Preview: FC Bayern München – SL Benfica
After the 2-0 win in the first leg, München appear to be in a very good position. Normally, FC Bayern would be expected to qualify for the last sixteen comfortably in such a position. Normally. However, given that the Munich team has only managed one win against Athens in their last six home games, any outcome seems plausible.
The recent results at home have not been pretty, with draws against Augsburg, Freiburg, and Düsseldorf in addition to a defeat against Gladbach. Add to that a flattering result against Ajax and it is safe to say that no one could have predicted this scenario prior to the season.
The quality of the players is still there, or it is at least at a level that should be sufficient for the games mentioned. For weeks, many problems have been identified, however there has been no correction of those issues. On the one hand, there are players who are putting themselves above the team and on the other hand there is a coach who can’t seem to find any solutions and does not appear to be looking too hard for them either.
Within a short space of time, the team have reached a point where a change of coach seems inevitable. This is partly their own fault. When Arjen Robben talked to us about Heynckes and van Gaal, he said something very crucial: “In the end you are responsible as coach, but the players have to perform on the pitch. You can want it so much, but you need the players to do it.”
Niko Kovač wants to play a direct style of football but he lacks the players to do so. The high eights, the vertical game, the high risk – with a fit Thiago, Tolisso, Coman and James things could very well look different. Maybe the team would be a bit safer and faster. But it doesn’t change the fact that a Bayern coach has to deal with these circumstances.
Kovač demanded a flexibility he couldn’t implement himself. If your squad can’t play the football you want, then you have to change something. The interaction between coach and team only works if both sides agree on a path. Obviously they have not. And so the game against Benfica threatens to become the last appearance of Kovač.
Hoeneß has said that Kovač will be sitting on the bench on Tuesday. When reading between the lines of his statement, it certainly sounds as if he is already preparing a farewell. It would be an admission of his own mistakes.
Hoeneß, Rummenigge and Salihamidžić were the ones who put the coaches and squad together. They are responsible for the current mismatch in the team. Criticism of players who position themselves internally against Kovač and think of themselves above the team are just as justified as criticism of the coach. In the end however, the bosses have to answer for it.
They have brought in a coach whose playing style and ideas don’t suit players who want to play dominant football. They have given the coach a squad that can only partially implement his ideas. And so it is they, too, who are responsible for the current situation.
This is a situation in which Benfica hardly plays a role as an opponent. Somehow you have to win or at least draw. Against a team that can defend very deep and compactly, but can also switch quickly and act with the ball. The first leg has already shown, that Benfica has the potential to hurt the Bavarians. At that time, however, the Münchners were still self-confident and in a better overall condition.
One encouraging factor is that Benfica is also not playing particularly well. In the league, they are currently in fourth with 20 points from ten games – four points behind leaders Porto. Internationally, their last good performance is also long in the past. FC Bayern are now looking to gain time. Either for Kovač, to somehow drag him through to the winter break, or to find an alternative on the market. But who could help? There are only a few available alternatives and none that would cause much excitement among the fans.
Once again, the season rescue mission is underway. In the Bundesliga it’s all about getting one of the direct Champions League qualification spots. In the Champions League, it’s all about securing the round of sixteen.
If Benfica wins 3-0 in Munich, the Europa League will also be threatened if FC Bayern were to lose their last match in Amsterdam. It’s hard to imagine that scenario as really possible. In any case, and this is the only straw that you can cling to, the Munich team has at least shown a good attitude when there was a lot at stake.
Either way, the remainder of 2018 will be interesting to watch. How long will Niko Kovač remain the coach? Who will replace him? Does that coach then prove that there is more quality in the squad than is currently assumed? And does this coach fit into a long-term plan or will he only finish one season again? The focus is already beyond the game against Benfica but FC Bayern must first accomplish a very important goal in that game.