On what was Bayern’s best game of football in more than two months, the Portuguese side were put to the sword. Die Roten are into the last sixteen, and Kovač is safe. For now, at least.
1. Niko’s stay of execution
After Saturday’s ignominious 3:3 draw against Fortuna Düsseldorf, the knives were out and sharpened for Bayern coach Niko Kovač. A rather ambiguous statement from Uli Hoeneß had provided the media with the opportunity to map out the coach’s coaching obituary, and the match was billed as the Croatian’s last chance saloon.
If there had been any friction between the coach and the players, it didn’t show on the pitch. Apart from one lazy moment at the start of the second half, the Bavarians brought everything to the party. Commitment, intensity, energy, and most crucially – their finishing boots.
If the leaked stories of Kovač’s post-match rant after the Düsseldorf game were true, his harsh words had clearly hit the spot. Benfica were made to look second rate, and Bayern finally gave the home crowd something to cheer about.
Kovač is not quite out of the woods yet. He can be happy with the result, but it is still a stay of execution. The defence is still far from perfect. If the team can pick up momentum and take this sort of form into the Winterpause, we can perhaps start to think about putting the past couple of months behind us.
As for the gelbe Presse scribblers that have been stirring the pot for the last week, it would have been quite something to see them hastily amending their lurid headlines as the goals started to fly in.
Too old. Too slow. Lacking intensity. Surplus to requirements. Plenty of bad things have been said about Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry in recent weeks. On what was a magnificent evening at the Allianz Arena for FC Bayern, the balding Dutch master and the permanently intense Frenchman pulled out all of the stops.
Form may be temporary, but class is permanent. Even when you are in your mid-thirties. Eyebrows will surely be raised if either player extends their contract beyond the end of this season, but this evening they showed just why the club were willing to get their signatures for another year.
Mister Wembley’s first goal was pure magic. Taking the ball on the right touchline – where else – the Dutchman looked like a man half his age as he danced and muscled his way past no fewer than four opponents. The trademark left-footed finish was suitably sublime. The second goal was just as good.
Ribéry had scored his last Champions League goal in the spring of 2015, one of the seven put past Shakhtar Donetsk in the last sixteen. When he was denied by Benfica keeper Odisseas Vlachodimos after 50 minutes, it looked as thought that barren run was set to continue.
Twelve minutes from time, the Frenchman got his goal. Crisp, firm, and into the bottom right-hand corner.
3. Lewy lights up the Allianz
It is fair to say that Robert Lewandowski had a bit of a nightmare against Düsseldorf. He was never really at the races, capping off a poor performance with two glaring misses.
It was a completely different Lewy who was rocking the number nine shirt against Benfica. The Polish striker was always in the thick of the action, and was a genuine threat for the entire ninety minutes. His two goals were simple, but were just what Die Roten have been seeking.
Goals from set pieces have been rarity this season so far, and from corners less so. Two perfectly executed headers in the same match was very nice to see, and were straight out of the coaching manual. If he had been dire on Saturday, he was deadly tonight.
Lewy’s first goal was his 50th Champions League goal in his 77th match, making him the third-quickest player to reach the milestone after Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Not bad company at all. His second goal took him past French striker Thierry Henry, and into sixth place on the all-time list.