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The strange thing about the Champions League is that, while in theory it is supposed to crown the best side in Europe, that frequently isn’t the case.
It’s also not the case that a team always wins the tournament when they are at their strongest. According to Rafa Honigstein on this week’s edition of the Totally Football Show, this is what happened to Bayern Munich when they won the Champions League in 2001, beating Valencia on penalties in Milan.
“I think this Bayern team when they were actually not quite at their best anymore,” said Rafa. “This is not unusual – you just have to think of Chelsea in 2012. They were basically rewarded for the effort they had put in over the last few seasons.
“I think 2000 was the best Bayern side: they absolutely destroyed Real Madrid twice in the second group stage before getting knocked out by them in the semi-final. They deserved it in terms of a ‘life achievement’ award, rather than maybe that season in particular.”
The win came at least partly as a result of a tactical progression – or, if you prefer, a regression since the spirit-crushing defeat to Manchester United two years earlier.
“They had also become progressively more defensive and reactive, partly as a consequence of 1999 when they threw it away,” said Rafa. “Hitzfeld had become more obsessed with the defensive side of the game. Think about this: in 2001 they won the Champions League with a sweeper, which showed you where German football was and where Bayern were. Not too many people paid too much attention to it but it kind of summed up that perhaps they were missing the boat a little bit tactically, both as a club and a football nation.”
Of course, Bayern nearly didn’t make it that far. They got through the first group stage easily enough, finishing top and the only blemish to their record being a defeat away to PSG.
The second group, however, was a little spicier, as Rafa Honigstein explained.
“First of all, the game Bayern played at Highbury was really interesting: Arsenal took a 2-0 lead, then Bayern came back in the second-half and got a 2-2 draw. But the most important game, maybe in this part of Bayern’s history, was a 3-0 defeat at Lyon.
“Bayern weren’t just beaten – they were destroyed by Lyon. The atmosphere at the midnight banquet (held by Bayern after Champions League games) was so febrile with disappointment at Bayern’s performance – Franz Beckenbauer accused Bayern of playing like an old pensioner’s team in his public speech, which didn’t go down well with the players.
“Poor Ottmar Hitzfeld was put into a room at 12:00 to do an emergency press conference, to explain why he thought this team could go on and win the Champions League playing as they had done, especially as they had been all over the place defensively. There was a huge fallout for weeks after this, but later on it appeared – this was the narrative, at least – that Steffan Effenberg and a number of other senior players, said “we’re not going to let this slide and we’ll show them all.” And of course they did.
“There was a suggestion about this Bayern team that they were getting close again, and again, and again, but falling down. That’s what it looked like in the second group stage.
“I remember the poor, ashen-faced Hitzfeld saying “no, with Thomas Linke, Sammy Kuffour and Patrick Andersson we can do it.” Nobody believed him at the time.”
Ah, yes, Kuffour. One of the lasting images from the 1999 final was the Bayern centre-back beating the floor in despair after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winner, but the pictures that came from the win over Valencia in the final were much more pleasant.
“There was a lovely shot that Seddeutche Zeitung used of him kissing the cup in a very gentle and really loving way.”
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