The return of Jerome Boateng over the weekend made a lot of people happy. The defender, out since January with a groin injury, played a full hour for Bayern Munich in their 1-1 draw against Borussia Mönchengladbach, and that hour of football opened the range of possibilities not only for his club, but also for his country.
The level of Boateng’s quality makes him extremely valuable for both of his coaches, Pep Guardiola with Bayern Munich and Joachim Löw with the German national team. Surely the minds of both coaches were racing when the 27-year-old defender twirled his fingers asking to be subbed off on Matchday 18, and his appearance against Gladbach restored the title dreams of the two.
However, with one appearance under Boateng’s belt, Guardiola has to make a key decision that will affect the title prospects of both Bayern and Germany: risk his defensive centerpiece in the second leg against Atlético Madrid and live with the prospect of Boateng getting injured again, or sit his star defender and hope his possible replacements David Alaba, Javi Martínez and Medhi Benatia can get the job done. The magnitude of this midweek match makes the decision pretty simple – even if Löw doesn’t like it – for Bayern cannot take the field without their best defender in the biggest match of the Guardiola era.
The downside for risking Boateng on Tuesday is obviously bigger for the German national team – Löw would be gutted if he did not have Boateng leading his defense at the Euros – but there is significant downside for Bayern as well. Should Boateng need to be substituted early in the game, Guardiola would have to use one of his valuable substitutions in the first half. Substitutions played a key role in Bayern’s comeback against Juventus, so not having one for late in the game or extra time would be a big disadvantage.
The upside of Boateng’s inclusion is still too big to ignore, especially against this kind of attack. The defender had an embarrassing moment in Barcelona a year ago when Lionel Messi made him fall on his behind, but Boateng is more qualified to stop the kind of shot Saúl Ñíguez unleashed in the first leg than any of Bayern’s other defensive pieces. His combination of strength and agility provides Guardiola with a versatile defensive piece, an imposing presence that could match Atléti’s physicality.
The Bayern coach admitted before the Gladbach game he has deferred to Boateng in regards to his readiness for game action. Boateng kept himself out of Bayern’s match against Hertha Berlin before the Champions League semifinals, but he must have felt ready to go over the weekend. Perhaps Boateng planned his return that way on purpose, delaying it long enough to prepare himself for the decisive second leg in the Champions League.
Even if the defender is good to go, Guardiola knows he may run into limitations when it comes to his defender. In his press conference on Monday, he could not give a straight answer when a reporter asked him if Boateng could play a full 120 minutes. "We don’t know how long Boateng will hold up," he said. "We will have to see how the game plays out."
One can easily understand Löw’s reserve should Boateng be included in the second leg, for the Germany coach has his eyes firmly set on getting the national team another major title. Löw said in April he hoped "Bayern does not throw him back into competition too quickly. After such a long injury, they need to proceed a little more cautiously." However, Boateng could be one of the few players in footballing history with multiple Champions League titles – and a World Cup title to boot – so Löw’s apprehension would have to be put on hold.
Guardiola has also disregarded national team ambitions for trophy chances before. In 2014, Franck Ribéry played 68 minutes in the DFB-Pokal final against Borussia Dortmund despite the fact the Frenchman was experiencing back issues. Ribéry went on to miss the World Cup for France, but Bayern won the German Cup to complete their domestic double in the 2013/14 season.
The stakes are now higher than ever, and with four games left on Bayern’s schedule – five if they complete their Champions League semifinal comeback on Tuesday – Guardiola needs to have his best players on the field. Boateng has to be one of those hands, for Bayern’s Champions League requirements are just too great.