As Josep Guardiola's FC Bayern München bow out, UEFA.com's Andy James says injuries to Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry undermined the latest phase of 'Project Pep'.
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It was always going to be a tall order for FC Bayern München to overturn a 3-0 first-leg deficit against FC Barcelona – the pre-eminent force in the UEFA Champions League in recent years.
Lionel Messi's double and a late Neymar goal at the Camp Nou had left Bayern requiring a minimum of three goals on home turf and, after Neymar struck twice to overturn Medhi Benatia's early opener, that minimum requirement quickly increased to five goals.
With the majority of the 70,000 crowd roaring them on, Bayern searched valiantly for a way back into the tie and were rewarded for their efforts on the night with a 3-2 victory. Yet the bottom line was that they were well beaten at the UEFA Champions League semi-final stage for the second season running.
Now, most clubs, however big or small, would be content with five last-four appearances in five seasons, but not Bayern – and Josep Guardiola knew this when he took on the job two years ago.
In some ways it was the impossible task. In the summer of 2013, a reinvigorated Jupp Heynckes had just led Bayern to an unprecedented league, cup and UEFA Champions League treble. How could any coach improve on such a haul? For Guardiola the challenge was not just sustaining the same level of success over a longer period, he was also charged with revamping Bayern's playing style.
The latter part of that brief has been accomplished. Bayern have taken on many of the traits of Guardiola's great Barcelona side of 2008–12. They keep the ball more than any other side in the UEFA Champions League – even Barça themselves – and dominate the midfield. It is a less direct approach than that of Heynckes but it retains the incisive wing play of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry.
Domestically, Bayern have been flying under Guardiola and in both of his first two seasons, they have wrapped up the title well before time. Last term they added the German Cup to their winnings, but in the UEFA Champions League they have fallen down at the penultimate hurdle in successive campaigns.
Two years into a three-year contract, 'Project Pep' is likely entering its final phase – at least if the Catalan tactician's previous form is anything to go by – and failure to win Europe's biggest prize during his tenure is sure to rankle with the fiercely competitive 44-year-old.
So what can Bayern do to make it third time lucky next season? Where have they fallen short over the past couple of years?
The answer is complicated and of course luck plays a part. Every coach must deal with injuries and suspensions but Guardiola may feel particularly hard done by. Holger Badstuber, Javi Martínez, David Alaba and Thiago Alcántara are among a raft of first-choice players who have been unavailable to him in recent months. Several have returned of late, but crucially Bayern have lost arguably their two most penetrative players at the worst possible time in Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, both of whom were missing against Barcelona.
While Ribéry may not be hitting the kind of form which saw him crowned UEFA Best Player in Europe in 2013, his pace and incisiveness are still a formidable weapon against any defence. Robben, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength since scoring the winning goal at Wembley in the UEFA Champions League final two years ago. The Dutchman has certainly been the Bavarians' best player this term, contributing 19 goals himself and setting up another ten across the three main competitions, but he picked up a muscle injury just as Bayern were reaching the business end of the season.
This ties in with the next point: that Bayern are too reliant on their wing wizards. Without the darting runs of the wide men, Guardiola's team can become overly narrow in their play, attempting to intricately pass their way through a crowded middle of the park and often becoming frustrated. At Barça, Guardiola had Messi to open things up. At Bayern, Robben is the catalyst who can beat a man and create an overload in attack. Without him – and Ribéry – the team can lack purpose in possession and with no adequate replacements to compensate during periods of injury, the problem is exacerbated.
Another factor which is bound to be discussed is that Bayern are not facing enough of a challenge in their domestic league, the Bundesliga. In each of the past two seasons they have sewn up the title with seven and four games respectively to spare. Last season's record-quick time was directly attributed to the club's downfall in the UEFA Champions League. It was argued that they lost their rhythm after winning the title as players were rested in anticipation of the semi-final against Real Madrid CF. They lost 5-0 on aggregate.
Guardiola doubtless tried to guard against a loss of tension this term, but it is difficult to see an improvement when Bayern, after sewing up the title with victory against Hertha BSC Berlin on 25 April, failed to win their following four games, with Tuesday's 3-2 success against Barcelona a victory on paper alone.
Whether these aspects are ones for Guardiola to consider over the summer as he launches what will likely be his final assault on the treble in a Bayern suit next term is of course up for discussion. What is certain is that the club's management firmly believe in the Spaniard's methods and the players, who speak of him only in praise, will be doing everything they can to ensure it is third time lucky for 'Pep' next year.