Some were asking the question even before last night. In the build-up to Bayern Munich’s cold-blooded humiliation of Barcelona, German streaming service DAZN ran a preview feature under the headline: ‘Is this the best Bayern of all time?’
If you had asked that question last autumn, they would have laughed you out of the room. As late as November, Bayern were still in full-blown crisis mode. An experiment with a young coach had gone wrong, the dressing room was divided, and the club looked set to lose the Bundesliga title for the first time in eight years.
But the world is different now. The Bayern that hammered eight past Barcelona were a different team entirely. A team on course to claim only the second treble in the club’s history, and join the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Oliver Kahn and Arjen Robben on the list of all-time club greats.
Bayern Munich netted eight past Barcelona and are a different team entirely to 10 months ago
The Bundesliga giant fell to a 5-1 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt and were in a full-blown crisis
The last vintage to look this good was the treble-winning side of 2013, a team largely built around the same Germany side which dispatched Brazil 7-1 in the World Cup semi-final a year later. Comparisons with that game were inevitable last night, and yet Thomas Muller, one of the few survivors of that generation, was having none of it.
‘Against Brazil, we weren’t in control like that,’ the veteran forward told German Sky. For once, he was deadly serious. Belo Horizonte was a frenzy, a feverish product of its context which took on a momentum of its own. Friday’s victory, played out in an empty stadium, was colder, more rational, more absolute.
‘Bayern’s merciless machine makes everything possible!’ yelped Bild newspaper this morning. Yet in many ways, Bayern have already achieved the impossible this season. Because to be this good after having been that bad is a miracle in itself.
But Hansi Flick may be building Bayern’s best ever team with a blend of talent and experience
Bayern mirrored the 2013 vintage after ruthlessly beating Barcelona in the Champions League
In late October, the same Bayern side was thrashed 5-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt. It was a result which ended Niko Kovac’s tormented reign and left Bayern as directionless as they had been since Louis Van Gaal’s departure in 2011.
Against that backdrop, Hansi Flick was only ever supposed to be a stopgap. As Joachim Low’s assistant, he had helped mastermind the World Cup win in 2014, but he had little experience of club football and none at all as a top-level head coach. His one task was to guide Bayern to the winter break with as little damage as possible.
Yet as with many things that are supposed to be over by Christmas, Flick’s reign took on a life of its own. Building on Kovac’s minor success in establishing young players like Alphonso Davies and Leon Goretzka in the first team, Flick coaxed Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng back from over the hill and restored the steady balance which his predecessor had lost.
The humiliation in Frankfurt ended Niko Kovac’s tormented reign and left Bayern directionless
Bayern may have stumbled into that solution, but in hindsight, they could hardly have planned it better. Had they not brought in Kovac in the first place, they would now probably be lumped with a stagnating side of ageing stars such as the one they beat on Friday. Had they not sacked him when they did, the likes of Muller, Boateng and Manuel Neuer may all have stormed out, leaving them weaker than ever.
Instead, they are stronger than ever. Muller and Neuer have both signed new contracts, and Friday’s win may well have finally convinced David Alaba to do the same. Bayern may even still hope to hold on to Thiago, whose artistry was as important to Friday’s victory as the metronomic efficiency of his German and Polish team mates.
No doubt the Bayern bosses are still making the case for the Spanish star to stay in Munich. If nothing else, they have cold, hard numbers in their favour. Bayern have now won all nine of their Champions League games this season.
But the team may well be declared the greatest Bayern of them all if they win the competition
They have won six of those by a margin of three goals or more, and scored a total of 39 goals along the way. Few teams have ever looked quite so dominant in a single European campaign.
Manchester City, should they beat Lyon, are perhaps the team best equipped to end that run and on Friday night, Bayern legend Lothar Matthäus warned his former club of getting too far ahead of themselves. The semi-final, he said, would probably be harder than the final itself.
The potential reunion with former coach Pep Guardiola may then be the final reckoning for this team. But if they pass that test, then there will be a fair case for declaring Hansi Flick’s well-oiled machine to be the greatest Bayern of them all.