Adam Bate examines why Bayern Munich - not Chelsea - are the team really under pressure in the UEFA Champions League final on Saturday.
By Adam Bate - Follow me @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 17/05/12 2:03pm
There will be a lot of talk this week about the immense pressure Chelsea are under as they go into Saturday's UEFA Champions League final. Roman Abramovich's Blues will indeed sit out Europe's premier club competition next season if they lose. But for their opponents Bayern Munich, the costs of failure are far more immediate. The German side face the unique pressure of tasting Champions League final defeat in their own stadium and ending a once-promising season without a single trophy to show for their efforts.
Expectations have been high in Munich from the outset. While Carlos Tevez was going rogue in the Allianz Arena in September during Manchester City's 2-0 defeat to Bayern, the home side were busy racking up their 10th win in a row. New signing Manuel Neuer, the Germany No.1, made it 12 consecutive clean sheets in a four-goal thrashing of Hertha Berlin before the run was finally ended when Holger Badstuber put through his own net in Naples. By that point, Bayern had scored an astonishing 33 goals without reply.
"Talk of 'the invincibles' or of the team being a Bavarian answer to Barcelona is clearly premature," wrote German journalist Raphael Honigstein in Sports Illustrated last autumn. But the mere fact he felt compelled to point this out is indicative of the hubris that was in danger of engulfing the club. Amid this atmosphere of excitement, it was considered legitimate to ask if this could be Bayern's greatest ever side. Quite a thought for a club that lifted three back-to-back European Cups in the 1970s.
And so, while the Munich giants now find themselves just 90 minutes away from only a second European Cup in 36 years, they are also - unthinkably - facing the prospect of going two seasons without a trophy for the first time since 1996. A three-point lead in the Bundesliga was squandered, becoming a seven point deficit following a run of just three wins from seven games. Revenge on champions Borussia Dortmund was supposed to come in the DFB Pokal - Germany's cup competition - last weekend. It ended instead in a humiliating 5-2 defeat at the hands of BVB.
As a nation looked on expecting a fierce contest between the country's best two sides in Berlin, Dortmund proceeded to dismantle Bayern - inflicting their worst ever defeat in any final. Coach Jupp Heynckes had gone into the match making positive noises about the need to build confidence ahead of the Chelsea game. He left it looking crestfallen with the words of club president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge ruling out any excuses: "This was not bad luck or a coincidence, this was an embarrassment."
So what went wrong? The result has sparked a drastic reassessment of this Bayern team. It was a third reverse of the season - and a fifth consecutive loss - against Jurgen Klopp's Dortmund, appearing to end any debate about the identity of Germany's pre-eminent outfit. The notion that Heynckes' men are flat-track bullies has gathered some support - contrast those defeats with the seven-goal thrashings that were dished out to Freiburg, Hoffenheim and Basel at the Allianz Arena this term.
This will be the nagging doubt eating away at Bayern's players ahead of the biggest game in European club football. After all, Chelsea's season has been very different. The London team has failed to beat Swansea, Norwich, QPR and Wigan but produced two astonishing displays against Barcelona to go with a pair of Wembley wins. Bayern did prosper against a strangely subdued Real Madrid in the semi-final. And yet, a question mark remains.
The biggest games for this Bayern team hold more bad memories than good ones. Reel off the names - Philipp Lahm, Daniel Van Buyten, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Ivica Olic and Mario Gomez. All are members of the squad that lost the 2010 Champions League final to Jose Mourinho's Inter. Throw in Franck Ribery's World Cup final defeat in 2006, Robben's in 2010 and the Euro 2008 final loss experienced by Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Gomez and the picture is of a group more accustomed to near-misses than ultimate glory.
"It won't be easy to get this out of our heads, but we have to," said Schweinsteiger in the aftermath of the latest Dortmund defeat. Note the phrase 'we have to'. Home advantage on Saturday will bring its own pressures, despite the fact that Chelsea will receive the same allocation of tickets for the match. As Bayern legend Franz Beckenbauer said earlier this season: "If you play at home in the Champions League final, then you are the favourite, even if you face Barcelona."
How Bayern handle that pressure will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the Champions League final. As Honigstein puts it, this is a club "where coming first is the law and coming second a crime warranting capital punishment". On Saturday, we will find out whether this Bayern team is to be remembered as one of their greatest ever, or merely one of their greatest ever disappointments.