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How Robben, Schweinsteiger Could Determine Mandžukić's Future

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Pep's upcoming puzzle could determine if the Croatian still fits in FC Bayern's future plans

Shaun Botterill

With both on the comeback trail, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Arjen Robben could both be ready when FC Bayern München undertake the Rückrunde of its treble title defense.

"We have three weeks until the first match. I hope both can play in Mönchengladbach," manager Pep Guardiola said [fcbayern.de/en]

Their returns means, for the first time since his appointment, the Spanish skipper could have all of his ducks in a row. In fact, the only piece of the puzzle that is not fixed yet is Holger Badstuber, a more hopeful addition than necessary one.

The rash amount and spaced out injuries have made Guardiola's team sheet decisions as easy as cooking a meal with all the ingredients already chopped and washed. As long as he put the right ingredients in the right order, the result would become pretty tasty.

Now that Guardiola has passed FC Bayern 101, the Rückrunde will provide the 201 tests that will cause him to balance a lot of things at the same time. Not only will he have to put the right pieces together, but he will have to keep everyone happy as well.

Schweinsteiger, coming off a re-operation in his ankle, will need minutes, but replacing an inform Thiago or a midfield conductor like Toni Kroos is easier said than done. Even the wings are packed more than ever, with Robben rejoining Franck Ribery, Xherdan Shaqiri, Thomas Müller, and Mario Götze in the flank mix.

Guardiola has a lot more balls to juggle, but the way he does could determine if Mario Mandžukić has a legitimate future with the Stern des Südens.

The well justified speculation surrounding the 27-year-old striker continues to swirl around, especially now that the "worst kept secret" of Robert Lewandowski's pre-contract has become a reality. Arsenal FC manager Arsene Wenger has admitted interest, adding the Gunners to the list of potential suitors that already includes at least Real Madrid and Juventus.

The front office has thus far stood firm on Mandžukić's stay with the club, convinced that the Croatian striker is in the long-term plans of the German giants.

"He has a contract with us until 30 June 2016, and I told his agent in Marrakech that we’re certainly prepared to consider extending his contract well before it expires. We have absolutely no intention of letting Mario go," said CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge [fcbayern.de/en].

"He was very important so far in my time here," said Guardiola [Süddeutsche Zeitung]. "He helped us win games. He has a contract and will stay here."

Unlike the transfer of Mario Gomez, the commitment to Mandžukić appears legitimate. The scuttlebutt circling Gomez was that he was not "a Guardiola player," despite the German international's attempt to prove otherwise. Mandžukić has gotten significant minutes despite the gaffer change, so support for the striker is simpler to surmise.

Still, while the front office wants Mandžukić to stay, the summer transfer window is still six months away. The lesson from the Gómez situation is the transfer ball can start rolling rather quickly.

A factor falling into Mandžukić's favor is that Pizarro's one year extension is set to expire at the end of the season. Essentially, Lewandowski is the expensive supplement to the loss of the Bundesliga's beloved non-German, although the Polish striker's minutes will likely be north of the 161 Pizarro has gotten in all competitions this season. The situation will not mirror that of the 2012/13 season, where Jupp Heynckes essentially had three players (Gómez, Mandžukić, Pizarro) all vying for one spot.

Guardiola's experimentation with Götze and Müller at the top has only dented Mandžukić's team selections, the Croatian making 19 of a possible 25 starts. For all the outsiders know, Guardiola's shifting and shaping at the top may have to do more with keeping his 187 centimeter striker fit as long as possible.

If Guardiola can successfully move his chess pieces the right way, there is more of an assurance that Mandžukić can be more of a knight than a pawn once a bishop like Lewandowski changes the game.