It’s do or die for Bayern Munich this week.
Effectively out of the Bundesliga title race and knocked out of the German Cup, the only realistic chance the Bavarian giants have of winning any silverware this season is by lifting the European Champions League at Wembley in May.
In their way are the defending champions, Inter Milan. Tough opponents, no doubt, but considering the first leg victory at the San Siro, the German club should start the second game as favorites to advance.
However, can anything be taken for granted with Bayern right now? You just don’t know which team is going to show up. The one that lost to Dortmund at home or the one that beat Hamburg this past weekend 6-0?
So what has been going on at the Allianz Arena this season? How can a team that won the domestic double and reached the final of the Champions League last year collapse so spectacularly? This is what I am going to try to explain.
Right now I am writing this blog from Munich, where the mood around Bayern is quite somber. Even though several hundred fans turned up to watch training on Sunday, you could definitely feel the tension in the air.
This is a club used to winning, and the fact there are 16 points between Bayern and league leaders Borussia Dortmund does not sit well with the Munich supporters. It is also an unacceptable situation for the club's directors, and that’s why they decided to part ways with coach Louis Van Gaal, who is leaving at the end of this season.
Let’s focus our attention on the man sitting on the bench at the Allianz Arena. In my view, and in the view of many journalists who follow the club, he is the one to blame for most of Bayern’s struggles this season.
If you have followed the Dutchman’s career you could have seen it coming. As organized and tactically astute as he is, at every club Van Gaal has worked, he has created conflicts with players. He is too structured, too inflexible and too stubborn. If he gets an idea in his head, nothing will change his mind, not even common sense. In my opinion, his fiery temperament is definitely the main reason the team struggled this year.
Players simply got burned out trying to deal with the manager. It happened at Ajax, at Barcelona, at the Dutch national team, and now at Bayern. Just ask Mark van Bommel. He was shipped out in January after clashing with the coach. Van Gaal’s failure in resolving the rift with his compatriot resulted in losing one of the most influential players in the squad.
Another mistake Van Gaal made was not strengthening his squad in the summer, especially in defense. Daniel van Buyten and Martin Demichelis never had any decent cover, and after the Argentine was unloaded to Malaga there have been no valid options at the back. So much so that Anatoly Tymoschuck has had to fill in the centre of defense. Far from an ideal situation.
Last but not least, we have to talk about the effect the absence of Arjen Robben had on this team. He missed four months of the season with a hamstring injury, and Bayern felt it. Without the Flying Dutchman, Thomas Muller was moved to the wing and Bayern lost many of the weapons they had last year. Since returning, Robben has been on fire, scoring nine goals in 11 games. How Van Gaal could have used his golden touch earlier this season.
So is it too late for Bayern to salvage their campaign? I don't think so. With Robben, Franck Ribery, Muller and Mario Gomez firing on all cylinders, anything could happen. Even if winning the Bundesliga is virtually impossible, they could put together another impressive run to the Champions League final. And then, as they say, anything could happen.