x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Champions League: Who will take the leading role in Arsenal v Bayern?

Mario Mandzukic has moved from understudy to centre stage at Mario Gomez's expense, but Bayern old boy Lukas Podolski will relish the chance to twist the tale, writes Ian Hawkey.

Mario Gomez comes on for Mario Mandzukic, right, the man who has replaced him in Bayern’s starting XI.
Mario Gomez comes on for Mario Mandzukic, right, the man who has replaced him in Bayern’s starting XI.

Mario Gomez, the Bayern Munich striker, used to tire of the Gerd Muller question. This time last year, it was perpetually being put to him. Might he, with his prolific form, break Muller's record, set back in the 1970s, of 40 goals in a single Bundesliga season?

Gomez would answer that he never thought about these milestones. Sometimes he would remind his interviewer that goalscoring runs can peak and trough very suddenly.

Gomez may well find himself on the substitutes' bench for tonight's Champions League last-16 encounter with Arsenal.

He has been named among the reserves for four of the last five Bundesliga matches, his 48 goals - across all competitions - of last season not a strong enough recommendation of his finishing power ahead of the more rounded centre-forward play exhibited by Mario Mandzukic in the six months since the Croatian joined Bayern, ostensibly as back-up to Gomez.

Mandzukic, with 15 goals in 18 league starts, is not yet being asked the Muller question, but he is thriving as the spearhead of a team racing towards the domestic crown and ambitious to improve on their silver medal in the last Champions League.

He should enjoy it while it lasts. Bayern will have a new head coach come July, Pep Guardiola, and the strong word is that among the enticements that tempted the former Barcelona man to return to club management in Munich, and not in Manchester, Milan, London or Paris was the guarantee he would have a new, top-class striker to work with.

Every striker at Bayern is to some extent shadowed by the Muller issue.

Not because a decades-old record is set as a target, but because the club sometimes seems so intolerant of standards that fall below those of the mythic Munich No 9. Ask Gomez, whose four-year stint at the club has been relatively lengthy, and largely successful.

An injury at the beginning of the season, though, meant Mandzukic had his chance and has now made Gomez his understudy.

Or ask Arsenal's Lukas Podolski, who will sympathise with Gomez if he sees him on the bench tonight.

Podolski, the London club's leading marksmen in Europe this season, spent a lot of time as a Bayern Munich substitute in his three years in Bavaria.

Signed from Cologne as a 21 year old just before the 2006 World Cup in which he was named the best young player, Podolski's Bayern years became an atypical interregnum in a career of otherwise impressive achievements.

There, he rarely established himself as a first-team player, while at the same time racking up the distinctions that would make him one of Germany's most effective strikers in history, with 44 goals from his 107 caps.

Perhaps Podolski was too young when he first left Cologne where he grew up and become feted as "Prince Poldi".

Perhaps Bayern at the time had not the patience or strategy to explore how he might grow into a position wide on the left, where he has thrived for his country and, at times, for Arsenal, who he joined after a second spell at Cologne last summer.

His was, Podolski would later recall, an unsettling period of management at Bayern.

In his first season, Felix Magath was replaced by Ottmar Hitzfeld mid-term.

But even in his second the arrival of Jurgen Klinsmann, a Podolski loyalist when he managed Germany, did not mean a rise up the hierarchy either.

Podolski played second or third fiddle at various times to Luca Toni, and to Miroslav Klose in Bayern's striking roster. Both of those would soon enough find themselves surplus at the club where centre-forwards are so readily deposed.

Recently Podolski looked back on his Bayern time and wondered out loud if, under the current coach Jupp Heynckes, he might have fared better.

In a short caretaker spell, in 2009, Heynckes did pick Podolski in Bayern's starting team for a sequence of games. Would Heynckes pick Podolski now? Not ahead of Mandzukic or Gomez. Not ahead of Franck Ribery or Arjen Robben or Thomas Muller in the wing positions of his preferred 4-3-3.

All that depth and firepower makes the Germans soaring favourites to oust from the Champions League an Arsenal bearing the hangover of an English FA Cup exit at home to Blackburn Rovers. But Prince Poldi would relish being part of a coup against the palace where he for so long felt like a stranger.