Sport Soccer

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Run, hide, pray. Bayern are marching on Old Trafford

Few expect Manchester United to see the semi-finals, much less the finale. When the bell tolled, United were pushed out to 33-1 to be crowned champions. They are now rank outsiders in a field of eight

The defending champions will head to Old Trafford full of expectation.
The defending champions will head to Old Trafford full of expectation.


Bayern Munich reached 50 league games unbeaten last weekend by winning a match with 23 shots to Bayer Leverkusen's six, almost 80 per cent possession and 824 passes to the opposition's 209. By the end of a 2-1 victory, Pep Guardiola's team were 23 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga.

Run, hide, pray. Bayern are marching on Old Trafford for what they are calling a "tough but enticing" quarter-final. More enticing than tough, even the most optimistic United fan would say.

For the first time in decades, gallows humour shapes United's response to a Champions League draw. A common reaction was that United will at least be able to creep out of Europe's premier competition without disgrace. Expectations are even lower than their league position (seventh, or 18 points adrift).

Fatalism will have its uses in Manchester and Munich. Few expect United to see the semi-finals, much less the finale in Lisbon in May. When the bell tolled, United were pushed out to 33-1 to be crowned champions. They are now rank outsiders in a field of eight.

Oh, woe. But there are glimpses of light, bouncing off the mirror Bayern will hold up to this United side. Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are a menacing duo, whoever the opposition. David de Gea, in goal, is not many rungs down from Bayern's Manuel Neuer, surely now the world No 1. Nor are the German champions always wholly convincing at centre-back.

In midfield, though, we will see the gulf between the United of 1999 - the Camp Nou comeback, and all that - and a unit whose passing was transformed by the return of a 40-year-old assistant coach: Ryan Giggs.

In 1999, in Barcelona, United managed to beat Bayern Munich in 'Fergie time' without Paul Scholes and Roy Keane in midfeld. Both were suspended. But they could still call on David Beckham, a much younger Giggs and Nicky Butt, in front of Japp Stam, Gary Neville and Denis Irwin.

Against Olympiakos, in midfield, they relied on Giggs, who had been strangely absent, and Michael Carrick, who is clinging on these days, with Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia in the wide positions.

 Later they sent on Marouane Fellaini, widely considered to be below the required level. In this quarter-final, United will face the world's best midfield: an orchestra of quick, subtle, angled passing that will poke the ball through gaps and spin those red shirts around so they face the wrong way.

Here are the names: Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mario Gotze, Toni Kroos, Thiago Alcantara. In the group stage, at home, Manchester City made the mistake of ceding numerical superiority to Guardiola's ball-hounding team.

United's problem is not only numbers but quality. Moyes favours two wide players and relies on Rooney to make up the shortfall in the middle. If he tries this against Bayern, it could turn ugly, especially with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery posing such a threat out wide.

So if Moyes was reprieved by a spirited but flawed 3-0 comeback win over Olympiakos, his next test is to deal with the wonderful midfield of the world, European and German club champions, lead by Guardiola, who would have been a candidate for Sir Alex Ferguson's job had he not already agreed to join Bayern, in December, 2012.

When Guardiola announced his decision, it was common to hear pundits say he had taken the impossible job. Bayern had just won the Champions League, Bundesliga and German Cup. How could any mortal being improve on that?

There was even contradictory mumbling to the effect that Guardiola had played safe and turned down bigger challenges. If Bayern were unimprovable, how was he playing safe?

The pressure on managers at the Allianz Arena is suffocating, though less visible, because Bayern maintain such a good communal, corporate front. The jailing of Uli Hoeness, the club president, for tax evasion, blew away the pretence that Bayern are a commune of socially-aware club servants united in an almost spiritual cause.

But on and off the pitch, Bayern are indeed an inspiration. Their style of play has taken the game beyond the Barcelona model. It blends German strength and Spanish skill. It is fast, powerful, kaleidoscopic and thrilling. None of those compliments could currently be attached to United, who covet the marvellous Kroos, without having much to offer him beyond a pay-rise.

Ferguson, who met Guardiola socially in New York in his final year, was moved by Barcelona's crushing 2011 Champions League final win over United to change his thinking about what the club ought to be doing. He called a council of war with his coaching staff to ask how his team could compete with tiki-taka.

The game has moved on again since then, and players, coaches and directors at United are due for another seminar in what it takes to be dominant in Europe.

United have collapsed in England, of course, and the domestic front must be restored before they can dream of more Champions League success. Bayern will still show them where they need to be, in the transfer market, especially.

United's infrastructure is well-established. Ferguson based his appointment of Butt, Paul Scholes and others to coaching roles on the Bayern model of keeping legends in the family. There is no comparison, however, between the two starting XIs.

Nobody expects United to party like it's 1999. They are heading back to school.

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