Not much can be won in Switzerland on Wednesday night. But a whole season under Jupp Heynckes could be lost
They won nothing in 2007, 2009 and 2011, and 2012 is in danger of turning into a odd year for Bayern too. Back in January they were sitting pretty at the top of the table, enjoying another superlative training camp in the Middle East and spent several weeks celebrating president Uli Hoeness's 60th birthday. Hoeness, the unfailing barometer of the atmospheric pressure at Säbenerstrasse – his head turns bright red when things are not going according to plan – was totally at ease in a meeting with international journalists in Munich a few days before the resumption of the campaign. Not even Marco Reus's refusal to heed the call of the south could significantly dampen spirits. "We spent an enormous amount of energy fighting within ourselves last year," Hoeness said, in reference to Louis van Gaal's protracted departure. "Now we are at peace." Sporting director Christian Nerlinger concurred. "Everything is great at the moment," he told journalists over a traditional Weißwurst breakfast. But the 38-year-old also knew that good vibes at the Allianz Arena only last until the next defeat. "If we lose on Friday [against Gladbach], my life will be a lot more difficult."
Bayern did lose at Gladbach. They chalked up two laborious, unconvincing wins at home and stumbled to two away draws (1-1 at Hamburger SV, 0-0 at Freiburg on Saturday), as a result of which they've slipped to third in the table. "When you're four points behind [leaders Dortmund] you don't have much to say for yourself," said the dejected captain Philipp Lahm; Nerlinger even ventured that Dortmund were the favourites to win the title now.
The catastrophic slip-up in the league (by Bayern standards) has cranked up the pressure before Wednesday night's tricky trip to Basel. A tie that was privately seen as formality and that had the Bayern bosses contemplating meetings with Real Madrid or Barcelona further down the line has become a do-or-die mission with the potential to mess with Uli's "zen thing" and crash the entire operating system. "We can't afford another performance like that in Gladbach or in Freiburg – otherwise we're gone," warned CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Bayern wouldn't be Bayern if the bad start to the second half of the season didn't have them call everything that went before fundamentally into question. As a club, they are the footballing equivalent of an over-eager hypochondriac, forever ready to check themselves in for major surgery at the merest whiff of a snotty nose. Any finish below first is treated as an existential threat to their hegemony, short-term thinking has been elevated to an art form there: you're either the best or worst. "Managers have a wonderful life at Bayern, they get anything they need," Ottmar Hitzfeld once said. "As long as they keep winning."
Hoeness-buddy Jupp Heynckes, hailed as the perfect manager three months ago, has naturally become a target, at least as far as Rummenigge is concerned. Last week, the 56-year-old pointedly noted that Heynckes had refused the board's recommendations for new signings in the winter, a gratuitous revelation that came close to Rummenigge's infamous "football ain't mathematics" quip that ushered in the end of the second Hitzfeld spell in 2008.
Heynckes' initial feat of stabilising the defence without restricting the attacking potential seems to get harder and harder to pull off. An injury to Bastian Schweinsteiger before Christmas first upset the side's rhythm. Two months later, they're still out of tune in the final third, with everyone playing their own, rather static game amidst a general air of staidness and predictability. Attacking moves have become clichés, easily anticipated, easily cut out. Is it the manager's fault? To a degree. Anyone who's been able to watch a Heynckes session from the club centre's terrace – next to Stefan Effenberg, who spent his entire internship for his coaching badges in the summer smoking cigarettes in the shade, looking on from afar – can testify to the rather basic level of training.
Heynckes, 66, understands football and can explain it well enough but he's a million miles away from the all-singing, all-dancing, holistic approach of a Jürgen Klopp. The former Gladbach and Germany striker is an old-school facilitator, able to set up a team according to its strengths and weaknesses. But it wasn't just Schweinsteiger's absence that began to bite in December. Bayern, used to a relatively "lazy" (Mario Gomez) playing style that lets the ball do the running, looked markedly slower and less energetic towards the end of the year. This lethargy, a problem that has dogged the club over the last 30 years to varying degrees, has come over the squad like an Egyptian plague since the winter break. It would be a grave indictment of Heynckes' work if a lack of general fitness was the main problem at this stage of the campaign but even if the more rational explanation of lack of effort is preferred, it still reflects badly on him (as well as on the players). "We need doggedness and the ability to suffer," said Rummenigge of the eve of the Basel game.
Keeping all the Greats and Almost Greats happy enough to perform to their potential has of course been the key managerial criterion at Bayern since the 70s. Both sticks (psychological pressure and competition for places) and carrots (harmony) have been employed successfully to that effect in the past but there's a suspicion that Heynckes hasn't quite got the balance right these days. Fringe players are completely cut off while those in the starting XI are a little too secure in their positions, with the notable exception of Arjen Robben, who started the last three matches on the bench.
Unlike Dortmund and Gladbach, who practice attacking patterns excessively, Bayern trust the sum of their individual qualities to deliver the goods. That's enough against most opponents. But as bottom club Freiburg demonstrated, this "we'll win because we're better" approach can run into trouble against highly-organised sides and is also dependent on the application of the players on the pitch. Bayern thought they can fax in their performances and duly paid the price. Petty media debates about the best positions of Thomas Müller (right side of midfield or behind Gomez) and Toni Kroos (behind Gomez or as Schweinsteiger's replacement) have only obscured the more mundane deficiencies (not enough movement) on the pitch.
