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Bundesliga new boys put Bayern in the spotlight



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I would have thought that Franck Ribery and Franz Beckenbauer now finally agree on something. The French sensation should have been sold. Der Kaiser has watched new manager Louis van Gaal take a measly 2 points from his first 3 matches, and, following this weekend, the kings of German football are sat in a rather peasant-like 14th in the Bundesliga.

Bayern lost 2-1 at newly promoted Mainz on Saturday to register their worst start to a Bundesliga campaign since 1966. All is not well at the Allianz Arena…

A shocking first half display saw Mainz 2-0 up before the interval, with goals from Andreas Ivanschitz and Aristide Bancé doing the damage. In fact Bancé was a constant threat throughout, the movement and energy of the livewire striker causing havoc at the back for Bayern. The Burkina Faso hitman could have had a first half hat-trick too, as he hit the crossbar with an acrobatic overhead kick (as the Bayern defence stood and watched), and headed two gilt-edged chances wide.

FCB were stirred into action, forcing a fine double save from former Barnsley ‘keeper Heinz Muller before the interval, and coming out a different side in the 2nd half. The defecit was quickly reduced, thanks to an own goal from Mainz’s Noveski, but the siege that was then laid to the FSV goal was constantly beaten back by a determined Muller, with superb stops from Bastian Schweinsteiger’s long-range drives, and a magnificent fingertip save from his namesake Thomas.

The gutsy 2nd half effort failed to hide Bayern’s flaws, however, and though many will blame the loss on injuries (Demichelis, Van Bommel, Ribery, Toni) the reality is that Bayern’s squad is now too weak. Only Ribery of those injured players really turns a match on its head, the rest are slow, stroppy 30-somethings. That Bayern cannot win without them is worrying. FCB have looked embarrassingly pedestrian so far this season, and their failings are evident in all areas of the pitch; from a lack of creativity in midfield, to the dearth of pace and movement up front. But nowhere is it more apparent than at the back, as Bayern now have a weaker defence than the one that was shamed by 5 goals against Barcelona and Wolfsburg last term, and that conceded 42 goals in the Bundesliga – double that of the previous season.

With Rensing struggling all too often in goal, his confidence can hardly be helped by the uncoordinated, appositionally inept defenders before him. Lucio’s departure has left a gaping hole in the defence, one that Daniel Van Buyten and youth product Holger Badstuber thus-far seem incapable of filling. The thought of the return of sluggish centre-back convert Demichelis hardly inspires.

Elsewhere however, squads and performances are improving. Champions Wolfsburg have added the likes of Obafemi Martins and Fabian Johnson to a squad that held onto stars like Edin Dzeko and the magical Misimovic, and they are reaping the reward, having scored 7 goals and picked up 6 points from their 3 games. The side that beat them 4-2 this weekend is similarly well-equipped. Hamburg have added exciting prospects Eljero Elia and Marcus Berg to a squad brimming with attacking quality in Guerrero and Petric, and their sizzling performances so far have seen them average 3 goals a game as they sit in second place. 

But on top of the Bundesliga is a side that has learnt the hard way about having to rebuild a squad. Having nearly won a treble in 2002, only to lose all three finals, Bayer Leverkusen lost their stars and flirted with relegation. This season they have added steel (Sami Hyypia) to the flair and creativity of Renato Augusto and Tranquilo Barnetta, and found a goalscoring partner for Stefan Kiessling in Swiss starlet Eren Derdiyok. Both currently sit on top of the goalscoring charts with 3 each – helped by this weekend’s 5-0 demolition of Freiburg.

These three sides have deep, well-balanced, and – vitally – pacey squads – Bayern need to sit up and take note. The problem is that years of domination saw the Bayern big-wigs rest on their laurels, unable to see the holes in their squad. When Ottmar Hitzfeld’s disastrous 2006/7 campaign finished with an embarrassing 4th place, missing out on Champions League football for the first time in a decade, wholesale changes were needed. But they never came. Eight new players arrived, but it was merely leaf-pruning, not the root-and-branch surgery necessary.

Marquee signings like Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose were made, and while both have scored goals, the former was already 30 years old, and the latter, rather than act as a foil, simply added to the lack of pace and dynamism in the Bayern attack. Expensive exotic talents like Jose Sosa and Breno were signed and failed to impress (youth team products preferred so far this campaign) and ageing former favourites like Ze Roberto were re-signed in desperation.  

The one signing from that year that was truly outstanding was Franck Ribery. In two seasons at the Allianz he scored as many league goals as Klose, and single-handedly earned Bayern countless victories with some stunning performances.

Unfortunately, the ‘jewel of French football’ no longer wants to be at the club, and with injuries often taking their toll on the wing superstar, Bayern should have cashed in this summer. The stubbornness of Beckenbauer in his refusal to do so was staggering; one look at his squad and his answers should have been clear.

Instead he decided to sell one of the best defenders in the game (and Bayern’s only decent one) to raise a few million euros. Now defenceless, and with Ribery injured and unhappy, Beckenbauer needs to hope Van Gaal can work miracles – starting with the visit of Wolfsburg at the weekend.