Are Bayern back in business? This has been a strange old season for Bayern Munich. The decision to switch strategy and appoint their new manager from within the Bundesliga was a brave one, but the pressure of this job can swallow you whole. Just a month ago, Niko Kovac seemed to be drowning under the pressure and flailing in the title race.
So extreme was Bayern’s underperformance that the only obvious reason for keeping him in charge was the lack of obvious immediate options. Now, Kovac is sitting far more comfortably. Bayern’s return to the top of the Bundesliga has been fuelled by Borussia Dortmund’s stumbles as much as their own excellence, but they have won 11 of their last 13 matches in all competitions and are still fighting on three fronts.
The 6-0 victory over Wolfsburg at the weekend was the display of a Bayern team at their ruthless best. It is as if the senior players resolved over Germany’s winter break to address the slump that threatened to do for Kovac. Kovac will consider the 0-0 draw at Anfield to be a positive result.
Few teams stop Liverpool scoring at Anfield, and Bayern have won their last seven home games in all competitions by an aggregate scoreline of 22-3. Service Robert Lewandowski effectively - the Pole is the top scorer in the Champions League this season - and they can easily progress.
Bayern are not without their problems for the visit of Liverpool - Joshua Kimmich’s yellow card in the first leg mean he will miss the second leg through suspension. But Kovac will also be confident that his team have come through their troubled patch and can now establish themselves as dark horses for the competition with Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain eliminated and Juventus in trouble. Will the tie finally open up? The Champions League knockout ties in recent seasons have been surprisingly open affairs.
Six of the eight first legs this season contained two or more goals and four of the eight contained three or more. But the first leg at Anfield was a hallmark of European Cup first legs past, a tense cagey affair between two teams and managers respectful of one another and careful not to over-commit and leave themselves exposed to the counter attack. After the 0-0 draw, Jurgen Klopp urged his side to be more clinical in the final third, unhappy at sloppiness that had also affected their Premier League form.
Our biggest problem was a very average last pass in about 10 or 12 situations that looked promising. We made life difficult for ourselves with those final passes, promising moves just fizzled out.
Klopp is right, but it was Bayern’s defensive resilience and perfect positioning that made Liverpool’s task so hard. With the onus on Bayern to play more on the front foot at home, Klopp may well feel that his side may find playing in the Allianz easier than at home.
An open game favours Liverpool over Bayern. Does Klopp stick with Lallana’s creativity? When Liverpool’s starting XI to face Burnley on Sunday lunchtime was announced on social media, it provoked a stream of abusive and angry replies. Most of them concerned the presence of Adam Lallana in the team. Lallana has become a hate figure amongst a certain set of Liverpool supporters who, quite frankly, should be ashamed of themselves.
Three hours later and Lallana had been named man-of-the-match and praised by Klopp for his creative influence. For all Liverpool’s excellence this season, their front three and midfield three too often operate as separate entities. Georginio Wijnaldum is Liverpool’s highest midfield chance creator but has created fewer than deep-lying Jorginho at Chelsea. With Xherdan Shaqiri currently out of favour, Lallana can provide that creativity without losing the work ethic that Klopp demands. So does Klopp stick with that plan in Munich, having been impressed with Lallana on Sunday?
Or does he guard against Bayern’s own threat and pick a workmanlike midfield three of Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Fabinho and look to the front three to fly on the counter? Who cuts off the supply from Thiago? Virgil van Dijk’s one-on-one battle with Robert Lewandowski might well go some way to deciding the tie, but Liverpool must look further up the pitch for the key to stopping Bayern controlling the game.
Thiago Alcantara is arguably the most complete midfielder in Europe, capable of playing as a holding midfielder, deep-lying playmaker or as a box-to-box No. 8. His passing range and accuracy is extraordinary. If Lewandowski is the crash of cymbals and bang of the drums, Thiago is the conductor. It’s all very well Klopp playing three more reserved midfielders, but one of them must be tasked with upsetting Thiago’s rhythm.
Is that role perfect for Wijnaldum, Henderson or even Lallana? Does Robertson now have more licence to attack? The performance of Liverpool’s full-backs was one of the more disappointing aspects of the first leg at Anfield.
Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have contributed assists aplenty in the Premier League, but crosses were regularly overhit and Bayern’s full-backs stayed deep to avoid leaving open space in behind. Robertson and Alexander-Arnold also tucked in more than normal to help with Liverpool’s press in midfield. But Kimmich’s suspension gives Robertson a chance to shine. Rafinha - Kimmich’s likely replacement - is not of the same class defensively.
If Sadio Mane or Georginio Wijnaldum can drift wide to create an overlap, Robertson could get in behind Bayern and deliver balls across the face of goal. If his delivery is better than at Anfield, he might be Liverpool’s most dangerous source. There is a contrast between Robertson’s attacking output in the Premier League and Champions League this season. He has created a chance every 89 minutes in Europe but every 64 minutes domestically. He is Liverpool’s second highest chance creator in the Premier League but sixth in Europe. That must change tonight.