Next up, Champions League – why Bundesliga kings Bayern are favourites to conquer Europe

By Sports Desk June 16, 2020

One down, two to go.

For the eighth time in a row, Bayern Munich are Bundesliga champions. For the seventh time in nine years, they are in the DFB-Pokal final. And yet, as it has been for the best part of a decade, their season will mostly be defined by how well they do in the Champions League.

They are surely favourites to win that, too.

Bayern's Bundesliga triumphs often feel like processions, but 2019-20 has been a real fight. They suffered five defeats in the first half of the season, two of which came after a 5-1 November thrashing by Eintracht Frankfurt that cost head coach Niko Kovac his job. They have been winter champions seven times since 2009 but were four points behind leaders RB Leipzig at the turn of the year, with free-scoring Borussia Dortmund also threatening to pull away.

They turned to Hansi Flick more out of desperation than a long-term vision, handing the former assistant a temporary deal to steady the ship while high-profile names were courted, but his record in 2020 would be the envy of every coach in the world and proves why his new full-time contract was wholly deserved.

Since December 14, Bayern have won 17 of 18 Bundesliga matches, the sole blot coming in a goalless home draw with Leipzig in February. They have scored at least twice in all but three games. They have scored five goals in a game three times and twice hit six, keeping 10 clean sheets in the process. Even the two-month coronavirus lay-off has done nothing to shake them from their stride. A 1-0 win at Dortmund on May 26 gave them a seven-point cushion at the top, and that, realistically, was that.

In all competitions, Flick won 24 of his first 27 games in charge, beating Pep Guardiola's mark of 22. Bayern became the first team to score 90 Bundesliga goals in the first 30 rounds and have hit 132 in all matches this term, a record for a German team.

Flick has found the Midas touch with his players, both the rising stars and the established elite. He has turned 19-year-old Alphonso Davies into a devastating attacking full-back and helped Leon Goretzka find his feet in midfield. Manuel Neuer and Jerome Boateng look full of renewed vigour, having had their Bayern futures questioned last year.

In attack, Thomas Muller has equalled Kevin De Bruyne's record of 20 assists for a season - a spectacular tally for a number 10 who does not take set-pieces. Robert Lewandowski is on 31 league goals for the season and 46 in all competitions, a personal record.

In fact, you would struggle to find an out-of-form Bayern player from among their fully fit options. Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry are a menace, particularly with Joshua Kimmich pulling the midfield strings, his old right-back role firmly in Benjamin Pavard's hands. Thiago's latest muscle injury has been offset by Goretzka's rise to prominence. With Lucas Hernandez and Ivan Perisic fit again and Philippe Coutinho to come back, there is a depth to Bayern that is hard to beat.

It all means Bayern will be the best-prepared team once the Champions League returns, most likely in August. Their domestic league started earlier and finished quicker than their rivals, save Paris Saint-Germain, who will not have kicked a ball in anger for five months when the competition resumes. They have had the strongest 2020 of any of the remaining sides in the last 16 and, presently, have the fewest injury concerns.

They also boast a commanding 3-0 first-leg lead over Chelsea ahead of the return game at the Allianz Arena, easing the pressure ahead of the restart. Meanwhile, Real Madrid and Manchester City face a tense battle at the Etihad Stadium, Barcelona are level at 1-1 with Napoli, Juventus are a goal down to Lyon and Liverpool were knocked out by Atletico Madrid, who have only won four matches since January 9. What's more, they have a DFB-Pokal final against Bayer Leverkusen to come on July 4 - a perfect chance to raise spirits further before three weeks of intensive training for the continental games to come against opponents who are well short of Bayern's present standards.

Bayern's last European triumph came when they won the treble under Jupp Heynckes in 2012-13. If the Champions League really does define their season, there is every chance 2019-20 will be one to remember.

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  • Bale to Tottenham: A spent force, or more to give? Bale to Tottenham: A spent force, or more to give?

    In 2013, Real Madrid paid a then world-record fee to secure Gareth Bale's signature.

    The flying winger had been sensational in the Premier League for Tottenham and, in his final season in north London, scored 26 goals and provided 11 assists across all competitions.

