Oh how I long for those European nights! A disciple of the sport,growing up,there is nothing I looked forward to more on television that the late night broadcast of a UEFA Champions League (UCL) match. Even today,when I hear the UCL anthem an adaption of Handels Zadok the Priest (a coronation anthem used by the British Monarch),I cannot help but be overcome by emotion. It is evident,form the anthems first movement that you are about to witness a spectacle of football: something great,something magical.
Conceived in 1992,the UCL was born out of its predecessor the European Cup and has subsequently transformed itself into the most watched annual sporting event. With a new marketing strategy and brand identity,UEFA created a league of star clubs and in doing so defined the pinnacle of footballing success. Club owners have plundered millions in their quest for glory (read: Inter Milans Massimo Moratti spent 600 million to match up to his father while the top management at Real Madrid have squandered in excess of 800 million in search of la decima ). Managers too have never played down the occasion with Jose Mourinho claiming prior to the 2010 final,”This game is the most important in the world .it is even bigger than the World Cup because the teams in it are at a higher level than national teams.” To the players it is everything. After winning the trophy last season with Chelsea Didier Drogba went on to state “I have a special relationship with the Champions League it is a trophy I had to wait a long time to touch .to be able to lift the cup was the highlight of my career.”
So what exactly will this match tell us about the state of football in Europe and its trajectory over the coming years? If past trends are anything to go by it could mark a watershed moment for German football (and the Bundesliga). Ever since the group stage exit by the national team in Euro 2000,German football has changed. Money has been poured into facilities and coaching. German clubs have invested over half a billion euros in academies since 2001-02. What we see today is the first generation crop of players that have gone through all levels at the academy. Germany has gone on to win the European Championship at under-17,under-19 and under-21 levels since 2008. This weekends game will mark the third time (Bayern Munich were runners up on both occasions) in four years that a German club has reached the finals. Saturdays game pits the current winners of the German league,Bayern Munich against runners up Borussia Dortmund.
For Munichs players,it will be a case of putting demons to bed and for their coach Jupp Heynckes a chance to end his managerial career on a high. On his 68th birthday last month,Heynckes commented on the “two huge tasks remaining this term,the Champions League and DFB Cup finals: We’ve not yet reached the end of our journey.” Munich have been breathtaking this season with their proactive possession play,they boast the second-best ball retention statistics in Europe. Their players are determined and the 7-0 semi- final demolition of Barcelona did little to quell the chatter that Munich may well be Europes next great footballing super power,a thought cheekily echoed by Dortmund manager,Jurgen Klopp,when he compared them to the Chinese . Ironically,it was Munich who in 2003,loaned Dortmund 2 million to pay off players wages.
Bayern is seen (sometimes unfairly) as the bullies with the money. Dortmund on the other hand is the workers club,with a wage bill half that of their rivals. In 2005,Dortmund was staring administration in the face. The club had to pay off its debts and rebuild its squad. It was in need of a philosophy and in stepped Jurgen Klopp. He gave the fans what they wanted,the Dortmund legacy a team fighting for its life. While previously in charge at Mainz,Klopp had sent his team on a preseason tour to Sweden for 5 days in the icy terrain without food or electricity just so that they could,in his words,”survive everything.” Eccentric? Maybe,but in three years he has transformed a rigid side into free flowing,attack minded,title winning one that has bought into his philosophy of what he terms “the most interesting football project in the world.” He has made great use of young talent and coupled that with some astute (bargain) purchases. The team usually sets up (4-2-3-1) geared to make quick transitions transferring the ball into attack immediately to break at a disorganised opposition defense.
This season though both sides have become more cautious to one anothers strategies. Bayern continue to dominate (of the 4 games played this year the superpower is leading 2-0) possession but are reluctant to throw so many players forward into attack at once,for fear of leaving large gaps for Dortmund to break into. On the other hand,Klopp has switched from his usual 4-2-3-1 to a more cautious 4-3-3 system to counter Bayerns possession play,sacrificing a counterattacking style in the bargain.
Munich is expected to name an unchanged squad from their 2nd leg semi final with the only inclusion (though highly unlikely) that of Kroos over Muller. Dortmund on the other hand,will need to replace the injured,and future Bayern Munich player,Mario Gotze. Klopp is most likely to deploy Blaszczykowski in a three-man compact mid field with Grosskreutz partnering Reus and Lewandowski up front.
The final at Wembley will be the 10th meeting between the sides in the past three seasons and the players know each other perfectly well. Bayern will be favorites and Klopp will be hell bent on beating what he calls “the best team in the world”.
For the neutrals out there,the effervescent Klopp has a word of advice too,”We are a club,not a company,but it depends on which kind of story the neutral fan wants to hear. If he respects the story of Bayern,and how much they have won since the 1970s,he can support them. But if he wants the new story,the special story,it must be Dortmund. I think,in this moment in the football world,you have to be on our side.”
So come this Saturday night,define your identity corporate sell-out or working class hero pick a side,and enjoy what promises to be another magical night of European football.
My prediction: Dortmund to sneak it 2-1.