After recording the biggest ever victory in the knockout stages of the Champions League (7-0 v Swiss minnows FC Basle), it's an opportune time to ask whether FC Bayern Munich can lift the prestigious European trophy in their own back yard.
Despite penning this article before the completion of the first knock-out round, but assuming that Real Madrid will qualify, there is a strong argument to rank Bayern as Europe's third best team. While Barcelona and Real Madrid have players to strike fear into any team, the remaining sides - APOEL Nicosia, Benfica, Marseille, AC Milan and Chelsea/Napoli - look potentially easy prey. Although Benfica and Napoli can turn on the style at times and AC Milan carry the grand status their name affords them, none of these remaining teams are as good as FC Bayern. So the question boils down to whether Bayern can beat the Spanish powerhouses?
Firstly, let's consider the factors away from the sublime sward of the Allianz Arena. There are two significant factors which will affect FC Bayern's ability to compete for the big European prize in the forthcoming years. Firstly, UEFA supremo Michel Platini's tinkering with qualification, which has enabled perceived smaller teams from so-called lesser nations to progress to the group stages and beyond. Regarding this season's competition, should the unlikely happen and both CSKA Moscow and Chelsea progress to the quarter-finals, the eight teams left would be drawn from eight different nations. This rule change ostensibly makes it easier for the big teams, so long as they can negotiate their own safe arrival to the knock-out stages. It also leaves the potential for vital games against inexperienced opponents. Secondly, and certainly more relevant in Bayern's case, is that from next season the Bundesliga will have the right to four CL places, courtesy of overtaking Serie A as Europe's third-highest ranked league. With three of those four places guaranteed a place in the group stages, a minimum of a sixth of the Bundesliga's 18 teams will be represented in what is known in Germany as die Königsklasse (the King's class).
Although it would be foolish to suggest Europe's third-strongest league is weak, FC Bayern have that feeling of a big fish in a small pond. Perhaps they are in fact a big fish in a big pond? If you look at the rich-list of football clubs, Bayern lie in fourth overall and are so far ahead of their nearest German competitor (Schalke 04) - with typically more than twice their turnover - that it makes comparing Bayern and the rest, in terms of resources, folly. Essentially, Bayern will always qualify for the Champions League. And this is a valuable fact: it allows for the club to factor the Euro millions into their budget without fear of a Leeds United-style financial reprisal. Moreover, experience is a vital attribute in going the distance in the competition. We all know the quality of Barcelona on the pitch but how many fans would say that, player for player, Manchester United are Europe's second best team? Yet they have reached the final three out of four seasons, a testimony to the know-how of their sage manager (Sir Alex Ferguson) and a nod in the direction of experience.
Tactical Analysis - the front four
On the pitch, Bayern are proud purveyors of the modern football fashion of playing 4-2-3-1. In fact, perhaps Bayern are the archetypal exponent of this formation: big target man (Mario Gomez), 'inverted' wingers (Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben) and an industrious but ball-playing 'number ten' (Thomas Müller). The formation may currently be en vogue but were it not, there would be a strong case for employing it anyway. The formation allows them to compensate for the lack of defensive back-tracking from Robben and Gomez by pulling Müller into the midfield when the opponent has the ball. It is also necessary to credit Ribéry's often-overlooked indefatigable work-rate from his position on the left flank - one reason why Bayern are stronger defensively on the sinister side of the playing field. When Bayern are defending, you could count the formation as a skewed 4-4-2. Analysing individuals more closely comes down to subjectivity. How many people think that Mario Gomez is actually any good? Yet his goal-scoring exploits in this competition are second only to the world's best player Lionel Messi. Indeed, with ten goals, he has notched twice as many as a host of players tied in third place with five. A true poacher in the Ruud Van Nistelrooy mould of seemingly never scoring outside the box, Gomez's fourth goal against Basle, sublimely finding the top corner on the turn, with his weaker left foot, was reminiscent of Daniele Massaro's second goal in Milan's thrashing of Barcelona in the 1994 CL final. Add to that his adroit finish for his second and tap-ins with his foot and head for his first and