x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Are Bayern Munich now the invincible men?

The Munich side are so far ahead of the rest, the German league and its fans have a cause for concern, writes Ian Hawkey.

Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic leaps higher than Borussia Dortmund’s Nuri Sahin.
Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic leaps higher than Borussia Dortmund’s Nuri Sahin.

When Felix Magath, the former Bayern Munich coach and three times league champion, predicted a few days ago that Bayern would not lose a match during the 51st Bundesliga campaign, relative silence followed.

His may not be the absolute consensus view, but given the resources at their disposal, and the buoyant momentum from Bayern's unprecedented recent success, not many experts have loudly countered the idea that they shape up as potential Invincibles.

Bayern, European club champions, record-setters last season for the speed at which they advanced to the domestic crown, begin their campaign tonight against Borussia Monchengladbach as the figureheads of a league that has seldom felt so good about itself.

And there lies the curiosity. If, as Magath and others suggest, Bayern are so far ahead of the rest domestically, should the Bundesliga not be alarmed at such a perceived imbalance?

Much of the amplified Bundesboasting resounding through elite club football all year has been justified.

The second-best team in Europe's principal competition were Borussia Dortmund, silver medallists in the Uefa Champions League only by a margin of a single goal, having lost 2-1 in the Wembley Stadium final to Bayern.

The third-best on the continent? Well, bronze medals, had they been cast, would have been smelted out of low-grade metal. Bayern were seven goals better than Barcelona in their semi-final, while Dortmund were 4-1 ahead of Real Madrid after the first leg of theirs.

Indeed, there is now an argument that for collective strength and expertise, Bayern's second XI might not be far off consideration as the third-best side in Europe.

Pep Guardiola, whose coaching services were sought by several teams, might not have his entire arsenal when the team opens against Monchengladbach. The line-up might very well exclude names such as Mario Gotze, the €37 million (Dh181.5m) recruit from Dortmund; Mario Madzukic, the striker who led the line in last season's treble; or Luiz Gustavo, who anchored Brazil's midfield in their successful Confederations Cup tournament last month.

Same for the German internationals Toni Kroos, Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber, plus the Swiss creator Xherdan Shaqiri, for whom Bayern paid Basel nearly €12m shortly after his 20th birthday 18 months ago.

Gustavo, for one, is voicing his apprehension about the personal implications of such intense competition for places.

In a World Cup year, he wants to keep his Brazil place and is in talks with Bayern executives about whether he might not be more active, week in, week out, if he moved elsewhere.

Most of the 18 German clubs outside Munich and Dortmund would value a player like him.

They have all looked at Bayern as if through the wrong end of a telescope for most of the last 12 months.

Dortmund's second place in the table was 25 points behind first after the 34 fixtures, while third-place Leverkusen trailed the champions by 26.

On the table, things remained interesting well below that trio, and Nuremburg could still have been relegated or finished fourth with only three games left.

But when one soaring superpower turns all the rest into mere scufflers, it does not take long before fans start worrying that the body has become as distant from the head as in the Barcelona-and-Real-Madrid-dominated Spanish Primera Liga.

Guardiola left Barcelona, after three Primera Liga triumphs and two European Cups in four years, partly because the job there became so stressful, politically and psychologically.

That was his first post as a senior first-team coach.

His second confronts him with, patently, a hard act to follow and with players who are bound to scrutinise his endeavours to correct or perfect existing methods.

"Last season everything worked very well," Boateng said, "but with a new coach there will be new ideas."

Among those, as Boateng will have noticed, is an apparent inclination to use Javi Martinez, the Spanish enforcer, more often in central defence than midfield - he is adept at both - which may affect Boateng.

There seems certain to be some adjustment to midfield now that Thiago Alacantara has arrived from Barcelona, very plainly a choice of Guardiola's.

In turn, Gotze, who has had minor fitness problems leading into the season, would seem to put pressure on the range of roles occupied by Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Franck Ribery, Kroos and Shaqiri.

The solutions to these conundrums, and Guardiola's man-management while he wrestles with them, dominate the agenda. But the league will not only be about the battles between Bayern A and Bayern B.

Dortmund have contributed interestingly to the refreshed cast-list of the Bundesliga, too, with the acquisitions of midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Shaktar Donetsk and striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Saint-Etienne, a footballer capable of setting the best sprint times in the league.

And Dortmund still have as coach the charismatic Jurgen Klopp, who drew some satisfaction from Dortmund's 4-2 win over Bayern in the German Super Cup two weeks ago.

He does not believe Bayern will win all their domestic matches from now on.