A year ago, German marksman Mario Gomez did not feature in the structure Bayern Munich manager Louis van Gaal considered his blueprint for his first choice team for the season. The German had hogged a significant amount of limelight during his days at Stuttgart but had failed considerably to impress at the bigger club. National team coach Joachim Loew too was not particularly content with the mediocre outing Gomez had had with the team during Euro 2008 even after superseding Lucas Podolski’s pairing with veteran striker Miroslav Klose upfront. Subsequently, Gomez fell down the pecking order during the extravaganza in South Africa as Podolski reclaimed his position and a certain 20-year old, fairly-unknown Bayern lad called Thomas Muller emerged as the German discovery of the tournament.
Post the World Cup, it started becoming increasingly clear Muller will eventually step into Klose’s big shoes at Bayern Munich even though he was naturally a support striker, a winger or an attacking midfielder – none of which boasted his poaching abilities. Louis van Gaal was adamant his first choice Centre Forward would remain Ivica Olic and Muller was expected to cement his position behind the two strikers to strengthen his candidature as Bayern’s future firepower. It was only a spate of injuries among the Bayern front line that compelled the Dutch manager to field Gomez in action; little did the ex-Barcelona manager know what a fortuitous move it would prove to be.

Super Mario?

As things stand, Gomez has netted in 28 goals in the current season in all competitions single-handedly sailing Bayern’s sinking ship forward in the absence of the big name stars like Robben, Ribery and Klose. Last night in the first leg of the knock-out round, Gomez epitomised the importance of his presence in the team by tapping-in a last minute winner at San Siro over the defending champions Internazionale giving his team a resounding advantage before playing the return leg at Allianz Arena. The game was heading towards a stalemate as with fair shares of luck by their sides, both the teams were able to hold their grounds till the very last minute of the game when an Arjen Robben shot rebounded in open space after Inter keeper Julio Cesare failed not only to hold on to the ball but also to clear it out of any opposition player’s reach. Gomez could not have asked for a better opportunity to score and did what was required in a precise, calm and composed fashion.

Intensity Without The Pay-Off

Hardly to anyone’s surprise, the game began on a slow footing and there was barely any intent shown by either of the teams in the first ten minutes. However, the home side initiated some threat in the opposition half and the visitors were not slow to respond. Samuel Eto’o displayed some of his gifted trickery to perplex the Bayern defence and was able to mount some serious occasional threats. Every single time Inter posed a threat, Bayern were quick to counter – channeling their efforts mainly through their quick-footed wingers on either of the flanks. Both Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery were instrumental in the first half with their runs, their eye for passing and ferocious shots. Incidentally both the wingers’ shots managed to be undone only by the cross bar and not thanks to any heroics from Brazilian Julio Cesar.

The Bavarians could still taste the defeat they were handed by Inter in last year’s Champions League final and were keen to settle the score at the Nerazzurri’s own den. That intention was best exemplified by the heroics of the 22-year old German goalkeeper Thomas Kraft. Eto’o was denied during the first half courtesy a mesmerising save by Kraft whereas Cambiasso put the shot over the bar after the ball landed in no man’s land when Kraft failed to hold on to a Sneijder shot.

Eto’o Toils Away

Inter did experience some hiccups initially with their changed formation as Eto’o was playing alone upfront fed from either direction by Sneijder and Stankovic. Winter signing Giampaolo Pazzini’s unavailability on account of being cup-tied forced them to change shape. However, pretty soon their two-layer midfield began to link successfully and there were instances when interplay between Sneijder and Eto’o proved to be a visual treat. For all the fluidity and intensity in their play, neither of the teams could excel enough to translate their efforts into a goal until the very last minute.

Bayern Get Their Tactics Right

Due to Pazzini’s absence, Leonardo deployed a 4-3-2-1 formation which, in hindsight, may have proven narrow in midfield. Louis van Gaal on the other hand, the experienced customer that he is, was never expected to experiment in an away fixture and to nobody’s surprise, he chose to stick on to 4-2-3-1 that allowed his dyed-in-the-wool wingers to provide width into the attack.

Inter’s shape from the very beginning was pretty narrow in the opponent’s half and that carried a heavy burden of pressure as a counter attack from the flanks was fairly easier to upstage with both Sneijder and Stankovic trading from a fairly close vicinity. That made the ‘3’ portion of the formation the most crucial aspect to their game and the chosen personnel – Zanetti, Cambiasso and Motta – managed to contain the wing-based play from Bayern.

The real trouble surfaced during the counter build-up as whenever the defensive fold of Inter’s midfield won the ball in their own half, their position was far too deep to initiate an immediate counter attack. They chose to push the ball forward laterally which allowed Bayern midfield to alter their shape from 2-3 to 3-2 and defend wisely, putting numbers behind the ball. Wesley Sneijder in particular stormed past Schweinsteiger on numerous occasions with some sparkling movement and allowed Eto’o to take quite a few shots at Kraft’s goal.

The German champions too did not have their best day in office as far as their defence was concerned but one area where they maintained an edge over Inter throughout the course of the game was in their width. Bayern skipper Philippe Lahm performed his role as a defender sufficiently well enough and defended deep whenever Inter attacked. He also managed to engage in every attack from the right flank, supplying Robben some crucial passes. Lahm also managed to find himself in a dangerous position in the attacking third to receive grounded crosses from Robben whenever the Dutch winger was blocked and choked off space to cut in and deliver.

The formation above aims to explaining the difference in the passing range between the two teams. As seen here, it becomes clear Bayern had better equipped players at wide positions and could easily post a counter attack from the flanks

Given the nature of improvement both teams experienced as the clock ran down, the game deserved to end on parity but Bayern managed to break the deadlock in the very last minute before the stoppage time when there was little time left for Inter to stage a late recovery.

Expectations From The Return Leg

The battle may have been won by Bayern but the war is still anyone’s for the taking and the second leg will bear testimony to that. They play the league leaders Borussia Dortmund over the weekend hoping to reduce the gap at the top of the table and have to maintain a winning momentum to take the Bundes Liga title battle down to the wire. Inter have come of age since Leonardo took over and after resurrecting their dangling campaign in an incredible manner, they now have the luxury to play a few lowly positioned teams in the Serie A table before going into the Derby Della Madonnina.

Though Bayern have secured a priceless lead, they are hardly the team to play a containing game. Inter therefore have a tough task ahead as they cannot afford to concede any further. Leonardo already lost a battle at this stage last year which cost him his job, whereas van Gaal’s team can fondly recall eliminating another Italian team at this stage. History, it seems, looks to be nodding in Bayern’s favor but once the whistle blows at the Allianz Arena, it really boils down to winner takes all.

– Parth Pandya