Lovell’s Lowdown: Pensive Pep with Plenty to Ponder
After FC Bayern Munich’s 1-0 win over VfL Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, Mark Lovell reviews their performance and looks ahead to the club’s upcoming UEFA Champions League game against Manchester City on Wednesday.
Pep Guardiola entered today’s press conference after a narrow 1-0 Bundesliga victory against Wolfsburg with a worried frown across his distinguished face. The Spanish coach will know better performances, fitting of a treble-winning side, will be needed in the coming weeks. The history books will reveal a sixth success in seven league games so far this campaign, but this was a minimalistic performance just good enough for the three points. Job done - let’s move on to more important battles ahead. That’s what Pep’s pensive expression revealed.
Guardiola again applied the magic rotation wand with Daniel van Buyten, Diego Contento, Toni Kroos, Xherdan Shaqiri and Claudio Pizarro all making way from the resounding midweek cup success against Hannover. In their stead came the star quality of Jerome Boateng, David Alaba, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Mario Mandzukic. You could argue the starting eleven was Bayern’s strongest available side - with the fit-again €37m Mario Götze waiting to be unleashed from the bench.
A valiant visiting side proved they were “no wolves to the slaughter” and deservedly went into the break level after a goalless and relatively even first half. The increased noise levels from the Southern terrace during the opening stages were impressive despite Bayern struggling to impose themselves. The terrace (a standing block) has been opened up under a ‘‘first come first served principle’’. Perhaps, the assembled Bayern standing faithful would like to raise a glass in the directon of their bitterest Bundesliga rivals for the final relaxation of standing rules. In the aftermath of his side’s extra-time win against 1860 Munich on Tuesday, Dortmund’s CEO Watzke let loose with some harsh jibes about the lame Allianz Arena atmosphere at Bayern games. His words sparked a response, one that had to be experienced to be believed. The crowd had no goals at half time but the decibel levels suggested otherwise.
Today’s game turned after an inspired double substitution shortly after the hour mark, although some might suggest these changes needed to be implemented at the break. Guardiola had the temerity to hook off local hero Bastian Schweinsteiger (and Arjen Robben). Admittedly, “Schweini” had had a quiet game, seemingly playing with plenty in reserve after a 26th minute caution for a temper tantrum with Wolfsburg’s Diego.
Kroos and Shaqiri entered the fray with instant effect. The latter found Europe’s footballer of the year (Ribery) who jinked his way to the byline before flashing a cross across the box for the lurking Thomas Müller to slot home at the back post. Mueller’s first league goal of the season was a better finish than it might appear at first glance. Wolfsburg paid dearly for a missed header from Marcel Schäfer immediately before those timely changes.
Further examination of the statistics reveal the normal extravagant Bayern ball possession (71%) but today this was like Oktoberfest beer with lemonade. Pep’s side were in danger of diluting the product – not enough shots on goal (eleven in total) with just a paltry four on target. I cannot recall Wolves keeper Diego Benaglio having a real save to make.
The sell-out crowd saw lots of trickery in the box, (too) many unselfish lay-offs from Müller and Ribery in particular, but very little end product. Mario Mandzukic had an off day against his former employers. It was as if the Croatian was badly affected by his ‘replacement’ Robert Lewandowski’s protracted move gaining more ground in the week.
And so the Bayern bandwagon rolls on to Manchester in midweek. In reality these head-to-head clashes between big spending Premier League City and the record German champions will decide which one will end up the Champions League Group D winners. This year the D definitely doesn’t stand for “Group of Death.” Both the minnows from Moscow and plucky Pilsen are all but contesting for the Europa League.
Bayern still look vulnerable from set-plays. The returning Luis Gustavo might have put the Wolves ahead with a header from a corner. This will be something that Manchester City will look to exploit on Wednesday, and is something the Citizens are particularly skilled at, as evidenced in last Sunday’s derby demolition of Manchester United.
Top spot is important to line up a last 16 clash against a second placed qualifying side, in theory one of the lesser sides remaining in the competition come February 2014. Approximately 2,600 Bayern fans will travel to England to roar on the Reds. You can expect plenty of ‘’football’s coming home’’ chants should the Bavarians overcome the Blues in their own backyard.
Getting off my fence, and sticking my neck on the line - I do not expect Bayern to win this game, despite fit-again Mario Götze perhaps getting an extended run out in Manchester. He has performed well before in Dortmund colours in England’s second city and Pep may set his expensive purchase loose, with a view to replacing that frown with a Spanish smile during the week.