FC Bayern Munich are among Europe's elite, and have been for some time. Runners up just two season's ago, the German club are one of three Bundesliga sides to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage this season. Thanks mainly to Schalke and Bayern's exploits in the past couple of seasons this number will increase to four from next season. With the final taking place at the beautiful Allianz Arena the pressure is on Bayern to reach the final and they are coping admirably.
Answering our questions on Bayern Munich is Clark Whitney. Clark is German football editor at Goal.com and creator of "Teutonic Tuesday" which was one of my favourite editorial sections on the site, though I cannot seem to find it any longer...Anyway, it was great to work with Clark, and I hope you enjoy his insights into Bayern Munchen. Oh, and just to clarify, this doesn't mean he is a Bayern fan...
How long have you worked for Goal.com?
I wrote my first piece as an intern in April of 2008. I was offered a job in the summer and my first official day was August 15.
Do you have any favourite players (past or present)?
My favourite player growing up was Zidane. There was beauty in his simplicity, and he used only as much flair as necessary. He made the whole team better, whether for club or country, and always was able to raise his level on the greatest stage. Now, I have several favourites. Manuel Neuer, because of his athleticism, confidence and command of the penalty area, and his oft-underrated ability to set up play. He's remarkably complete, and I hear he's a good shot-stopper too.
Mats Hummels, because it's been a very, very long time since I've seen a centre-back with his skill set. A remarkable man-marker, and the best passer in the world at his position. Mesut Oezil because, like Zidane, he has tremendous technique but gets all the little things right. If only he had better stamina. Mario Goetze, because he is the poster-boy of Germany's new generation, and evidence of the DFL's success since their reform in 2000.
Bayern were drawn into the "group of death" but at the moment appear they appear to be progressing at a stroll. Have you been surprised at Bayern’s early UCL form? Speaking of the group stage, how would you rate the chances of Bayern going unbeaten? A tough trip to Manchester City will pose a threat, but to go the group stage without defeat will be a huge notice to the rest of Europe’s elite...
The "group of death" may be a little over-rated in terms of its difficulty for an experienced team like Bayern. Villarreal are in serious trouble now, and as newcomers, Napoli and City are at a big disadvantage. The trip to Manchester won't be easy, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Bayern managed to win even all of their last three matches. The real test, though, will come in the knock-out rounds.
Louis van Gaal looked like he completely lost the backing of his players which led to a complete breakdown of the system. What was the reason behind that and can current manager, Jupp Heynckes, avoid that same problem?
Van Gaal was incredibly stubborn and very difficult to get along with. That's tolerable in good times, but when things go sour, it's never sustainable. Heynckes is a completely different character, and the players really enjoy working under him. Take Franck Ribery, for example, who said in September that he's happier than he's been in years.
The addition of Manuel Neuer seems to have solidified Bayern's defensive play. Was a top goalkeeper really the only thing the team was missing to be title contenders not only in Germany, but also in European competitions?
No, Heynckes is at the root of Bayern's defensive success. He keeps the defenders and holding midfielders close together, and makes sure that everyone defends. Mueller has always been a hard worker, but Ribery and Gomez are defending far more now than they ever did. Also, Van Gaal never practiced set pieces. Heynckes does.
Who is Bayern's key player, a player they can't afford to lose if they want to go deep in the Champions League?
This is a tough one, but I'll say Mario Gomez. Behind him, there is only Nils Petersen (the 2. Bundesliga top scorer of yesteryear, but not ready for the big stage), and Ivica Olic, who wants to leave in January and is a shadow of the player he was before his knee surgery.
The defense is not the best (Lahm aside) but is there an area you think FC Hollywood could improve upon?
I'll have to disagree here: Bayern's defensive record is the best in Europe, and quite comfortably so. Keep in mind that they have played some very formidable teams, too. I have my doubts over the long-term ability of Van Buyten in central defence, but he's had a real renaissance under Heynckes. The only other area is perhaps the defensive midfield alongside Schweinsteiger, for tactical reasons. Bastian is best used as a straight No. 6, with a free player slightly ahead of him. This was evident in the best game of his career; the 4-0 win over Argentina at the World Cup. For me, Arturo Vidal would have been a perfect signing in the current system.
Bayern's play has looked very inspired so far, in all competitions, and they have to be considered favorites for all domestic titles, but can they realistically contend for the UEFA Champions League trophy? If not how far do you expect them to go?
Based on current form, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they reached the final. And then anything can happen. Every team, Bayern included, has shown weaknesses this season, and ultimately form on the day will be decisive. But I'd say the current team is far better than the one that reached the 2010 final; they absolutely can contend. And let's not forget: their ace, Robben, has yet to be played. If he's fit, he's one of the most decisive players in football.
Is there a team you would consider a "dark horse" for the tournament?
Benfica and Marseille have looked good thus far. I'd rather not jinx Leverkusen.
German football is certainly on the rise again, so is there any particular player we should be looking out for on a break-out season?
Goetze (Dortmund) is a phenomenon, hands down. Hummels, too. Andre Schuerrle (Leverkusen) as well - he's a lot like Thomas Mueller, but a little bit more striker-like. I'm closely watching a lot of players, some Bundesliga some 2. Bundesliga, some U-19. There are a lot of rising stars, but Goetze, Hummels and Schuerrle are the three you're most likely to hear about in the near future.
Considering this is a Barcelona blog, how would you rate the chances of Pep Guardiola’s side becoming the first to retain the UEFA Champions League in its current format?
Barcelona are the team to beat, for sure. They're a fascinating team, and I'm impressed that Guardiola has continued to bring success while making massive changes to his system. For me, they were best in 2008-09, but their success then has instilled a winning culture that just isn't paralleled at the moment.
If we could, I would like to end on the Allianz Arena. Munich is the proud host of the Champions League final this season and the Allianz is sure to be a worthy venue. My question is whether it would be worth going to the Allianz Arena for the final (at whatever cost), and whether you would say that the stadium surpasses Wembley?
To me, one of the most attractive aspects of football is its universality: you can play it in a world class stadium, or with a can as the "ball." Football knows no boundaries, social, cultural, financial, or otherwise. Many clubs have gone a step too far with "unfair" financial practices, and Uefa is taking action to correct this. Michel Platini should do the same in ensuring that the Champions League final is affordable for not just the ultra-wealthy.
As for whether the Allianz surpasses Wembley, that I cannot comment on. The Allianz is one of the best in Germany, after Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park and alongside the Veltins Arena (Schalke) and Koeln's RheinEnergieStadion.
Thanks to Clark for taking the time to work with us, it was a pleasure to have this opportunity, and be sure to follow him on Twitter @Mr_Bundesliga.