Bundesliga: How many points will separate Bayern from the rest?

BEFORE anyone had time to wonder if Bayern Munich could continue their unprecedented run of success, the Bavarians answered in style, scoring eight goals (again!) without reply against a very poor Schalke 04 team in their opening fixture of the 2020-21 season.

It took the European champions just four minutes to open the scoring, effectively putting the first letter of their name on the Bundesliga trophy. Yes, folks, a ninth title for Bayern is surely on the way.

Put simply, Bayern are too strong, too wealthy, too professional and too experienced for the rest of the Bundesliga. Nobody likes monopolies, but Bayern should trademark the word, for they have a stranglehold on German football like never before. It really is a question of how many points will the margin of success be at the end of 2020-21?

We would like to think that the German league will have a highly competitive title race, but increasingly, there’s no such thing – the same scenario exists in France, Italy (although that may change) and Spain. But you also have to admire Bayern for the way they just keep going, evolving their team, changing managers when a hint of crisis emerges and playing riveting football. How do German clubs motivate themselves when they know the most they can achieve is a Champions League place? And why doesn’t Bayern’s overwhelming superiority have a negative impact on spectator interest – the Bundesliga still draws the best crowds in Europe (when crowds were allowed in the stadium, that is)?.

Not too long ago, people were starting to wonder if Bayern were losing their grip. They had some older players that needed replacing and they went out of the Champions League unusually early. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery both departed, but Bayern have replaced them with younger talent that has yet to reach its peak, such as exciting Canadian defender/ winger Alphonso Davies. And let’s not forget they now have Leroy Sane, who made an impressive debut after joining from Manchester City.

In 2018-19, they topped the table by just two points, some 19 less than 2017-18. But last season, after replacing coach Niko Kovač with Hansi Flick, they recovered from a tricky start to end up 13 points clear of Borussia Dortmund.

If Bayern were to crack – and that is very unlikely – could Borussia Dortmund or RB Leipzig snatch the title? With Dortmund possibly selling Jadon Sancho (the Manchester United defeat against Palace may accelerate that) and Leipzig already without Timo Werner, the dilemma of Bundesliga clubs is clear – they have to periodically sell their talent. At least Werner didn’t end up at Bayern, although he could be an ideal longer-term replacement for Lewandowski when his teeth get too long.

Dortmund, meanwhile, underlined their speculative approach to the development of young players, signing 17 year-old Jude Bellingham from Birmingham City for € 25 million. If Sancho leaves, Bellingham and the likes of Erling Haaland (20) and Giovanni Reyna (17) represent valuable assets that could be sold in the market in the future.

Leipzig haven’t been very active in the market this summer and their main signing has been an inter-group transfer involving Hwang Hee-Chan of Red Bull Salzburg.

Bayer Leverkusen, who finished fifth last season, may have signed an exciting addition to the Bundesliga in Roma’s Patrick Schick, a 24 year-old Czech forward, for € 26.5 million. There’s also considerable expectation around 17 year-old attacking midfielder Florian Wirtz.

Schalke are currently in some financial disarray and have amassed debts of around € 200 million. Their chairman resigned earlier this year and their financial problems, caused by failure to be Champions League regulars and the pandemic, led to them seeking a € 40 million guarantee from the North-Rhine Westphalia state.

They are not the only German club with financial issues to solve. Just after lockdown, it was suggested in the media that as many as 13 clubs across Bundesliga 1 and 2 could be facing economic problems. Borussia Mönchengladbach, who topped the Bundesliga in the early months of 2019-20, were among those affected and despite high revenue generation, made a loss for the year. But Gladbach have some interesting talent, notably French striker Marcus Thuram, Yann Sommer and Florian Neuhaus and could also put pressure on Bayern.

Four of the leading clubs, Bayern, Dortmund, Leverkusen and Leipzig have pledged € 20 million to help clubs in difficulty. The absence of matchday revenues hit some clubs harder than others. The big guns in Europe, such as Bayern, are less reliant on match income which means their position has arguably been strengthened during the pandemic.

