Säbener Strasse, Munich - It is not often a club faces a crossroad so early in a season, but for FC Bayern München, their troubles from last season have come back to haunt them early in this campaign.
The Reds host FC Zürich Wednesday evening in the UEFA Champions League playoffs at the Allianz Arena. Kickoff of the first leg is 20:45. The return match is next week in Switzerland. The aggregate winner of the two matches will move onto the group phase of Europe's top club competition.
This is a rare appearance for Bayern in the qualifying round, who are four-time European champions. Last year, they finished a disappointing third in the Bundesliga and now have to earn their spot in the lucrative competition. Despite only winning the Champions League once, they have only missed the group phase only once in the past 13 years, reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2008.
The pressure of qualifying for the group phase was the top issue at the press conference before the match. "For every player on this squad, it would be the worst not to play in the Champions League," admitted Thomas Müller.
"We represent FC Bayern and the image of our team is to defeat a club like our opponent," said head coach Jupp Heynckes. "The Champions League is the 'crème de la crème' of European football and we want to be in it. It is important for the image of our team."
Along with the pressure to move on in the competition, comes the question of Bayern's leadership on the pitch and their ability to win a European title the past 10 years. Both Philipp Lahm, the current captain, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, sometimes captain were publicly criticized in the media by former Bayern and German soccer legend Oliver Kahn.
"Does the lull in the titles not fall to this generation of players for a team that needs a real leader?" questioned Kahn in his blog, naming both Lahm and Schweinsteiger specifically. Kahn was in goal when Bayern won the Champions League in 2001, making key stops during the penalty shootout. However, Kahn failed to mention that he was captain of the club from 2003 until 2008, and the team never returned to a European final until after he was gone.
Lahm responded quite calmly to the criticism, "everyone has their thoughts on how a leader should act, it doesn't bother me what he thinks. We want to be successful."
Whether Lahm, Schweinsteiger and the rest of the international stars on the club are fit to lead this team to a title, the most important thing now is to get the team playing at a high level. After losing the first match of the season at home to Borussia Monchengladbach and escaping last Saturday at Wolfsburg with a stoppage time goal, Bayern have to hope that their play improves.
Star Arjen Robben will return after suffering an injury last week in practice. He had three good days of practice after not playing over the weekend. And the Reds' defensive backfield is still shaky with new additions Jerome Boatend and Rafinha and the inconsistent Holger Badstuber. Heynckes has seen the opponent and expects the them to attack upfront.
FC Zürich are confident with their chances. "We are excited and looking forward to playing against Bayern," said Urs Fischer, head coach of the Swiss side. "We want to win the game but everything has to work properly."
Zürich started off the season with three losses but crushed their city rivals, Grasshopper Club 6-nil, and defeated record Swiss champions FC Basel 2-1 over the past two weeks.
"I respect FC Bayern, it is a very offensive team. We watched Bayern-Gladbach, my players know what to do. Courage, passion and will are very important, but of course you also have to be lucky to get a win in Munich."
Simone Sperduto and Marco Menolfi contributed to this article.