Bayern Munich recover some pride, but questions remain after UCL exit
MUNICH -- Champions League exits don't tend to come with standing ovations and a lap of honour at the Allianz Arena. Last season, the perennially critical Munich crowd were stunned into a silent stupor by the 4-0 defeat at the hands of Real Madrid at the same stage of the competition. Boos and angry jeering greeted the 2-3 defeat by Inter, the swan song of coach Louis van Gaal, in the last 16 in 2011. Two years earlier, a meek, inconsequential 1-1 draw with Barcelona in the quarterfinals ushered in the end of Jurgen Klinsmann's reign. But the audible discontent on that and other nights of European frustration was nothing in comparison to the shock and awe after the Champions League final loss to Chelsea on penalties in 2012.
They don't often enthusiastically applaud winners at Bayern -- why should the team be applauded for doing the job expected of them? -- let alone losers. Tuesday night was different. The outpouring of goodwill toward the team after the final whistle, hailed as "sensational" by a clearly surprised Thomas Muller, suggested that this was a defeat over two legs unlike other recent ones. It was a win on the night, for a start, a 3-2 result that salvaged some pride and hinted at what might have been if the Bavarians hadn't blown it so spectacularly at Camp Nou seven days earlier.
But there's more to it than that. They're not football romantics in Munich; meaningless wins such as these are not really taken seriously. You won't hear anyone revelling in that achievement in years to come, there won't be a commemorative DVD of the game in the club megastore, only regrets that it wasn't enough to reach a fourth final in six seasons. "That's one for the end [for the stats section] of the yearbook," the reporter from the regional radio station told his listeners with a moderate dose of sarcasm.
The scenes at the final whistle, then, weren't so much about what it said on the scoreboard, nor merely a sign of the crowd's polite appreciation of the valiant but ultimately futile attempt to beat a team out of sight, in terms of quality and the first-leg advantage. This was a club closing ranks, determined to put on a show of unity amid all the crisis talk and headlines proclaiming the end of Pep Guardiola, the end of this team, and by extension, the impending end of Bayern's status among the elite.
But above all, the fans' applause was an eloquent plea for perspective. Winning the league championship and falling at the semifinal hurdle in both the DFB Pokal and the Champions League might be considered failure by those who expected them to repeat their 2013 Treble again, but not even Bayern supporters, for all their sense of entitlement, were that presumptuous. "We are disappointed today, but it was a good season," captain Philipp Lahm said, echoing that sentiment.
Muller was unhappy that mistakes at both ends of the pitch -- Bayern not scoring enough from their clear-cut opportunities and conceding two goals that were quite soft -- had killed the dream of a mother of comebacks. But Tuesday night's rousing fight back against admittedly a fairly lacklustre Barca side stuck in second gear, still served to soften the blow of the first leg, just as the win in the DFB Pokal final against Dortmund had done in the wake of the 4-0 semifinal defeat by Real Madrid 12 months ago. The home side's performance brought some much-needed calm that will enable the leading figures to debate the big talking points without as much public pressure and noise.
For all of Guardiola's nice words about being proud of the players and his plea to "give it another go next season," the people in charge will not be blinded to the problems that need addressing in the coming weeks. Firstly, the squad needs fresh blood to ease the demand on the tired legs of the over-30 leaders Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Xabi Alonso. The veterans don't need to be replaced just yet, but they need help. The transition to the next team, while gradual and orderly, will have to gather pace. A new right-back must be top on the shopping list, next to a new understudy behind Robert Lewandowski in place of Claudio Pizarro, and a pacy winger.
Mario Gotze, who could in theory do two of these jobs, is increasingly being seen as an enigma rather than an asset. Patience within the club is running thin with the World Cup winner. Their hopes of Guardiola taking him to another level have not been realised.
There will be a long, hard look at Bayern's lengthy list of injuries this season as well as a possibly quite uncomfortable debate about the right method of physical conditioning. Bayern players continuing to see doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller Wohlfahrt privately despite his resignation as club medical officer after he was blamed for defeat at Porto in the quarterfinals is a complicated situation.
Tactically, Guardiola still has to prove that he can combine his strand of possession football and high-line-defending with security at the back when it comes to matches against the world's best club teams. Muller took exception to the suggestion that Bayern had been naive on Tuesday ("What do you mean by that, exactly?" he shot back at the journalist in the stadium mixed zone), insisting that his team had been fully aware of the dangers posed by the Catalans and "given the goals away" through mere sloppiness.
Guardiola, for his part, will again surely claim that the problem lied with the execution, not the plan itself, and that he had not much choice in view of the injuries. Without players who could beat their man in wide areas, his big idea for the second leg had been to overload on the right flank behind Lionel Messi. Bayern were much more incisive as a result, but the flip-side to numerical advantage in one specific area was a huge gap in front of the defence that invited Neymar to score his first goal when one of Bayern's attacks fell apart.
His football is inherently risky -- designed to completely choke teams, but fragile unless everybody moves in unison and is on top of their game physically to do so.
Most importantly, Bayern need to decide how much they want accommodate Guardiola's view of squad composition. They will be reluctant to give him the keys to Sabenerstrasse training ground unless he commits well beyond next season. The manager, conversely, will hesitate to extend his contract unless the club back him more strongly. An impasse looms. Fortunately for Bayern, the conciliatory mood on Tuesday night will enable the men involved to work it all out in relative peace.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.