Bayern may have entered a new period of European dominance. With Barcelona in turmoil, Real Madrid far from spectacular, Juventus unable to make the breakthrough and Paris Saint-Germain falling short of success, Bayern are undoubtedly the best team in Europe.

And inevitably, they will remain the major force in Germany for the foreseeable future. The 2020-21 season will surely be another notch on Bayern’s bedpost.


RB Leipzig v Atlético: One door closes, another opens

FOR the second night running, the Champions League delivered an intriguing tie that kept the stay-at-home crowd on the edge of their sofas and underlined the competition’s ability to thrill.

Leipzig, the much-discussed product of corporate football, edged their way to the last four of the Champions League at the expense of a club that has lived on the fringe of the elite for the best part of a decade.

To some extent, Atlético’s defeat signals the end of an era, they don’t seem to have the appeal of old even though they have all the ingredients of the Simeone way, as their two victories over Liverpool in the round of 16 suggested.

Atlético finished the La Liga season in third place after two years in which they were runners-up. They were 17 points behind champions Real Madrid and they lost just four games but drew 16. Goals have been a problem for Atlético Madrid and their haul of 51 was their lowest since 2007.

Have Atlético passed their peak and how much longer will Simeone remain at the helm? The Argentinian has been with the club since December 2011 and is the most successful manager they have had in their history. But in a league dominated by the financial might of Real and Barca, has he achieved all he can with Spain’s number three club? There will be no shortage of takers for Simeone’s services.

The 2019-20 Champions League was arguably their best chance of winning the Champions League. One-off games, where Atléti could “do a job”, possibly gave Simeone the possibility of finessing his way to the final once more – especially in the weaker half of the draw.

The opportunity was there for every club in that half, Atalanta, PSG, RB Leipzig and Atléti all had the chance to pull off a surprise or two. PSG and RB Leipzig will now meet in the semi-finals thanks to late goals and dogged determination.

Leipzig overcame the loss of Timo Werner – why was he allowed to move on before the season was out? – and had to thank 21 year-old American substitute Tyler Adams and a deflection for their winner with just a couple of minutes remaining.

While defeat may be the end of something, Leipzig’s victory is an extension of the spectacular progress made by the club in recent years. Unpopular largely because they do not conform to German football’s convention, Leipzig are not a club that throws around cash on big signings. They have certain advantages, but their record signing is just € 24.5 million, the amount they paid to another member of the Red Bull portfolio, Salzburg, for Naby Keïta in 2016-17. Leipzig’s squad has the youngest average age in the Bundesliga (24.7 years), underlining the club’s emphasis on young talent as opposed to expensive seasoned players with lengthy track records.

Atlético’s future was supposed to be built around younger players like João Félix, who is still only 20 but has found the transition from Benfica to Madrid challenging, possibly due to the enormous price tag (€ 126 million) paid by his employer. Félix scored six goals in 27 La Liga games but Marca magazine named him one of the disappointing transfer signings of the season, even though he suffered a series of frustrating injuries.

After Dani Olmo gave Leipzig the lead in the 51st minute in Lisbon, Félix – a 58th minute substitute – equalised from the penalty spot on 71. Félix improved Atléti’s attacking efforts, but generally, Leipzig were comfortable and controlled. Even Simeone had to admit that the German side deserved to win. “I am convinced we gave everything we had…we have to lift our heads and try again next season,” he said after the game. Meanwhile, Julian Nagelsmann, Leipzig’s coach, believed his team was the better side overall and deserved their “lucky winner”.

The semi-finals between RB Leipzig and Paris Saint-Germain brings together two of Europe’s most controversial clubs. Leipzig’s Red Bull ownership and PSG’s Qatari-backing are both disliked in certain quarters and are seen as artificially creating success in a manner which goes against the spirit of the game. Leipzig have yet to win a major prize, but they are getting closer. PSG, long-time overlords of French football, are obsessed with gaining European credibility. Only once – 2012 and Chelsea – has a team from the cluster of “new money” clubs won the competition. Manchester City are still in there but have to win two games to get to the final, but one team from that group is guaranteed a place in the decider. 2020 could be the season where football’s new economic model really does reap rewards.

Photo: PA