Forced for months to withstand talk of "crisis," Bundesliga giant Bayern Munich are beginning to stir. With Champions League progress now secure, the Bavarians may get down to business - and rip through the league.
The free-scoring Gomez is proving his worth to his coach
Crisis? What crisis?
How it easy it now seems to brush off those initial flippant remarks about Bayern Munich's early form with a dismissive hand now that the Bavarian giants seem to have their season back on track.
Just a few weeks ago, pundits - this one included - were questioning the quality of the German champions. After starting slowly in what turned out to be a fantastic campaign last season, how could Louis van Gaal justify taking just as long to get going in this campaign with the same team he led to the German league and cup double as well as the Champions League final?
Bayern fans were on their knees waiting for Robben's return
It was a lack of depth, we cried. We lamented van Gaal's frugality in the summer transfer market and the arrogance that prevented him from adding insurance to a team built around fragile yet luminous stars. We felt hoodwinked when it appeared that our belief in Bayern as a great team was revealed to be folly. They had flattered to deceive. They were just a one-man-band who were ordinary without Arjen Robben.
Imagine how silly we feel now.
Bayern Munich have qualified for the next round of the Champions League with a 100 percent record and two games to spare. And they did so on Wednesday night in some style.
Bayern's fourth win out of four in the Champions league this season, coming away from home against Romanian champions CFR Cluj, extended their excellent start in the competition and showed a cutting edge and fluidity that had been missing from most of their Bundesliga performances this season.
While Bayern's European form has been consistent and efficient, their Bundesliga performances have - until recently - been more disappointing. Things now look to be falling into place for Bayern in the league as it has done across Europe, even if the club's president Uli Hoeness remains far from happy with van Gaal's methods.
The club are still some ten points off the Bundesliga summit but with just over two months of the campaign gone, Bayern appear to be gaining a similar momentum to that which saw them eat up ground on their rivals in last season's title race and pushed them towards the European Cup final in Madrid. It was November before their Bundesliga season came to life and they were in danger of crashing out of the Champions League group stages before Christmas.
Back-to-back wins against Freiburg in the Bundesliga and Cluj in the Champions League suggest that van Gaal has finally worked out what has been going wrong with his team in recent weeks. Hoeness, however, claims to have known all along - that fringe players he believes have more of a role to play in the first team should be given their chance.
Getting on the scoresheet against Freiburg did Demichelis good
Van Gaal certainly saw the benefits of using players like Mario Gomez, Anatoliy Tymoschuk and Martin Demichelis in last week's 4-2 win over Freiburg - all three got on the score sheet. Hoeness maintains that the Dutchman would have sold these men given half the chance, thereby denying Bayern valuable manpower.
Against Cluj, Gomez in particular showed again that Bayern do have strength in depth - when van Gaal chooses to use it. Denied the opportunity of using Ivica Olic and Miroslav Klose due to injuries, van Gaal was forced more out of circumstance than choice to throw Gomez, the 30 million-euro bench warmer, into the fray. Luckily for van Gaal, the former Stuttgart man finally showed some of the form which persuaded Bayern to pay such a fee last year.
Because…or in spite of?
It could be argued then that van Gaal has played his hand perfectly, if a little late. He has watched his first choice team struggle against the likes of Kaiserslautern and Cologne, and has now turned to his alternatives who have been champing at the bit to perform. By denying them their chance, he has been building their desire - a desire evident in their displays since being recalled.
Van Gaal is not known as a man who likes owning up to mistakes
On the other hand, the gruff Dutchman may have just run out of ideas and, desperate for any kind of turnaround, has thrown his misfits into the mix. It is unlikely van Gaal will admit to this, especially with the equally formidable Hoeness watching for any more perceived signs of weakness, both in tactical ability and character.
Wednesday's result, on the back of last Friday's mauling of Freiburg, and a predicted rout at home to woeful basement club Borussia Moenchengladbach on Saturday, will certainly ease whatever fears remain over Bayern's current direction. As long as they continue in an upward trajectory, the team's critics - both external and internal - will have less ammunition to aim at the Bayern players and, more prominently, their coach.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann