One could argue that it’s all Arsenal’s fault. One could, but I won’t. Certainly their abject display against Olympiakos on Matchday six of the Champions League ensured that, no matter what Borussia Dortmund did against Marseille, the Bundesliga champions would be exiting the tournament stage left. Much had been expected of Jürgen Klopp’s side, even despite the fact that they were shorn of their primary playmaker, Nuri Sahin, by the might of Real Madrid.
Their entertaining, attacking style, it was hoped, would provide an antidote to the increasingly defensive tactics used in Europe’s top competition. With players such as Mario Götze, Kevin Großkreutz, Mats Hummels and Shinji Kagawa, qualification for the last sixteen was the least expected of them. Instead they failed to get to grips with what was needed and took just one point from their opening three games. From that moment forward, it was always likely that Germany’s hopes would fall onto the shoulders of Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich.
So it proved little surprise when the two progressed through their respective groups, giving Germany the same level of representation in the knockout stages as the might of the Premier League. Bayern were presented with a tough group when the draw was made, with the exciting new talents of Napoli and Manchester City alongside Champions League stalwarts, Villarreal. In truth the Spaniards presented little challenge, and Bayern were the class of the group, leaving the Italians to scrape past the English side, despite the latter’s destruction of Bayern’s unbeaten record in the group.
Leverkusen hardly had it easy, either. Though Genk were expected to be whipping boys (they actually fared better, claiming three draws in their six games), both Valencia and Chelsea provided stiff opposition. Wins over both sides at the Bay-Arena, however, provided the platform for their qualification, with Chelsea’s final day defeat of the Spaniards meaning that Bayer had already done enough before they secured a final point in Belgium.
The side with the ‘Neverkusen’ tag are far from a squad of superstars. They have quality, in the likes of Eren Derdiyok and Lars Bender in particular, while the return of former hero Michael Ballack gives them a name most will recognise, and young goalkeeper Bernd Leno looks a star of the future, but many of the squad are not names who roll off the tongue among the better known in the European game.
Neither are they pulling up trees in the Bundesliga. Currently they sit 6th in the table, eleven points shy of leaders, Bayern. Their goal difference is a hardly-worth-mentioning +0 and they face a battle to even win a place in next season’s Champions League. They may have made it further than Dortmund in this season’s competition, but any hopes placed upon their shoulders to take German representation deep into the tournament would probably be misplaced.
So once again it will fall to Bayern to hold up German honour at the top table. It is not a position they are unfamiliar with. Since the inception of the European Cup back in the 1950s, German sides have reached fourteen finals. Eight of those appearances have been down to Bayern alone, and the giants of the Bundesliga have claimed four titles, a total that only AC Milan, Liverpool and Real Madrid can better.
It’s not just ancient history, either. In 2010 they made it all the way to the final, eventually missing out on a fifth title when they fell to José Mourinho’s Inter side. Unlike in 2010, however, this time Bayern aren’t being allowed to fly under the radar. While then everyone was mesmerised by Barcelona and their battles with Arsenal and Inter, even though Bayern disposed of Manchester United on their way, few took them seriously as contenders. A lesson was learned though, and now every sits wary of facing Bayern and their lethal attack.
It is an attack which is rightly spoken of in the same breath as the best in the game. Last season may not have been a vintage for the likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry (or ‘Robbery’ as they have been woefully named as a duo), but they have been back at their very best during this campaign. Coupled with the goalscoring talents of Mario Gómez, no longer the bumbling idiot of Euro 2008, but a veritable machine with an astonishing record of 73 goals in 113 appearances for Bayern, they will pose a threat to the best of defences around Europe.
A question remains over their defence, however. And that question is, when will Bastian Schwiensteiger be fit? The defensive midfielder, who broke his collarbone against Napoli in the group stage, has been proved crucially important in his absence, with Bayern’s proud defensive record of the first months of the season shot to pieces. Holger Badstuber and Daniel van Buyten have been left without their defensive screen, and Bayern have looked an entirely different team, though such is their attacking talent that they have continued to stack up the wins.
Schweinsteiger looks set for a return to action after the winter break in Germany, and therefore in plenty of time for the resumption of Champions League duties. Should there be any delay, however, their potential opponents will be grinning with anticipation of getting at their exposed defensive line. The summer signing of Rafinha has given them better balance, enabling Phillip Lahm to return to his preferred left back role, but they still lack a solidity without Schweinsteiger in front of them.
Given the draw for the last sixteen, one would expect Bayern to progress to the quarter finals with or without Schweinsteiger. Basle may have dumped Manchester United out of the tournament, but one has to expect that their adventure will come to a halt when they face the Germans. At the other end of the scale, Leverkusen’s reward for having disposed of Valencia is a tie against Barcelona. Should they find their way into the last eight, it will be a shock to put United’s early elimination well and truly in the shade.
So yet again it’s likely that Germany’s hopes rest on Bayern’s shoulders, and this time the rest of Europe will be waiting for them. But when Gómez, Ribéry and Robben fly into view, there aren’t many who’ll be able to stop them.
By Simon Furnivall. You can follow Simon on Twitter @SFurnivall.