Tonight’s match at Anfield is round two in a three-way Champions League clash that should tell us a lot about the relative strengths of English and German football, or at least the Premier League and the Bundesliga.
It could be a classic, though the precedents are not great. Surprisingly for two clubs with a long and distinguished European Cup history, Liverpool and Bayern Munich have only met twice at Anfield, and both games finished goalless.
That seems an unlikely result this time, with Bayern are going through a sticky period.
Talk of a crisis is exaggerated. They are second in the league. Dortmund’s failure to win at Nurnberg last night meaning they are just three points off the pace. There is no danger of Bayern failing like 12 years ago when they were knocked out of Europe by Milan, then trailed in fourth in the Bundesliga. But for a club that is usually a byword for stability and consistency this season has been a shock.
Bayern began with seven consecutive wins, but then came a major blip, when they were held at home by Augsburg and Ajax and lost against Hertha Berlin and at home to Borussia Monchengladbach.
Their form has recovered, but they have still misfired. Accustomed to cruising, they have been comfortable in just one of their four games so far this month. They lost to Leverkusen after going a goal up, and squeezed past Hertha in the cup in extra-time, despite dominating possession. Last Friday they again dominated possession but still went 2-1 down at Augsburg before goals from Kingsley Coman and David Alaba turned the game around.
Last season they conceded 28 goals in 34 league games, finishing 21 points clear (and 29 ahead of Dortmund). This season they have already let in 26 in 22 matches, by far their worst performance in the last six seasons.
So why has the well-oiled machine been stuttering like a car with a weak fuel pump? The answer is partly the responsibility of Niko Kovac, the man Bayern put in charge of the machine last summer, and partly because the machine has been over-reliant on some ageing components.
Kovac arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt with a reputation for shrewd tactics, using wingbacks high up the pitch to press the opposition and also playing more direct attacking football based on a 3-5-2 formation. Eintracht beat Bayern 3-1 last May in the German Cup final using those tactics.
By that time the Bayern hierarchy had already decided in favour of Kovac as the replacement for Jupp Heynckes, but the Croatian was not their first choice. There was an attempt to persuade Heynckes to stay on, and their number one target to replace him was Thomas Tuchel. But Tuchel opted for Paris, enticed by the Qatari transfer budget as well as a very big pay rise. The different spending power of the French and German champions was demonstrated by Kylian Mbappé’s €135m move from Monaco to PSG last July. Bayern by contrast acquired Leon Goretzka for free, the 22-year-old midfielder being out of contract at Schalke.
That was Bayern’s only signing last summer, leaving them with the smallestand the oldest squad in the Bundesliga, risky at the best of times, but above all with several important players who are prone to injury. Among the injury-prone are the formerly flying wingers, Arjen Robben and FranckRibery, as well as their main replacement Kingsley Coman. It is possible none of these three will be fit for tonight’s game. Coman is a particular worry because the youngster has the pace and eye for goal that Bayern have been lacking. If he is fit to start his manager will be praying that he doesn’t further aggravate his injury.
The club’s belated concern about their ageing, accident-prone squad has been recently demonstrated by their very public pursuit of Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, a player with just a dozen first-team appearances. But they have other weaknesses as well.
One is that they have become more and more dependent on Robert Lewandowski for goals. Poland’s all-time top scorer may have passed his peak but he remains the key man in Bayern’s attack, with 25 goals so far this season in all competitions. In the absence of the suspended Thomas Muller even more depends on Lewandowski: he will be grateful for the absence of Virgil Van Dijk from the Liverpool defence.
The other big concern for Bayern tonight is their lack of pace. Not one of their players figures in the list of the Bundesliga’s 20 quickest. In midfield they are missing Corentin Tolisso, still recovering from a cruciate injury, who might have provided cover for Thiago.
For Niko Kovac, in his first encounter with Jurgen Klopp, this is not make or break. He has steadied the ship since October. But a lot depends on his key men at the back — Joshua Kimmich and David Alaba — and on Manuel Neuer in goal.