On the eve of the match at Anfield three week ago, Bayern Munich seemed like a side that might not last the pace against Liverpool’s lightning attack. Bayern’s ageing squad and their leaky defence had struggled in three out of four matches during February, with injuries constantly threatening their attempts to catch up with Borussia Dortmund at the top of the Bundesliga.
The turnround in their subsequent three matches has seen them score 12 goals while conceding just one. Borussia Monchengladbach and Wolfsburg have been beaten out of sight in consecutive games and Bayern are now back where they belong — at least in the opinion of their fans — top of the league for the first time since September, if only on goal difference.
Their 5-1 win at Gladbach was sweet revenge for a 3-0 defeat at the Allianz Arena in October, but it is Robert Lewandowski’s return to form that has provided most cheer. Bayern’s leading striker and talisman had scored just one goal in six games and was completely out of sorts against a makeshift defence at Anfield, managing to touch the ball only three times in the Liverpool penalty area. However, with four goals in his last two matches, the Polish centre-forward has recaptured the touch he was showing before the winter break.
Lewandowski’s ability to convert chances could make all the difference in a match that seems bound to be closely contested and in which the home team will probably have to score at least twice to go through. He has scored 29 times in 38 matches this season, and is now three short of 200 league goals in Germany, 74 of them for Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund side. The two men know each other well, but temperamentally could hardly be more different. Lewandowski is a notoriously reserved character and cautious about making friends.
He has a permanent bodyguard and in public he tends to assume a false name and introduces himself as Emil with the aim of deflecting recognition and attention. It doesn’t always work: he’s the best-paid player in Germany and the Bundesliga’s biggest star, with personal endorsement deals with companies such as Nike and Procter & Gamble. He is also a household name in his own country.
Last summer, he opened up a bit about his personality: “Even if I weren’t famous, it wouldn’t be that easy to get close to me,” he said. “I have my old friends and I keep them very close to myself. I know who I can trust. I don’t change my friends like socks.”
More recently, in a rare interview with Polish television, he explained: “I was always rather introverted, I was reluctant to open to the people I already knew. I guess that’s because I had met many people in my life who caused me distress and also let me down with some of their decisions or behaviour. I know where I came from. I remember how it was to drive a Fiat Bravo, to live in a council flat and study at the same time. I appreciate what I have now.”
Virgil Van Dijk has evidently been looking forward to his contest with Lewandowski, and it could perhaps decide this tie, but it is not the only individual battle involved. At Anfield, Sadio Mané had chances and should have scored. His opponent that night, Joshua Kimmich, is suspended for this match, and his absence is a serious headache for Bayern coach Niko Kovac.
Neither of his possible alternatives is ideal. Rafinha is one of the veterans and is due to leave the club at the end of the season. He also has recently been at loggerheads with Kovac about not being picked. The alternative is Jerome Boateng, still a quality player and with a big height advantage, but not a natural full-back. On the other flank, David Alaba has recently been injured, so Bayern have definite worries about being exposed to a fast counterattack.
Their other injury concern is Kingsley Coman. The young French winger has speed and trickery and can finish, but his injuries have been so persistent that at times he has spoken of having to stop playing. He was a disappointment in the first leg and, though declared fit for this match, there must be questions as to whether he can be at his best for the whole game.
Tactically, Kovac may opt for a cautious approach, certainly more cautious than on Saturday against Wolfsburg, who were more or less beaten before the game started. Bayern don’t lose many European home games — except against clubs from Madrid — but they have been held to a draw three times in the past five years, and that must give Liverpool some grounds for hope.