The only good news is that the crisis mood should concentrate minds before the trip to St Jakob Park, where cow bell-sized winger Xherdan Shaqiri is out to get his future colleagues ("It's my job to score against them") and coach Heiko Vogel relishes the chance to pull off another surprise after dumping Manchester United out of the competition. The 36-year-old used to work as a youth coach at Bayern and worked with Müller and Lahm in their teens. "I respect Bayern immensely but it's my great wish to make it to the quarter-finals," Vogel told ZDF. "It's my duty to upset them".
An early exit wouldn't just deprive the Bavarians of their dream to appear at the final in Munich and the ability to collect a few more million euros along the way – Heynckes' standing would be irreparably damaged, Hoeness's support notwithstanding. Bayern would then be faced with a monstrous dilemma: stick with a manager they don't fully believe in anymore or look elsewhere, without any clear candidates on the horizon. The stakes are thus uncomfortably high, and the odds stacked against them. Not much can be won in Switzerland. But a whole season could be lost.
• "From Monday on, I'm the law," he said, flashing a smile. Berlin has a new sheriff, nay king in town, king Otto I of Greece, born Rehhagel. Widespread disbelief greeted the initial announcement of the 73-year-old's return to the Bundesliga after 12 years before the 0-1 defeat at home to Dortmund. Newspapers wondered whether Rehhagel's comeback amounted to Greek payback in kind for all those German billions or should be better understood as subtle form of revenge. One journalist was thrown out of the Hertha press conference on Saturday when he attempted to be funny – German football and humour rarely mix, as keen readers of these lines know all too well - and asked whether president Gegenbauer was now relying on "pre-war models, like the Führer".
Former Bayer Leverkusen general manager Rainer Calmund revealed that he'd recommended the veteran coach to sporting director Michael Preetz when his attempts to sign younger men (Rangnick, Balakov, Doll) failed. "Otto, with his experience, will calm the situation," Calmund told Sport1. "Berlin is a tough one to crack, even Mourinho, Guardiola and Klopp put together would struggle. But when someone like Otto arrives, it's quiet in the knocking shop." That's an interesting way to put it. Rehhagel comtemporary Udo Lattek, perhaps a little miffed that he wasn't considered, is less convinced, however. "There'll be problems," said the 77-year-old TV pundit. "Those young guys in the team think very differently. It won't be an easy start for him." Sadly, Otto's personal TV interviewer from his Athens days, Rolf "Brown Nose" Töpperwien, was not on hand to quiz the poetry- and old art-loving former painter about his tactical plans for "the old dame" Hertha, but Tagesspiegel suggested that he'll probably act more as a figurehead, as somebody to take pressure of the team, than a real coach. "If he wants to claim all the power to make sporting decisions after 12 years out of the league, it could be difficult," warned the local broadsheet.
• Could the solution to a lifelong affliction of tactical myopia really be that simple? For the first time ever, Werder supremo Thomas "Attack, Attack, Attack" Schaaf wore glasses on the touchline to watch the emphatic 3-1 northern derby at Hamburg and for the first time ever, he oversaw a win that had come courtesy of some properly thought-out defensive strategy. "He told us how they'd attack and we practiced playing on the counter the whole week," revealed Marko Marin, who was back to something approaching his best and scored the opener. Schaaf's epiphany - defending can be practised! - might have come too late for the Champions League places but Werder, rejuvenated by talents like the splendidly named Tom Trybull, 18, look like a proper side all of a sudden. At Hamburg though, sporting director Frank Arnesen has succeeded only in managing expectations to the point that a transitional season in midfield might end up to be seen as some kind of success.
• Zonal marking, whatever. Hannover's 4-2 defeat of sorry Stuttgart brought to mind Owen Coyle's dismissive quip as the Swabians managed to concede three goals from corners that were "defended" zonally with neither conviction nor competence. Bruno Labbadia explained that some of his players did not feel comfortable with man-marking in the past but was at a loss to explain the current malaise. "We didn't see any signs in training that we were shaky in that area", he said. Stuttgart nearly got back into it after Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki made it 4-2 with a fine overhead kick but 96 keeper Ron-Robert Zieler pulled of a fantastic save from a Ibisevic strike to secure the three points.
• "Never again, never again Felix Magath," the Schalke fans were singing during the 4-0 win over VfL Wolfsburg. Former S04 boss Magath reacted in characteristically thoughtful, progressive fashion to the drubbing: the whole squad were sent on a punishing running session through the woods near the training base. Raúl scored his 400th career goal and the underrated Klaas-Jan Huntelaar missed a pen but still notched up two more to join Gomez on 18 for the season.
• Carnival in Cologne. Kevin Pezzoni gets his nose smashed in at a party, Miso Brecko gets drunk wrecks his own car and Lukas Podolski gets real. Well, kind of. "I don't want to be the coach in Kindergarten," pleaded Köln manager Stale Solbakken, before losing 2-1 at Nürnberg.
• Borussia Mönchengladbach's Juan Arango scored a goal-of-the-season contender with a first touch, outside of the boot finish in the 2-1 win at Lautern. "He's doing that in training often and we told him to do it in a game but I'm speechless," said team-mate Roman Neustädter. Second-placed Gladbach continue to look good. Very good, actually.
Results: Hoffenheim 1-1 Mainz, Hertha 0-1 Dortmund, Hamburger SV 1-3 Werder Bremen, Nürnberg 2-1 Köln, Kaiserslautern 1-2 Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen 4-1 FC Augsburg, SC Freiburg 0-0 Bayern, Schalke 04 4-0 Wolfsburg, Hannover 96 4-2 VfB Stuttgart.