Fever Pitch: Bayern Munich's Champions League win brings Man United's European challenge into focus
The similarities between the clubs' recent European histories should give David Moyes some comfort - and also teach him some lessons, says Ed Bearryman
Perhaps the most annoying thing about German football teams, certainly from an English perspective, is that no matter how traumatic a beating you give them they will always, some way, some how, bounce back stronger.
On that crazy night in Barcelona all those years ago in 1999, Man United doled out the most painful European Cup final defeat in history. Two years later, Bayern were European champions.
This time, their redemption was doubly swift, as Saturday night’s victory crowned a brilliant comeback from that harrowing capitulation to Chelsea in their own back yard last May.
It’s a remarkable German character trait, and sets them apart as the most indefatigable nation in world football.
Bayern are now a plotting a move beyond that culture of bust and boom toward a period of sustainable domination.
It’s a scary thought for English rivals playing catch-up but, then again, almost a year to the day since we celebrated the Queen’s jubilee, perhaps it’s apt that talk on the streets of London has turned to German dynasties once more.
Nowhere will the fear of Bavarian omnipotence be felt more keenly than in the new manager’s office at Manchester United. Talk of six-year plans and stability has obscured David Moyes’ European inexperience for now, but if the club falls irredeemably behind the likes of Bayern in the Champions League one suspects it will be his undoing.
Moyes can take some comfort in the similarities between United and Bayern’s recent European histories.
For starters, both clubs have suffered from a certain flakiness on the continent in the last decade.
Throughout the early 2000s the Bayern name itself still came loaded with a visceral threat, but it was based upon past glories. Their hotchpotch of a team couldn’t do justice to the reputation.
A particularly jarring defeat to Chelsea in 2005, where they were torn apart by Joe Cole and Damien Duff, sticks in the memory.
Are Man United entering that kind of phase now? Their last two Champions League campaigns have fizzled out with a whimper, in the groups at the hands of Basle in 2012 and at the quarter-final stage against Real Madrid this time around.
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That defeat was skewed by the unbelievable dismissal of Nani in the second half of the second leg at Old Trafford, but there was something disconcerting about United’s total collapse thereafter.
Their record in finals also bears comparison. Before Saturday, Bayern had lost their last two finals – against Inter Milan and Chelsea – just like United.
Granted, United’s defeats came at the hands of the most celebrated Barcelona team of all time but, as Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger can readily testify, that perennial loser tag can be a hard one to shift.
So how does Moyes stop the rot? Recruiting a midfielder who bestrides the pitch in the dashing, domineering style of Saturday’s stand out performer Javi Martinez – dare we say it, a new Roy Keane – would be a decent start. Marouane Fellaini has been mooted, and it’s not impossible to imagine him developing into a player of similar elegance and command.
An urgent redevelopment of his wingers is crucial, too. Wilfried Zaha is arriving, as a rough diamond, but the careers of Nani and Ashley Young will need to be rehabilitated quickly following poor seasons.
After all, it was the incision provided by Robben and Franck Ribery, rotating around the pivotal Mandzukic, that cut Barcelona and Dortmund open with such regularity this season. At least in Robin Van Persie, Moyes already has the linkman-cum-loiterer to build a world-class forward line around.
It’s a long to-do list for the Glaswegian and, in truth, he’ll have enough on his plate dealing with the blood-and-thunder of a Premier League title race, especially now that Chelsea and Man City are putting the finishing touches to their new management structures.
But the Bayern triumph has brought the European challenge into sharper focus this week.
Can Moyes emulate the Germans and reforge United as a dominant force in their image, or will his reign splutter along in the shadow of the Bavarian steamroller?
If Moyes is to conquer Europe, he’ll have to do it without United’s first-team coach Rene Meulensteen who looks set to depart after 12 years at the club.
The 49-year-old Dutchman was an influential figure at the club in recent years, and as a celebrated disciple of the Coerver training principle – using numerous, intricate drills to improve ball mastery – was credited with keeping Sir Alex Ferguson’s training sessions fresh and innovative.
He also kept a keen eye on grass roots football in this country, not to mention the grass roots themselves, bemoaning the state of pitches here compared to in his native Holland.
“When I compare it (grass roots football in England) with Holland it’s a massive difference,” he told me in 2009. “I have my sons playing for local teams (in England) and it’s unbearable to watch the kind of pitches they’re playing on. How can you expect them to enjoy it and develop their game?”
His attention to detail will be sorely missed at Old Trafford if he does leave, but could the FA step in to make United’s loss English football’s gain?
It would take a heartless sort not to sympathise with Northampton and England hooker Dylan Hartley after his loose lips in the Rugby Union Premiership final cost him a place on the Lions tour of Australia this summer.
But credit must go to referee Wayne Barnes in his effort to uphold the standards of respect within the game.
Hartley was red-carded, and handed an 11-week ban, for colourfully calling the Gloucester umpire a cheat in his side’s 37-17 defeat at the hands of Leicester, and it’s refreshing to see misdemeanours of this sort dealt with severely.
Rugby Union has developed a bad habit of borrowing some of the more obnoxious traits from Premier League football in recent times – there was some pretty distasteful whining and theatrics on display throughout this season’s Six Nations – and, while on this occasion the sanction has come at huge personal cost to Hartley, it will at least diminish the likelihood of any copycat offenders and, hopefully, help to thwart a more worrying trend.