Happy New Year readers and @LovellLowdown followers!
The extensive Bundesliga winter break has given the every-day man and his twitter dog the chance to pen a piece extolling the virtues of Bayern Munich. Hopefully you will have had your fill of these and allow me the opportunity to vent some alternative angles.
Loyal Lowdowners will not need reminding that I closed the book on Bayern's title success a long time ago. I have been perfectly consistent on this since late autumn. The Bavarians sit comfortably nine points ahead of perennial bridesmaids Bayer Leverkusen and can expect to seal a first trophy since 2010. For a club of Bayern's stature and considering the strength of German football (the number of clubs actually capable of winning trophies), this is an awfully long trophy drought.
Borussia Dortmund, champions for the past two seasons, and arguably the best side in Germany, took their eye off the Bundesliga ball very early on in the season. To use a golfing analogy, BVB conceded their Bundesliga crown to Bayern in early November, and their attentions are very much fixed on Champions League success.
Leverkusen, the only Bundesliga side to have beaten Bayern this campaign, might actually narrow the gap to more manageable proportions and might even do the 'double' over the record German champions. Just when it gets tight though (or around that time of the season Sir Alex Ferguson refers to as squeaky bum time) Leverkusen will have a nagging thought lingering in the back of their minds. That track record of not winning trophies will be a burden and ultimately, they will be more than satisfied with a Champions League berth.
Onto Bayern's Holy Grail - The Champions League. 'Finale dahoam' (home final) turned into 'fiasco dahoam' (home fiasco) against Chelsea last year. Let's not beat around the bush - Bayern blew it. The draw opened up nicely for Bayern in their last European campaign. They only had to contend with the favourable opponents of Basle and Marseille en route to the last four. The recording German champions then saw off Real Madrid in the semi-finals on penalties before that fateful final. The 'fiasco' in their own backyard was one to forget. Sadly, it is still very much in the memory. Bayern squandered numerous match points against a Chelsea side that was there for the taking. It became memorable for all the wrong reasons for Bayern.
This year the Bavarians have been handed a potentially tricky tie against Arsenal in the last 16. Bayern are undoubtedly strong favourites against a misfiring Gunners side but whether Bayern react well to favouritism remains to be seen. Heynckes' side tend to thrive on being underdogs in Europe, as is evident in their remarkable record against the mighty Real Madrid.
If there is one thing Arsene Wenger can exploit, it would be exposing certain long-standing frailties in Bayern's back line. Whoever was ultimately responsible for letting Mats Hummels leave Bayern for BVB in 2008/9 can hang his head in shame. Bayern have been playing defensive catch-up ever since. Holger Badstuber is out for 6 months and Jerome Boateng is suspended for the first leg. Despite their absence, the presence of Dante is a boost. The Brazilian has been rock solid since signing from Borussia Monchengladbach and although some might cynically suggest he is due an injury or a downturn in form, he has certainly proved himself the most important defender so far this season. It will certainly be interesting to see how Bayern shape up at the back come late February. I can see Theo Walcott having some fun against Daniel van Buyten or perhaps Jupp Heynckes sees the EUR40m Javi Martinez capable of slotting in as a makeshift defender?
Arsenal are certainly capable of springing a surprise home victory at the Emirates on February 19th. The Gunners will have nothing to lose and could come to Munich defending a precious lead. Will fans at the Allianz Arena show the patience required when Bayern need to break down the Arsenal back line? The current fan belief is that any defence parading the talents of Per Mertesacker can be easily breached at any time. Evidence from Arsenal's recent 2-2 FA Cup draw with Swansea certainly supports that theory.
I can see Arsenal giving Bayern a good game and it's certainly not as clear cut as the bookmakers or the (German) media would currently have you think. Anytime now that same German media will start focusing on the fortunes of ex-Bayern player Lukas Podolski, who has struggled to find his feet in the Premier League with Arsenal. No doubt a lot of column inches will be devoted to the German international's less than happy spell at Bayern, most likely concluding that he was a complete 'failure'. Wouldn't it be ironic to see 'Prince Poldi' prosper in the attractive last 16 tie and silence some of those less than flattering opinions?
Even if Arsenal can be overcome, I don't expect a repeat of last season for Bayern. Like most sides in the competition, they will be looking to avoid Barcelona in the draw. On the note of the Spanish giants, what's with all this delusionary talk of Pep Guardiola as the next Bayern coach? This is surely just rumour and nonsense to fill the idle down time of the winter break. I can't imagine that Pep has been seriously getting stuck into German study books during his sabbatical in New York. Can you picture it? No, thought not.