When Bayern Munich take to the field at Anfield on Tuesday evening, they will do so with the hopes of an entire country resting on their shoulders. Unless Bayern beat Liverpool in the last 16, then Germany could be without a Champions League quarter-finalist for the first time in over a decade.
With Borussia Dortmund 3-0 down after their first leg against Tottenham, and Schalke mere cannon fodder for Manchester City, Bayern are the Bundesliga’s last hope.
Ask anyone in Germany, though, and they will tell you that Liverpool are favourites.
Bayern Munich will be hoping to raise a smile come full-time on Tuesday at Liverpool
Niko Kovac’s Bayern side go into the Champions League last-16 ties as slight underdogs
The German giants have had an indifferent season so far by their lofty standards
Last week, Manchester City and Germany midfielder Ilkay Gundogan told Bild newspaper that ‘Liverpool are a tiny bit better’. Even Lothar Matthaus, as bullish a pundit as he was a player, thinks the Reds have the edge.
Bayern will be without the suspended Thomas Muller and the injured Arjen Robben in Liverpool, while Jerome Boateng and Kingsley Coman are also doubts. Yet even with a full strength squad, the bitter truth for German football is that Bayern are not a safe bet this year.
With the team in transition, a young manager struggling to assert himself and a host of stroppy superstars, Bayern have spent this season in an almost permanent state of crisis.
Now five points adrift of leaders Borussia Dortmund in the title race, they have racked up four defeats, dropped points against relegation candidates and survived a serious scare in the cup.
Bayern’s aura of invincibility is fading fast. So what on Earth has gone wrong?
Thomas Muller (left) is suspended for the first leg after this challenge in the group stages
Changing of the guard
After leading Eintracht Frankfurt to two cup finals in two years, new coach Niko Kovac came to Bayern on a wave of optimism, but he has been thrown in at the deep end in Munich.
With the likes of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery approaching the end of their Bayern careers, the 47-year-old coach has been charged with pushing through a generational transition which Bayern should have started years ago.
Younger players are flourishing under Kovac. Niklas Sule has matured into a first-choice centre-back, while Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry are increasingly formidable going forward.
Yet senior players such as Mats Hummels, Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng have failed to find their best form under Kovac, and there is a sense that the new boss is still struggling to find the balance between the two generations.
Niklas Sule (left) has matured into a first-choice centre-back for Bayern Munich this season
However, Kovac has failed to get the best out of the likes of veteran defender Mats Hummels
Kovac has also had to fight to keep superstar egos in check, particularly early on in the season.
James Rodriguez was reported to have told Kovac that ‘you’re not in Frankfurt now’, while Thomas Muller’s wife Lisa launched a sarcastic attack on the Bayern coach via Instagram.
Things have cooled since then, and James is now in sparkling form. Yet egos remain a problem. Thiago was seen screaming at Kovac during a narrow win over Augsburg last weekend, and a fierce debate has raged over Robert Lewandowski’s attitude.
‘Lewandowski is becoming a problem for Bayern,’ said Sky pundit Dietmar Hamann earlier this month, casting the Polish striker as an individualist who caused friction in the dressing room.
Bayern reacted testily to Hamann’s comments, with sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic accusing him of instigating an anti-Lewandowski ‘campaign’.
Thiago (left) was seen screaming at Kovac during a narrow win over Augsburg last weekend
Robert Lewandowski has been labelled a ‘problem’ by ex-Bayern midfielder Dietmar Hamaan
Salihamidzic’s touchiness has been a running theme this season. The newly appointed sporting director has been accused of being out of his depth.
In the past, Bayern have had strong personalities in the sporting director role in order to deflect attention from the coach.
Kovac and Salihamidzic, though, are both relative novices, and have had to rely on their bosses to defend them.
That led to a bizarre press conference last October, in which club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge accused the press of violating the German constitution.
Sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic’s touchiness has been a running theme this season
There are also problems on the pitch. Kovac’s success at Frankfurt was built on the solid foundations of a well-drilled defence, but in Munich, the back line has been more brittle.
Prone to the occasional communication breakdown, the Bayern defence also has serious problems when hit on the break. Kovac has even urged his team to commit more fouls to break up counter-attacks.
That is a serious concern against Liverpool’s ruthless front three, although Bayern left-back David Alaba has said that he is ready to face Mo Salah.
‘Salah is incredible, and he is quick,’ he told Bild. ‘But I have played against quick players before. I know from experience that I can play to my strengths.’
Alaba’s confidence should be a warning to Liverpool. Despite their enduring problems, Bayern do look considerably more stable now than they did before Christmas.
Liverpool may be favourites, but as Alaba put it: ‘We are Bayern Munich. We don’t have to hide from anyone.’
Mo Salah is among the dangerous attacking weapons that Liverpool possess in their arsenal
David Alaba is not concerned about the threat of Salah – backing his own defensive capabilities