Bayern Munich have struggled to be great in the Champions League in recent years. They’ve been good, but greatness requires a demonstrated ability to reach the pinnacle.
Four semifinal fails in the past five iterations of the competition prove their nearly-there-but-not-quite status.
Now, with the plunge of Real Madrid, we have a welcome power vacuum that promises to blow the competition open for the first time in recent memory.
As a historical European powerhouse, the Germans will be eyeing this as their moment once again to assert themselves as a dominant force. Driving the challenge is a narrative of the changing of the guard.
End of an era
This is likely the last time we’ll see either Franck Ribery or Arjen Robben in a Bayern Munich shirt in the Champions League, perhaps on an elite footballing pitch altogether. Their contracts are up, their years are long and the pace that once induced nightmares has faded.
The numbers, though, are indelible. A combined 195 appearances and 49 goals are what they’ve left in their wake in the competition. Together they were the parallel merchants of destruction, each tearing down a flank but equally capable of chopping back inside — the idea of a winger playing on the opposite side of his foot was brought into vogue largely thanks to them.
When they met in 2009, Robben was the discarded stepchild from a Real Madrid side that was only concerned about making space for Cristiano Ronaldo.
In addition, his career has been plagued by injury, earning him the moniker “the Man of Glass”.
Ribery was the talisman of a Bayern side that had repeatedly disappointed in Europe since reigning supreme in 2001. The beauty of his play belied his outward demeanour, which countless French parents presumably used to scare their children into going to bed early.
Together they became “Robbery” — a terrible name for a Batman villain but a deadly, dovetailing duo nonetheless.
They made the final that season; losing only to José Mourinho-driven and Wesley Sneijder-inspired Inter Milan. A loss at the same stage in 2012 was only a small stumble as Jupp Heynckes regrouped the side the following year and swept aside all that the continent had to offer to claim the trophy.
Their impact is one that will be sorely missed in Europe.
Although these knockout stages could be their last, there is one young star who is aiming to make an equally strong impression on his first.
The Bavarians have grown a reputation in recent years for their success in sharpening and reinvigorating young talent: think Thiago Alcântara, Serge Gnabry or even James Rodríguez.
Leon Goretzka is a little different. He’s a player who demanded that his presence be recognised across Germany long before his move from Schalke before the start of the season. What Bayern have given him is a stage to take it to the rest of the world.
That global audience has immediately compared him with past great German generals such as Bastian Schweinsteiger and even the legendary Michael Ballack.
Goretzka, in truth, is probably more athletic than either of those. Tall, strong, fit — he has all the qualities to terrorise both ends of the field.
Indeed, it’s hard to argue that he’s not one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world right now. From deep, he’s regularly able to rob attackers and, almost in the same motion, spring into the space left behind. After spreading the ball out wide, he has a knack for timing his runs and arriving at the perfect moment to strike the ball home.
It’s the ideal foil for Rodriguez, who drifts just in front of the opposing backline and looks for runners who jump past it.
That symbiosis — his raw ability and increasing potential — were key reasons for Bayern feeling so comfortable in letting Arturo Vidal leave for Barcelona.
As Heynckes prepares to duel with old foe Jürgen Klopp and his merry band of Liverpool attackers, the 24-year-old could indeed prove a key asset if they are to avoid a first round-of-16 exit since 2011.
The purists in us hope to see Robben and Ribery give their best for one more final run. Our pragmatic parts, however, understand that any success will be built on the emerging foundation of young players like Goretzka.