his form of the last World Cup.

The revelation, however, has been their new Croatian Milan Mandzukic, another of last summer’s signings. He was bought to put pressure on Mario Gomez, who scored goals galore except when they were really needed.

But Gomez had an operation last summer and in his absence Mandzukic has more or less made the centre-forward position his own, not just because he can score, but because he has a crucial ability that Gomez lacks — he’s comfortable playing with his back to goal.

In turn that has provided the time and space for the three attacking midfielders, usually Muller, Ribery and Toni Kroos, to do the damage.

This game is not the foregone conclusion some are assuming. Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Walcott are players who can trouble Bayern. Martinez, if he plays, has not been as pivotal for Bayern as he was for Bilbao. A high tempo pressing game can disrupt Bayern’s rhythm. But they are runaway leaders of the Bundesliga for a reason and it will take a lot to halt them.

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Saturday, May 15, 2021

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