x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Lahm's comments add fuel to fire between Bayern and Leverkusen

There is a lot of bad feeling going into today's Bundesliga clash between Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen.

Philipp Lahm's controversial autobiography has helped fan the flames of the Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen rivalry.
Philipp Lahm's controversial autobiography has helped fan the flames of the Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen rivalry.

To say that Bayern Munich against Bayer Leverkusen has become the frostiest of modern Bundesliga rivalries would be no exaggeration.

It is not a derby in any local sense, but the pre-eminence of the two clubs over the last decade has given it a derby's intimacy and edge. Each new fixture seems to carry a fresh layer of icy indignation. The first clash of 2011/12 has a particular chill.

Begin upstairs, among the executives. It is 10 seasons since Leverkusen, runners-up in the 2002 Champions League, lost out on the Bundesliga title on the final afternoon of the season to Bayern, and the Munich club's general manager, Uli Hoeness, declared them perennial chokers. "Leverkusen will never win anything," he said.

From that declaration the nickname "Bayer Neverkusen" was born. It seemed prophetic.

Bayern do not always finish above their Ruhr rivals in the table; they trailed Leverkusen by a place last May. But second is as lofty a spot as Leverkusen ever seem to get to.

Their latest campaign yielded a runners-up placing for the fifth time in 15 years. Add the second places they achieved in two German Cups and a European Cup final and that makes for lots of silver medals.

Now turn to Rudi Voller, Hoeness's counterpart at Leverkusen. Voller will travel to the Allianz Arena today bearing a recent bruise. Voller, director of football at Leverkusen, has a special beef with the Bayern captain, Philipp Lahm, whose autobiography, released earlier this month, has agitated a number of senior figures in German football.

Prominent among them is Voller, who, as Germany coach between 2000 and 2004, gave Lahm his international debut when the full-back was 20.

But Lahm in print recalls the period not with gratitude but as a time of torpor.

"Practice was nothing special, as lax as anything I have known in my career," he wrote. "There were maybe a couple of hours and we went back to our rooms. I think a lot of PlayStation went on at that time."

Voller reacted angrily, and personally, calling Lahm a man of "no character", his criticisms "pathetic".

Voller also wondered "how the German Federation will react", anticipating the possibility that Lahm might be stripped of the German captaincy. Told off by the Federation, Lahm retains his national armband.

Which brings us to another bristling Bayern-Bayer collision, this one between players. Lahm assured reporters in the lead-up to today that his relationship with Michael Ballack, the Leverkusen midfielder and former national captain, is "fine".

Why would it not be? When Ballack missed the last World Cup because of an injury, Lahm took over as captain. And then he quickly declared that he wanted the role long-term. The remark seemed to sting Ballack, to whom it sounded like a coup. Ballack has not been selected for Germany since.

When the former Bayern man has returned to Munich since, as an away-team player, his reception tends to be mixed.

He left the Bavarians on a free transfer for Chelsea in 2006, having allowed his contract to expire, a strategy criticised at the time by the Munich hierarchy.

Ballack's last visit was especially uncomfortable. In April, his Leverkusen side lost 5-1 at the Allianz.

That day, the Leverkusen manager was Jupp Heynckes. Today, the Bayern manager is … Heynckes. As if there were not enough layers of intrigue already in this clash.

Indeed, of all the gains the bigger, brasher Bavarian institution have made at the expense of their northern rivals over the years, the summer switch by Heynckes is beginning to look like one of the more significant. Heynckes's Bayern sit atop the table this morning and they have scored 20 goals in their last six Bundesliga and European games.

Their defensive record is not bad, either. One of Lahm's observations about Louis Van Gaal, Bayern's coach last season, is that "he emphasised attack too much, and so we conceded far too many goals".

In league and Champions League under Heynckes, Bayern have let in just one in seven matches. So it is a tough time for any visitors to Munich, however highly motivated they might be by any grudges they bear.