fourth goals respectively and you're looking at a seriously in-form striker who can score from any angle. On the right, the talents of Arjen Robben are well-known. Although the Dutchman has displayed his talents in several of Europe's top leagues, it's worth remembering that, at 28, he is now entering his peak years. If Bayern can keep him fit (and interested), he remains one of the most talented players in world football. Too selfish to be a traditional winger, playing on the right suits his instinct to cut in and drive at goal and shoot at the keeper's near post, a tactic which produced a plethora of shots against Basle - and two goals. The goals on this occasion, however, came from through-balls rather than his own dribbling skills. Franck Ribéry has the ability to combine defensive duties with incredible ball-control and running with pace and purpose. For all the goals Gomez scores, there is often a crucial role played by the mercurial Frenchman, fully in evidence against Basle as he helped himself to three assists, all to the benefit of Gomez. It is no surprise that he is the most fouled player in the CL this season. The control and pace at which he operates means that the slightest touch is likely to take him down. In 'the hole', Müller has slowly built on his performances at the last World Cup, where he beat Diego Forlán, David Villa and Wesley Sneijder to the Golden Boot courtesy of adding three assists to his five goals. At times frustrating, and certainly inconsistent, Müller's blend of linking the play, covering his team-mates and his goal-scoring contributions make him particularly effective in his hybrid midfield/second striker position.
Tactical Analysis - the rest
Behind the front four, in keeping with the formation du jour, 22-year-old Toni Kroos is carving out a reputation as an effective central midfielder. While the description of Thomas Müller's role may remind fans of a young Paul Scholes, the young East German Kroos' performance may better reflect Scholes' current role. Despite a perceived lack of aggression and tackling in his game, and being inclined to sit deeper, or indeed forced to due to Bayern's front four, Kroos offers his defence adequate protection - at the same time producing an impressive passing game. His ability to strike the ball from long range, with respect to passing and shooting, adds variety to his game, which is essential to mark him out from rivals in this position. One wouldn't expect the same from some of his more peripheral Bayern team-mates, such as Austrian youngster David Alaba and Brazilian Luiz Gustavo. Alongside him, the re-emergence of Bastian Schweinsteiger can only strengthen Bayern's cause. At only 27, the home-grown former prodigy has modified his game from carefree winger into integral midfield fulcrum for both club and national side. His return from long-term injury will only add stability and presence to the team and should improve the game of Kroos alongside him.
In goal, despite a few calamitous, game-changing mistakes, Manuel Neuer has proven himself worthy of an enormous transfer fee last summer. Despite lacking a natural ability to play the ball with his feet, and thus unable to offer his team a sweeper-cum-goalkeeper in the mould of Barcelona's Víctor Valdés, Neuer's handling of the ball and accurate throws are another reason why Bayern are able to counter-attack so quickly and exploit the natural pace of Ribéry and Robben - or 'Robbery' as they are better known in the German press. Finally, to the back four and certainly Bayern's Achilles heel. Philipp Lahm aside, they lack genuine quality here. As mentioned previously, Bayern are usually better defensively on the left, due partially to Ribéry's covering skills but mainly to the defensive acumen of the Bayern and Germany captain, Lahm.
Rafinha and Alaba, when he has played at left-back, have looked totally inadequate and certainly not top quality. In the centre, it's worth remembering that although Jérôme Boateng is not exactly a Manchester City reject, Roberto Mancini was happy to let him go and that speaks volumes. Boateng has not even been able to solidify his position at centre-back, one of the main reasons cited for his leaving Manchester. The choice alongside him involves the ageing Daniel Van Buyten or the relatively inexperienced and certainly often ineffectual Holger Badstuber. This is an area Bayern can certainly strengthen.
Can Bayern win the Champions League?
It is important to keep the 7-0 win over Basle in perspective. Bayern are certainly not the strongest team in the competition. However, no side will fancy a trip to the Allianz Arena in the next round. If they get the luck of the draw, and the Spanish heavyweights can deliver knock-out blows to one another, there is no reason why the Bavarians cannot reach the final. With home advantage, who knows what might happen?