    Bale's form resulted in Madrid paying €100million (£85m) to take him to Santiago Bernabeu, as Florentino Perez attempted to usher in a new galactico era.

    Yet seven years later, Bale is heading back to Tottenham on a season-long loan, now as a 31-year-old whose best days are most likely behind him.

    While Bale has certainly had his injury issues, his lack of game time at Madrid in recent seasons – he featured just 20 times in all competitions last term – seems to have been due to a breakdown in his relationship with Zinedine Zidane, more than any doubt over the quality he can offer.

    Back at his former club, Bale will aim to lift Spurs and get his career back on track, but can his seven-year stint at Madrid be considered a success – he did after all win four Champions League trophies, one Copa del Rey and two LaLiga titles – or a failure?

    Using Opta data, we take a look at his season by season stats.

     

    2013-14

    In his final season at Tottenham, Bale was involved in 37 goals in all competitions – only Robin van Persie (39) and Juan Mata (49) were involved in more for a Premier League club in 2012-13. Bale maintained that form in his maiden season in Spain, scoring 22 times and providing 16 assists across 44 appearances. Of his Madrid team-mates, only the imperious Cristiano Ronaldo managed more direct goal involvements (65).

    He capped his first season in Madrid with a brilliant goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, which Los Blancos won, before scoring in extra-time to put Carlo Ancelotti's side 2-1 up against Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League Final.

    2014-15

    Having averaged a goal every 0.56 LaLiga matches in his first season at Madrid, Bale's output dropped in his second campaign, with the Welshman managing 13 goals from 31 league appearances, at an average of 0.42.

    In total across all competitions, he registered 17 goals and 12 assists, despite playing four games more than in 2013-14. On average, he attempted five dribbles per 90 minutes, down from 5.8 the previous season, while he had 51.8 touches per 90 – the fewest amount of any season from 2007-08 onwards.

    2015-16

    Bale managed just 31 appearances in an injury-hit third campaign, though his goal statistics improved. While providing 12 assists, he scored 19 times in all competitions, including netting four in a 10–2 victory over Rayo Vallecano. In Zinedine Zidane's first match in charge – in January 2016 – he netted a hat-trick to help crush Deportivo La Coruna 5-0.

    On March 23, Bale scored his 43rd LaLiga goal to overtake Gary Lineker as the highest scoring British player in the competition's history. While his dribbles attempted again decreased, he threatened the goal more regularly with 4.2 shots per 90, while he averaged 58.4 touches.

    2016-17

    It was in Bale's fourth season in the Spanish capital that things began to turn. Having only signed a new contract in October, Bale suffered an ankle injury in November that kept him out for four months. His injury troubles plagued him throughout the campaign – he was forced off in his 100th LaLiga appearance for the club, which ended in a 3-2 defeat to Barca.

    Madrid nevertheless won their 33rd LaLiga title and the Champions League, with Bale managing 27 appearances in total, scoring nine goals and setting up a further three.

    2017-18

    Despite an injury-hit 2016-17, Bale enjoyed one of his most productive seasons at Madrid in the next campaign. He created six goals and scored 21 himself – his highest total since 2013-14, with 16 of those goals coming from 26 LaLiga appearances, at an average of 0.62 per 90 and a conversion rate of 20.78 per cent.

    Bale managed this despite averaging only 53.4 touches – his second-lowest total from 2007-08  – and 3.8 shots per game. His season ended in fantastic fashion, as he came on to score a remarkable overhead kick goal to put Madrid 2-1 up against Liverpool in the Champions League final, before he netted a second to put the result beyond doubt.

    2018-19

    With Ronaldo having left for Juventus, Bale played 42 times in 2018-19, though his total goal involvements dipped from 27 to 20 (14 goals, six assists). On December 19, Bale scored a hat-trick in a 3–1 win over Kashima Antlers in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup, becoming the third player to net three goals in a match in the tournament after Ronaldo and Luis Suarez.

    In February, Bale scored his 100th Madrid goal, making him one of only 21 players to have scored 100+ goals for the club in all competitions.

    2019-20

    The writing seemed to be on the wall for Bale at Madrid as speculation over a big-money move to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning grew, but a transfer failed to materialise and the forward stayed at Santiago Bernabeu.

