Past failures in the Champions League provide motivation for a side who appear to be unstoppable and, after a 3-1 win at Arsenal, could well be heading for a third final in four years
As Arsenal's crestfallen captain, Thomas Vermaelen, came to terms with Tuesday night's defeat by Bayern Munich, he was asked, almost as an afterthought, whether he had just faced the eventual winners of this year's Champions League. The Belgian had actually offered up the eternal optimist's mantra, that anything can happen in football, just seconds before as he considered the second leg to come, but the sigh that followed was more telling. "I don't know but they're a good team," he said. "They are disciplined and work hard, that's the key, and are strong physically. They all know their jobs and they did them perfectly."
Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga's outstanding team of the moment, have made their impression. Jupp Heynckes's side had travelled to London propelled by barely credible statistics from their domestic campaign to date. Those numbers had started to seem tiresome – a 15-point lead at the top of the table, two points dropped and one goal conceded in 11 away matches, seven shipped all season, a perfect record since the turn of the year – but at the Emirates Stadium there was dazzling evidence to stifle the yawns.
Barcelona may retain their mystique, Manchester United and Real Madrid still boast majesty and Juventus are a club and team reborn but there is something unstoppable at present about this Bayern side. A third appearance in the final in four years does not look outlandish. This time they might actually win it.
Steamrollering the fifth-best side in the Premier League hardly defines their qualities but, while focus was drawn to the home side's clear failings, the visitors had to be admired for their ruthless show of strength. They weathered a five-minute flurry of early pressure, then seized on the first hint at weakness to impose themselves on the tie and spread panic through Arsenal ranks.
Uli Hoeness, the club president, described that opening period as a "textbook performance". "I have not see a Bayern team play as well as we did in that first half-hour," he said.
Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martínez stamped authority across midfield, with only the darting and elusive Jack Wilshere able to make any kind of impression. Toni Kroos, Bayern's own playmaker for the night, was as threatening as his counterpart but had allies of the same level all around. Where Wilshere fought a lonely battle, Kroos was a central cog in a purring machine.
At the back Dante and Daniel van Buyten were generally assured, even with Theo Walcott a pesky presence buzzing around their feet, while Philipp Lahm and David Alaba offered energy and invention in support down the flanks. These are all players with impressive credentials and then there are Franck Ribéry and Thomas Mueller marauding forward at will down either flank.
This is not a side that relies on a Cristiano Ronaldo or, dare it be said, a Lionel Messi to illuminate a performance. When Mario Mandzukic scored the visitors' scruffy but critical third goal, he became the 10th Bayern player to register in seven Champions League games this season. Four of those players have conjured three or more, and no other side has managed as many as their 18 goals to date in the competition; their threat comes from all sides.
Heynckes singled out Mandzukic for special praise for muscling in between a flustered Per Mertesacker and a cowed Laurent Koscielny. Better defenders will resist the Croat in the rounds to come if, as seems inevitable, the Germans are en route to the quarter-finals. The striker had "fought" for his team, his selfless display offering others the chance to catch the eye around him, and will do so again against a Barcelona, Shakhtar Donetsk or Paris Saint Germain in the rounds to come.
Others in the ranks have grown so accustomed to success this season that they gnashed in frustration that Arsenal had even been offered a sight at goal, let alone scored. "It hurts to have let in a goal," said Kroos. "That shouldn't be happening. But we were outstanding for very long spells against a top European club." Standards have been set.
Just as impressive was the team's ability to react. Though they could dictate the play effectively in that barnstorming opening, they were equally adept at dropping back, all strength and aggression in defence, and ready to pounce on the counterattack. Arsène Wenger bemoaned their retreat in the second period, which made it "so difficult for us to create chances", and even conceded that, once the third had been pilfered on the break, a fourth Bayern reward felt likelier than any home riposte.
Of course, it is easier to retain control when you have such a wealth of resources on the bench – Arjen Robben, Luiz Gustavo and Mario Gomez were used, with Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Xherdan Shaqiri among those not required – to ensure neither the team's quality nor energy levels suffer but on Tuesday it was clear this team have moved on from last year's near misses.
Those failures, not least to Chelsea in their own Allianz Arena, have provided their own motivation. "We have players who have been at the club for years, like Schweinsteiger and Lahm, and they're desperate to win the Champions League," said Heynckes. "That's the objective for the club and the team, and my objective as well in my last year. But it's all a long way off." On the evidence at Arsenal it is not a million miles away.