The UEFA Champions League Round of 16 draw took place today in Nyon Switzerland at 12 noon CEST, and Liverpool was definitely last on most Bayern fans’ list of teams they would like to face in the round of 16. Fast forward 20 minutes, and the stage was set. Bayern drew Liverpool.
The prospect of facing Liverpool so early in the UCL seems to spell only gloom and doom, and it is also perhaps unfair, considering that both Liverpool and Bayern are teams that should easily make it at least to the quarterfinals, if not the semis. Both boast enviable squads with a stockpile of talent. All is not bad, however, and there are a number of reasons why this draw might still be good for Bayern Munich.
Niko Kovac put to the test early
It is no secret that the Bayern manager has faced harsh criticism from a large section of the Bayern Munich fanbase at various points this season. Some have pointed out his lack of big game experience, his lack of a ‘proper game plan’; others have criticised his choice of substitutions (or a lack of substitutions at the right time) and team management skills. In Klopp, Kovac has been pitted against one of the very best managers, a coach who has ample experience coaching elite sides, most famously his feared Dortmund side who gegenpress’d the hell out of their opponents. If there is any better time for Kovac to make a statement, it is now. If he manages to grind out the wins (they need not be pleasant), he will more or less gain the complete support and trust of the fanbase and the management early on, which might be crucial to his confidence later in the season.
The squad’s objective is brought into focus
One of Bayern’s major problems the last few seasons in the Champions league has been a sense of complacency that has plagued them later in the competition. Facing relatively weaker opposition in the round of 16 the last few seasons (Arsenal in the ‘16-17 season and Besiktas in the ‘17-18 season) gave the team a false sense of confidence early on, papering over a host of problems that were left unfixed. Bayern went on to suffer defeats in the later stages, and quite painfully so, at the hands of our most hated foe, Real Madrid. Facing a squad of Liverpool’s calibre this early in the competition could give the players and the coach a renewed sense of motivation and a fighting spirit from the get-go, since they’ll have to wrestle their way past a relentless Liverpool side to advance. Beating them would bring the squad together and give us the motivation to go all the way.
The Van Dijk factor
Liverpool’s towering centre-back, Virgil Van Dijk will miss the first leg of the tie due to a yellow-card suspension, and he will be dearly missed by the Liverpool faithful. Standing tall at 6”4, his menacing presence in the Liverpool backline is one of the main reasons why they’ve been racking up points all season. Per Squawka, he had an average duel success rate of 64% last season with an average of 7 defensive actions every game. His average aerial duel win percentage was a whopping 68%, with a 73% successful tackles percentage. Over the past 2 seasons, he has racked up 34 clean sheets (!) with the rest of the backline, and his absence will be crucial at Anfield. If we ever have a better chance of beating them, it would be in the first leg, where Robert Lewandowski and Kingsley Coman will be rearing to punish any errors.
The home advantage
This is a very, very important factor. Every man and his dog knows a healthy Bayern squad is a different beast at home, especially in big competitions. Barring some catastrophic defensive blunders, we have pretty much dominated every team we’ve faced at home, with the ever present Allianz faithful (the 12th man) backing us. We can definitely pull out a win if we manage to salvage at least a draw away, and Bayern will definitely be fully prepared to put Liverpool to the sword in Munich. Besides, if we are to win the whole competition, we’ll probably have to face a team of this calibre at some point anyway, so why not do it when you have the home advantage? We may not be as lucky if we were to face Liverpool later in the competition.
Sure, Liverpool are ruthless on the counter. Sure, they have some of the biggest stars on the planet. Sure, Jurgen Klopp is one of world football’s best tactical minds. There isn’t a team left in the competition that contrasts as much with Liverpool’s style of football as Bayern. Sure, we may be in for a tough spell. But if there’s any team that can beat the Red Devils, it is Die Roten.