    However, in a season elongated by the coronavirus pandemic, Bale was used just 20 times by Zidane. He managed three goals and two assists, taking his respective tallies to 105 and 57, with a total of 162 goal involvements across seven seasons – only Ronaldo (318) and Karim Benzema (235) have been involved in more for Madrid in the same timeframe.

  • Next Generation – Kulusevski's youth coaches outline the perfect pupil as Juventus bow awaits Next Generation – Kulusevski's youth coaches outline the perfect pupil as Juventus bow awaits

    As a kid, Dejan Kulusevski always appeared to have something special about him.

    This quality didn't lend itself to a brash, arrogant personality, rather his self-belief reflected a quiet confidence, a humble attitude.

    While the young Swedish winger might have started the 2019-20 season as something of an unknown quantity for many as he began a loan spell with Parma, to those who know him best he has been on the path to excellence for a long time.

    A product of Brommapojkarna's academy, Kulusevski's ambition – and ability – had seen him stand out way before he secured a move to Atalanta soon after his 16th birthday in July 2016.

    Four years on, Kulusevski is a Juventus player, having cost an initial €35million, and preparing for his first competitive match with the Bianconeri on Sunday, as Sampdoria visit Turin.

    A lot has changed in such a short period, but those who have been key to his development are adamant Kulusevski has the character to cope.

    A quest for personal improvement

    Roland Nilsson, now Sweden's Under-21 coach, has worked with Kulusevski since he was just 15. "I worked with him with the Under-16s and I could see he was a very good player," he told Stats Perform News. "We knew straight away that clubs from abroad had been there watching and I could understand why.

    "It was one of those where it was always decided [moving abroad early]. When he talked about moving to Italy, that was his thing, to progress as a footballer and educate himself in the long run, not the short term. He needed to go somewhere to educate himself, he knew it would be hard and he knew the work that needed to be put in was his own."

    Kulusevski moved to Bergamo alone to live in club-arranged accommodation, taking him completely out of his comfort zone and away from everything he knew – but his mentality had already set him apart from others.

    "It was going to be tough but his mind was set to do the job and being focused on it, which has been a strength of his through the years," Nilsson continued. "You're always surprised when it goes that quickly [for a player], but at the same time, with the skills he has, his mental strength as well and the awareness of what he needs to be doing, those are the key things for him, and the work rate he puts in on the pitch shows he's serious about what he's doing."

    Andreas Engelmark, first-team assistant and technical director at Brommapojkarna, has known Kulusevski even longer, first coaching him in 2012 when the tricky winger – then just 12 – played in the year above his age group. The pair even trained together during the coronavirus pandemic.

    "He's an easy guy to work with because he's always going to give you everything," Engelmark told Stats Perform News. "His mindset is very strong, he was confident he was going to make it back then and I think he's confident he's going to do well now. All players have doubt in themselves at times, but his mindset – he believes in himself but at the same time is humble."

    'He has everything necessary to be a success'

    There was never any doubt about Kulusevski's ability – technically gifted and a fine dribbler, but he wasn't without fault, as Engelmark explained: "The first time I coached him I was like, 'this guy has a great skill set but he's not working hard enough, not defending, he needs to use his team-mates more'."

    Engelmark found a player receptive to such feedback and always willing to learn, taking criticism on board and using it to further himself, which subsequently improved him individually and the team.

    "His work rate got higher and higher, but when we played good opponents he worked even harder," Engelmark continued. "In the last six months to a year with me, I think something happened – he started working harder than everyone else. He was our best player offensively, but he was also the guy who worked the most."

    Nilsson also noticed that improvement. "He knows that has been a bit of his weakness before, but he's taken that along with everything else and that's what he shows today – he does everything up and down [the wing]."

    Such observations are backed up by the fact Kulusevski managed 5.25 ball recoveries and 4.22 dribbles per 90 minutes last term, both well above the respective averages for his position (4.1 and 0.92).

    Kulusevski has just a single full season of Serie A experience under hit belt, though there was a maturity to his performances while on loan at Parma last term that belies his fledgling status.

