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GERMAN EXPERIENCE

The mission for munich

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BASTIAN SCHWEINSTEIGER Returned from injury and dispelled all doubts with a clinical display in the semis. His duel with Lampard will be one to look out for, and the German's experience could prove vital.

When Bayern Munich visited Delhi for a friendly match against India during the Bundesliga winter break, the spectators were stunned by their display of strength... after the match. They seemed to lap the stadium for what seemed like another half, and the gulf between our local footballers and world class stars were all the more prominent.

When Bayern Munich visited Delhi for a friendly match against India during the Bundesliga winter break, the spectators were stunned by their display of strength. . . after the match. They seemed to lap the stadium for what seemed like another half, and the gulf between our local footballers and world class stars were all the more prominent.

Bayern's take-it-to-the-limit training that of course conveniently coincided with commercial ventures, was nothing new. Their opponents in the Champions League final, Chelsea, were tackling issues during the busiest period of the English season.
Bayern, despite the high-intensity training in Qatar, that facilitated the promotional stopover in India, struggled with their pitch assignments in Germany. A certain team in yellow - Borussia Dortmund - was in the driving seat.
Coach Jupp Heynckes was optimistic about his second-half chances in the season with the return of stalwarts Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger from injury but the restart on January 20 saw them losing at Moenchengladbach 3-1, and till March 3, they collected only 11 points from a possible 21. It was hardly championship form.

Since the Champions League playoffs in August, when they swatted away Zurich's challenge with ease, there had been a determination, nein, an obsession, to reach the final that was scheduled to be played at their beloved Allianz Arena. In the so-called Group of Death, they negotiated the hurdles of Napoli, Man City and Villarreal to advance as the toppers.

The Round of 16 coincided with their dip in form. On February 22, they lost 1-0 at Basel, conquerors of Manchester United, in the first leg. Was it the end of the road for Bayern?
In February, there were calls to drop Robben from the starting XI. "Bayern were at their best when Robben wasn't available, " was the verdict from former Munich midfielder Mario Basler.

Elsewhere, Toni Kroos struggled in the holding midfielder role and the normally dependable Thomas Mueller vanished when the team needed him. The team lacked basics like aggression, attitude and work-rate.

Saturday, March 10, saw the turnaround. The red men responded with a 7-1 thrashing of Hoffenheim at the Allianz. Three days later, they demolished Basel 7-0 in their backyard again.

Robben, whose egocentric nature has not endeared himself to his mates, was relegated to the bench by Heynckes, whose aim was to discipline. The Dutchman sulked a bit, questioning his coach's reason, but finally acquired a new attitude. Called into action, he did not disappoint, and his change in form was instrumental in Bayern's revival of fortune.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, who had been struggling with injuries throughout the season and returned as a substitute in the Basel game, also provided the boost. The man with the thunderous left-foot was an assuring presence in the centre of midfield with his ability to break down opposition forays and change defence into attack. More importantly, he was their heartbeat. Bayern found their talisman again.

There were reports of the other wide man, Franck Ribery - enjoying his best season in Germany - coming to blows with Robben over a freekick in the Real Madrid semifinal. There was reluctance to pass to each other in a subsequent game but the management urged them to make peace for the greater cause.

Mercurial Robben, on his part, extracted revenge on Real, who had showed him the door with a sigh of good riddance. Now, it's another ex-club's turn.

Seven years ago, he left Chelsea for Real, with then-B lue Jose Mourinho criticising him for his lack of character. His final match was against Manchester United in an FA Cup final. He came on as a substitute only to limp off with an injury, his goodbye symbolic of his fragile time at Stamford Bridge.

Although he has his quirks, he has grown as a player and a person. The renewal of his contract suggests that he has grasped the bigger picture.

And so it goes for the rest. Towering striker Mario Gomez seemed awkward at best in his opening season with Bayern when presented with tempting opportunities. Last season, he was prolific with 42 goals in all competition. This season, he is better, with 12 goals in 11 Champions League matches, and 48 overall. His last-gasp strike against Real which gave Bayern a 2-1 advantage going to Bernabeu was one of the important moments of the tournament, although sturdy Manuel Neuer may have shaded him with his heroic saves in the penalty shootout.

May 19, Munich final. The way Chelsea reached the pinnacle match may have been written in the stars. The way Bayern found their road home was paved by their own.

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