The year was 2010. The stage was set — Bayern Munich was taking on Lyon at the Stade de Gerland to book a place in the UEFA Champions League final. If you had told me that two years earlier, I would have politely told you to watch FC Barcelona, Manchester United, or even AC Milan games instead.
Humiliation from Milan to Barcelona
AC Milan might seem like an outlier to you. To me, AC Milan is the very reason why I loathed the Champions League. In the 2006/07 season, in the earliest Champions League tie I can recall, Bayern bounced back against Real Madrid in the Round of 16 after a first leg defeat (3-2) to win 2-1 and qualify for the quarterfinals. What I remember is an 88th minute Mark Van Bommel goal from the first leg and a Roy Makaay goal in the first minute (10.12 seconds to be accurate) in the second game. They took on Milan in the quarterfinals and drew 2-2 in the first leg courtesy of two goals from our emergency striker who was, in reality, a bullish center-back, Daniel Van Buyten.
In a dominant Milan performance in the second leg, though, Bayern went two goals down in the first half; they never recovered. Out they went from the Champions League until the fall of 2008. They then returned with Jürgen Klinsmann and went out in the quarterfinals in a humiliating 5-1 aggregate defeat to FC Barcelona (how the tables have turned!). The first leg score, at half-time, was 4-0.
I thought to myself, on the day of the first leg against Barcelona, as I saw Franck Ribery speaking to Thierry Henry at halftime with a big smile on his face, that the club I support cannot make it in Europe. They had not been back in the last four since 2001 at the time.
Moreover, I was rather disgusted by Ribery. Bayern had signed him after his brilliant World Cup performances and here he was, in essence, signing a contract with Barcelona at halftime, slapping my beloved club in the face. The rumor mill churned out stories about Ribery walking away from Germany. At the same time, Bayern itself seemed to lack ambition overall. I believe, to this day, that Bayern would not have transformed into what it is today had it not been for Louis Van Gaal and Philipp Lahm.
Philipp Lahm lights a fire
“Top teams in the Champions League have first-class players in seven, eight positions — we don’t,” Lahm said. “Other clubs have a system, a philosophy, and buy the players accordingly. We don’t. It’s not enough to buy good players, one has to develop a team,” he added. He specifically mentioned the lack of creative guile in midfield, an oversupply of centre-forwards and absence of a second decent full-back.
Speaking of an oversupply of center-forwards, Bayern had Mario Gomez, Luca Toni, Miroslav Klose and Ivica Olic in the squad. Olic, the intended backup, turned out to be Bayern’s most important center-forward, playing next to Thomas Müller, a Van Gaal favorite.
The future Germany captain broke club rules, but the hierarchy took notice. Firstly, against all odds, Bayern qualified for the Round of 16 that year. They were in a group with Juventus, Bordeaux, and Maccabi Haifa. Only against Maccabi Haifa did Bayern manage to register wins. Aside from a draw, they lost the remainder of their matches until the final clash with Juventus, A 1-4 win in Turin guaranteed them a place in the Round of 16. Bayern was behind, 0-1, in that game. They then got a penalty. Hans-Jorg Butt, the goalkeeper, of all people, stood up to take it. Truth be told, I was as surprised by that victory as the pundits were.
In the Round of 16, they met Fiorentina. They won the first leg, 2-1, courtesy of a goal in the 89th minute from Miroslav Klose. Miro himself would laugh if he saw the replay today — that goal was as offside as they come. That tie finished 4-4 on aggregate and Bayern progressed courtesy of away goals. Away goals did the trick again against Manchester United; a famous volley by Arjen Robben in the second leg from a Ribery corner sent Bayern through despite a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford.
Bayern beats Lyon only to fall to Inter
Ribery, however, found himself the recipient of an early red card in the first leg in the semifinal. Jeremy Toulalan, in a Lyon team which had style about them, also got sent off early in the second half. The game finished 1-0 in Bayern’s favor thanks to a Robben goal, which I still believe should have been a Thomas Müller goal. If you watch the replay, you will see the ball graze Muller’s head as it goes in.
The party really started in the second leg. Bayern took control of the game, and, for the first time in the entire campaign, fans could breathe. Olic scored a famous hat-trick in style (left foot, right foot, head) to guide Bayern into the final.
Inter Milan, however, proved a bridge too far; Ribery’s suspension did not help the cause either, as Hamit Altintop had to fill in. But that was not the point at all. I personally feel Inter Milan were the best team in the world in 2010 and deserved to win. Bayern’s run to the final nonetheless instilled a new belief in the club. Although a late Goran Pandev goal in the second leg saw Bayern crash out in the Round of 16 against Inter in 2011, early Champions League exits largely became a thing of the past until 2019 — the semifinals became the norm.
How times have changed
I look back at the Bayern team from the first leg in 2010 and wonder at how far we have come. Diego Contento started for us at left-back that day. I enjoyed his performances from time to time, but currently Alphonso Davies occupies that berth. Mark Van Bommel was out for this match; in his place started Danijel Pranjic. Pranjic has been a journeyman since leaving Bayern, playing for five different clubs (and an additional club on loan). Today, Javi Martinez would be the replacement, assuming Joshua Kimmich starts in defense.
There were many players in that Bayern team I loved. In terms of class, though, the current squad is a cut above. Bayern at the time had a strong starting XI and not much more. Today, that is no longer the case. Aside from Lewandowski’s berth (although I like Joshua Zirkzee very much), I would say there is a strong substitute waiting in the wings for each spot. This is a wonderful luxury to have.
Moreover, Bayern has become much more exciting over the years. I have memories of Bayern under Otmar Hitzfeld losing a UEFA Cup semifinal to Zenit St. Petersburg 4-0 in 2008. It was embarrassing; the lack of ambition was shocking. (That game may also have been the catalyst behind Bayern’s purchase of Anatoliy Tymoschuk.) Under Klinsmann, the football was exciting only until Bayern came up against a relatively good side.
Van Gaal changed the way Bayern played; he made us exciting. The football they played against Lyon in both legs was direct and heart-warming. Although the mainstream press consistently labels German football as “efficient,” by there is absolutely nothing efficient about Bayern’s play. At least, since 2009/10, they have completely shed the label. They missed a hat full of chances in both legs against Lyon. If you look back at the Barcelona game from the previous round, you will see countless chances go begging as well.
I will take the missed chances any day. In fact, I would like to see Bayern play the way they did against Lyon ten years ago; down a man in the first leg, they pressed on and looked the better side for roughly twenty minutes. Their attacking instincts and the drive to move forward indirectly led to the foul which led to the dismissal of Jeremy Toulalan. I feared for Bayern when they lost a man; they played incredibly well to dismiss my fears.
On Wednesday, I am going to thank my lucky stars that Philipp Lahm opened his mouth ten years ago. I am going to thank my lucky stars that Bayern Munich plays expansive, direct, and beautiful football. I am going to remember Ivica Olic with a smile. And I am going to watch Bayern play Lyon, the only team they beat over two legs in 2009/10, in an improbable run to the final which changed the future of the club, ten years ago.