    With 10 goals and eight assists in Serie A, he was the youngest player across Europe's top five leagues to reach at least eight in both metrics and the first foreign under-21 talent to net 10 times in Italy's top flight since 2012-13.

    Similarly, of all players in Europe's top five leagues to accumulate 15 goal involvements in 2019-20, only Erling Haaland was younger – by three months – than Kulusevski.

    Nevertheless, Engelmark feels Kulusevski will be challenged by transitioning – both mentality and performance-wise – from the expectations he has previously experienced, to those at perennial-winners Juventus.

    "He has everything necessary to be a success at that level, but what will be interesting is his consistency," he mused. "At Parma obviously his team-mates were good, but not top-level like at Juve now. At Parma they were defending a lot and they get out on the counter, so obviously he can go in and out of the game and it doesn't really matter.

    "For them, dominating isn't so important, it's about being smart and taking your chances, but at Juventus obviously they dominate teams, so it'll be important to be consistent for 90 minutes and be involved more."

    Kulu the craftsman

    With Parma, Kulusevski was one of the revelations of the 2019-20 season, his creative talents earmarking him as among the best.

    His 78 key passes worked out at 2.17 per match, more than double the average for players in his position (1.02). In turn, he averaged 0.22 assists every 90 minutes, but the norm for others in similar roles was 0.09.

    One of Kulusevski's most obvious strengths is his ability on the ball, with his close control aided by the fact he is strong on both feet (four goals came with his weaker right foot).

    He completed 77 dribbles last season, 2.14 every 90 minutes, which is also a major increase on the 0.92 average for Kulusevksi's position.

    Similarly, the young Swede proved himself a notable threat in front of goal. While players in comparable roles would expect 0.35 shots on target every game, Kulusevski's record was 0.72.

    As Engelmark noted, one of the main differences for Kulusevski this term will be the change from playing in a team used to being on the back foot to one generally in the ascendancy.

    He appears to have the all-round capabilities to be a real asset, particularly given his attacking output was excellent for a middling team, but maintaining that and producing consistently under greater pressure will be a new challenge.

    For players of a certain age and skill set, there can be a tendency to go overboard when attempting to establish themselves, and Nilsson's advice is to take belief in what has gone before.

    "I would say, go out and play the way as you've done before, not 'over-proving' for everyone else that he's a good player. They know he is good, but you need to show everyone else that you are, and when you move to a team like Juve you need to show up."

    The special attributes he has shown since he was a kid will stand Kulusevski in good stead, but arguably the vital element will be his mentality – Nilsson and Engelmark appear in no doubt this all-action winger will leave no stone unturned in his quest to reach the top.

  • Serie A: As novice coach Pirlo launches Juventus reign, for every Guardiola there's a Shearer Serie A: As novice coach Pirlo launches Juventus reign, for every Guardiola there's a Shearer

    Andrea Pirlo was untouchable at the height of his playing career, a footballer whose grace and prowling presence drew widespread admiration and struck fear into rival teams.

    As a coach, we can surmise but really it is a guessing game as to what we will be getting from Pirlo as the dugout rookie leads Juventus into the 2020-21 season.

    On Sunday evening in Italy, the man who was a World Cup winner in 2006 takes charge of his first Serie A game with Juve, who play Sampdoria in Turin.

    Maurizio Sarri's Juve reign lasted just one season, albeit another Scudetto-yielding campaign for the most successful club in the league's history. Pirlo will be expected to deliver at least that level of success, and encourage a swagger too.

    He joins a host of significant former players plucked for leadership roles at an elite level, typically on a hunch rooted in familiarity, the chosen ones often still fresh from their playing days and with scant experience to call on. Top marks in coaching exams provide no guarantee that success will follow.

    Many times, the gamble on a colt coach has paid off, with presidents and owners rightly sensing the novice harbours the innate expertise to lead and to inspire, and crucially to bring results. On other occasions, it has ended in frustration and tears, and in some instances the jury remains out.

    Here is a look at just some of those cases, illustrating how there are no guarantees attached to such appointments.

    PEP GUARDIOLA

    The go-to example for any club that wishes to justify appointing a club legend to sudden seniority on the coaching side, former midfield general Guardiola was just 37 when he took charge at Barcelona in 2008, after a year coaching the B team. He departed four years and 14 trophies later, including three LaLiga titles and two Champions League triumphs, and was vaunted as the world's best coach.

