After Tuesday’s final whistle blew on Merseyside to curtail a 0-0 draw from the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, Bayern Munich head coach Niko Kovac could reflect on a job well done, for the moment.
His side had delivered a dogged and resolute defensive performance in riposte to an anticipated Anfield onslaught, and despite the failure to claw an away goal to cherish, the 47-year-old was proud of the disciplined and stout nature his team carried out his game-plan and held their own in a widely adorned – arguably to mythical levels – arena.
The second leg – scheduled to be played at the Allianz Arena on 13 March – will be an encounter of higher stakes and will be unrecognisable from Tuesday on a tactical level, but it will require far more creative nous and offensive impetus from this Bayern side, and this is where doubts begin.
The fact that Bayern are seeking their seventh consecutive league title tells you everything you need to know about the Bundesliga power struggle, but this is a squad whose clock is visibly ticking and on a domestic front has been paying the price for the club’s reluctance to freshen ranks in the summer.
Irrespective of what happens on the pitch from now until May, this season will be final hurrah for a number of key players in their post-2012 hegemony. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribèry are set to depart and fans have been long calling for the replacements of their esteemed over 30’s; namely Robert Lewandowski, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels.
Change was called for across all sectors of Bayern’s support last summer and the club’s hierarchical triumvirate – Uli Hoeness, Club President, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Chief Executive and the sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic – succumbed to inertia, resulting in the Bavarians’ sluggish start that saw them drop as low as 6th at one point pre-Christmas.
Their form has picked up since the Christmas break, though, and following a run of 9 victories from their last ten league fixtures, the nine-point gap that appeared seismic following their topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at home to Fortuna Dusseldorf on 24 November has now been cut to just three.
One theory behind Tuesday’s unyielding display of spirit and togetherness was that this was arguably Bayern’s first encounter where they have been seen as genuine underdogs – against a Liverpool side challenging for the Premier League title and who delivered a number of scintillating performances in reaching the Champions League Final last year – since Niko Kovac’s arrival.
The Croatian’s values, whose former Eintracht Frankfurt side were renowned in Germany for their fighting qualities against wealthier opposition, were for the first time evident in the faultless and workmanlike performances from the likes of Javi Martinez, James Rodriguez, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman.
Such traits will be a prerequisite back at the Allianz for Liverpool’s return visit, as well as matching the composure and control shown on Merseyside, but with the onus on the Germans to attack, one would expect that they will need to summon the incisive spark and a glimmer of the offensive flamboyancy that has seen them at least reach the Semi-Final stages in the Champions League in all but two seasons this decade.