Guardiola, Bayern feeling heat after first leg thrashing at Porto

BY Jonathan Wilson • April 20, 2015

LONDON --  

As Josep Guardiola walked away from the dugout at the Estádio do Dragão after the final whistle last Wednesday, he wore a haunted look, the cheeks pinched, the eyes staring. Bayern Munich had lost 3-1 and, in one game, a season was unravelling. This is the reality in the world of super club economics: The opening 10 minutes, in which Porto had twice caught Bayern players in possession to score, was enough to leave this season in the balance.

In a sense, the feeling of unease that's gripped Bayern over the past few days is absurd. It's 12 points clear in the league with five games to go and it's in the semifinal of Germany's DFB-Pokal. A third successive double is within reach. Guardiola would have won the last two of them. The problem is that the season before he arrived at Bayern, it had won not only a double but a treble under Jupp Heynckes, lifting the UEFA Champions League for the fifth time in its history. There were no more lands for Guardiola to conquer; all he could try to do was conquer them better.

To an extent, Guardiola has delivered. At times, the football Bayern has played has been stunning. It is in the avant garde of tactical development. Last season it scored 94 goals in 34 league games. This season it's scored four goals or more in a league game 10 times. It pulverized less-gifted opposition, producing skeins of passes that are at times of stunning beauty. But in the most crucial sense, he has failed. "The last few months have been the most challenging of my managerial career," Guardiola said.

Last season's defeat in the Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid wasn't just a set-back; it was a humiliation. Faced with a quick, counter-attacking side, Bayern lost the second leg 4-0 at home. The defeat to Porto last week was reminiscent of that. Porto's tactical approach was different to Real's last week, but it was again pace that unsettled Bayern. Or at least that was part of it.

After the semifinal last season, Guardiola seemed to accept that, with the Bundesliga title already won, his side has lost intensity and that made it hard to respond when it was challenged. Maybe, though, the issue runs deeper than that. Perhaps Bayern lost intensity because of the ease with which it wins the Bundesliga. When a side is racking up 90 points and more in a 34-game season, when it's regularly handing out shellackings, it's no great surprise if it forgets how to defend.

All three of the goals it conceded against Porto were entirely avoidable; two resulted from players being caught in possession as the rest of the team pushed up the pitch; the other came about because Jerome Boateng missed a simple long ball, as though he was so discombobulated by having to defend that he became unable to perform the very basics. A team that isn't challenged becomes slack and Bayern simply isn't challenged on a regular basis in its domestic league.

How could it be when figures from Forbes show its annual revenues are 60% higher than those of the next richest German club, Borussia Dortmund. This is the paradox of the super clubs: The more they dominate their domestic leagues, the less well-equipped they are for competing in the Champions League (which is why a change in the structure of the Champions League to generate more fixtures between the elite seems inevitable sooner rather than later).

It's true that Bayern had injuries. The German giants were without Franck Ribery, Javi Martinez, David Alaba, Medhi Benatia, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Arjen Robben for the game in Portugal. Robben, particularly, was missed, Bayern being left without much in the way of attacking width or pace in the final third. Guardiola has become increasingly frustrated with the injuries, as seen when he applauded the medical staff sarcastically after Benatia was injured in the DFB-Pokal win over Bayer Leverkusen last week, but it was still something of a surprise when Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, Bayern's distinguished club doctor resigned the day after the defeat, saying Guardiola had blamed him. That suggests the pressure Guardiola is under and hints at tensions behind the scenes.

"I am completely convinced that my players will take their chances,' Guardiola said. "I know which club I am at and know that (league) champions and cup winners is not enough. Only the treble is enough." The paradox is that the ease of the first two parts make the third all the harder.


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