Under the guidance of new manager Carlo Ancelotti, Bayern Munich’s immaculate start to the season hasn’t taken up too many column inches.
For the apex juggernaut of the German game five wins from five Bundesliga games—including 15 goals scored and just one conceded—is par for the course, such is the depth of their squad and their recent domestic dominance. But you sense plenty will keep a keener eye on Bayern on Wednesday evening as they gear up for their biggest test so far under the Italian tactician.
The men from Munich travel to the Vicente Calderon in the UEFA Champions League on Wednesday to face Atletico Madrid, the venue where they suffered a 1-0 defeat last term in the same competition, paving the way for an eventual semi-final exit. And it’s the kind of clash in which those tied to Bayern will hope to see Ancelotti’s European expertise come to the fore.
After all, the club’s decision to appoint the former Real Madrid manager was motivated by his record in the game’s biggest club competition. Ancelotti has hoisted the iconic piece of silverware three times as a coach, most recently with Madrid in 2014 and twice with Milan in 2003 and 2007; only Liverpool icon Bob Paisley can match that remarkable effort.
Having marched to three successive domestic titles under Ancelotti’s predecessor Pep Guardiola, Bayern, as a club with massive ambitions, will make a sustained effort to secure what’d be their sixth European Cup.
Ancelotti, after all, is a manager that’s always excelled in cup competitions, often at the expense of league success. Surprisingly, the 57-year-old has only won three divisional titles in his distinguished career, although the Italian evidently has the ability to set up his side for success in one-off contests against strong opponents.
That was ultimately Guardiola’s downfall as he saw his side eliminated in three consecutive semi-finals during his stint in charge in Bavaria.
In 2014, it was Ancelotti who executed a counter-attacking masterplan at his expense, with Madrid running riot in a 4-0 win at the Allianz Arena, 5-0 on aggregate; in 2015 injuries and a majestic Barcelona side done for Bayern, while last term Atletico proved too dogged over two pulsating legs of football.
As the overwhelmingly dominant force in German football, Bayern have some difficulties when it comes to European competition. Typically, by the time the Champions League’s latter stages roll around, they’ve wrapped up the domestic title and as such, the competitive edge possessed earlier in the campaign has filtered away.
Additionally, so bolstered and varied is their squad, keeping players contented and match fit can be difficult; when injuries and suspensions take their toll late in the season, illustrious names can be drafted in cold. In Guardiola, Bayern also had a manager whose ethos was centred on expansive, attacking football, not always the most important traits in pursuit of European glory.
Ancelotti’s record suggests he’s a coach that can bridge this gap to the Champions League again for the German side. His style, for one, is not as intense as Guardiola’s and as such, in these grueling games towards the back end of the season, they should have more left in the tank.
Tactically, he’s astute and cerebral too. Guardiola, despite his reputation for adhering to one way of playing, made some bold choices late in the Champions League. However, his decision to employ a man-to-man press against Barca in 2014 and drop Thomas Muller in 2015 didn’t bear fruit. They were cavalier moves; Ancelotti, by comparison, is a lot cuter.
Expect to see a more robust and defensively focused Bayern when massive matches do crop up on the calendar. While his team is capable of bossing the ball, Ancelotti will have no issue instructing his players to sit in, soak up pressure and spring forward on the counter-attack, especially with players like Douglas Costa, Kingsley Coman, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben to call upon.
Crucially, he’ll benefit from the good work done by Guardiola too. These Bayern players are so well attuned to one another and undisrupted by significant transfer activity in recent summers. Ancelotti, as his early games have shown, won’t have to make too many tweaks to a method that’s already flourishing.
Players like Costa and Arturo Vidal, who his predecessor signed to add a thrust and directness to Bayern’s pretty passing patterns last year, will fare much better in their second season; both have the attributes to blossom under Ancelotti. Meanwhile the captures of Mats Hummels and Renato Sanches add vital experience and refreshing youthfulness to the group, respectively.
It’ll be fascinating to see what gameplan Ancelotti adopts when his side visit last season’s runners-up. Atletico are aggressive and intelligent in the way they deal with illustrious sides, proving to be a tough lock to unpick for even the finest attacking setups. How the Bayern boss approaches this unique challenge will be a potential barometer for tests to come.
Of course, it’s a group stage fixture that will have little influence on the eventual destination of the trophy. But it’s a tremendous early opportunity for the Italian to show this squad is better placed to win this illustrious competition with him at the helm.
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