    Further successes have come with Bayern Munich and Manchester City. Plainly, Pep was born to lead and Barcelona were wise to the fact.

    ZINEDINE ZIDANE

    How would Zidane, the mercurial playmaker – the only rival to Brazil striker Ronaldo when assessing the greatest player of their generation – take to coaching? Could the erstwhile Galactico tease out the best from those who can but dream of matching the twinkling feet and god-gifted balance with which he was blessed? Could the former Real Madrid maestro really be a suitable fit for the Bernabeu job that has swallowed up many an experienced coach?

    Three Champions Leagues and two LaLiga titles later, we probably have a decent idea of the answer to those questions. There have still been ups and downs, and a brief split along the way, but 18 months in charge of Madrid's B team – Castilla – hardened Zidane for the obstacles he would face in the top job. His Madrid sides have at times lacked the verve that was his signature as a player, but they have delivered results and abundant trophies, and ultimately that is what counts.

    MICHEL PLATINI

    Before there was Zidane, France had Platini. A wonder of an attacking midfielder with Nancy, Saint-Etienne and Juventus, Platini was also a goalscoring titan of the France team that won Euro 84 and reached semi-finals at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups. It followed, to those that knew him, that Platini would go on to become a great national-team coach too, and at the age of 33 he was appointed to lead France, having retired as a player a year earlier. Platini took over with France already at a low ebb and defeats under his charge against Yugoslavia and Scotland meant they missed out on reaching the 1990 World Cup.

    Could Platini bounce back? It seemed he might when France reached Euro 92 in style, with eight wins from eight qualifiers, Platini nurturing the likes of Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc, but Les Bleus flopped at the tournament itself as they and England bowed out of a group from which Sweden and Denmark advanced. Platini resigned not long afterwards, began to forge a solid reputation in football administration, and by the late 1990s had built a strong, ultimately fateful, alliance with the then FIFA secretary general Sepp Blatter. He would never coach again.

    DIEGO MARADONA

    If there were ever a case of being blinded by celebrity, then some of the presidents who have given Diego Armando Maradona coaching work surely have fallen victim. The biggest star of his generation, Maradona retired from playing in 1997 and, with barely a sniff of coaching experience and just about as much baggage as an airport carousel, was named boss of his native Argentina in 2008, tasked with taking the Albicelestes to the World Cup two years later. Argentina scraped their way into the finals and were thumped 4-0 by Germany in the quarter-finals. Maradona's contract was not renewed.

    He has continued to pick up coaching work, one curious-looking appointment after another, most recently with Gimnasia in the Argentinian top flight. Maradona the coach has been no match for Maradona the player, and it was naive surely for anyone to think that was ever remotely possible.

    FRANK LAMPARD

    Pirlo was an artist of the 21st century game, and he is considered a deep thinker, while the common theory is that English midfield counterpart Lampard achieved much of his success through hard graft and maximising his rather more rudimentary talent. Whether either categorisation fits the bill is a moot point, but Lampard has a wiser head on his shoulders than many footballers, was top of the class in his school days, and his IQ is reputed to be through the roof.

    Derby County gave him a first break in coaching but it took Chelsea just a year to pounce and parachute Lampard into his first Premier League manager's job. A Stamford Bridge great as a player, Lampard had an acceptable first season as Blues boss but the acid test comes in this new term after a spree of big-money signings. A high-stakes London gamble will play out in the coming months.

    ALAN SHEARER

    As Pirlo takes charge of those in the Bianconeri stripes he once wore – Cristiano Ronaldo and all – it bears remembering that returning black and white messiahs can fail. Former Newcastle United striker Shearer returned to St James' Park in April 2009, the club's record goalscorer aiming to rescue the team from the threat of relegation, but a dismal return of five points from eight games saw them sink out of the Premier League.

    Shearer left and has not coached since, happily staying in his niche as a television pundit. There are pressures but also a certain comfort to that studio role. Two months at Newcastle was the sum of Shearer's coaching career: as Pirlo may yet find out, that can be all it takes to destroy the notion of it being a natural next step.

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