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Bayern Munich Is Face-To-Face With Its Own Mortality

Dayot Upamecano of Bayern Munchen is expelled by the referee François Letexier during the UEFA Champions League 2023/24 round of 16 first leg match between SS Lazio and FC Bayern München at Stadio Olimpico on February 14, 2024 in Rome, Italy.
Ivan Romano/Getty Images

What does it take for a soccer team to be in a crisis? If the club in question is a top side, with a storied history and a recent form of dominance unsurpassed elsewhere in Europe, the answer, it turns out, is "not much." A few domestic league losses here, an early cup exit there, and a club like Bayern Munich can find itself on the precipice of disaster, just waiting for a final push into chaos. This week just might be the shove that Bayern needed to fully melt down, and now Germany's most successful club is staring at a season with no trophies, with a head coach that may as well be a dead man walking, and with no answers for what comes next.

On Saturday, Bayern had a chance to right the ship. Thanks to the aforementioned domestic league losses, the reigning champions of the Bundesliga (with a streak of 11 consecutive titles!) traveled to face Bayer Leverkusen, the current league leaders, in a one-versus-two match-up that felt like a potential title-decider. Leverkusen absolutely rolled Bayern in its hunt for a first-ever league title, winning 3-0 and building a five-point cushion at the top of the Bundesliga through 21 match-weeks.

So, not great for Bayern, but the club's pains were only just beginning. Tuesday offered yet another chance to right the ship, or at least plug the holes. Bayern traveled to Rome for the first leg of its Champions League round of 16 tie with Lazio. When the draw for this stage came out, Bayern probably counted itself as lucky. Lazio was one of the easier potential opponents, mired as it is in the mid-table of Italy's Serie A, and with the majority of its players, the same players who led the team to a surprise top-four finish last season, under-performing.

With that in mind, how did Lazio not just take a 1-0 victory into the second leg, but do it in a way that felt mostly deserved?

There are many answers here, a rarity for a season in which Bayern has raised questions with no suitable responses. Despite having 61 percent of the possession and taking 17 shots, Bayern didn't get off a single shot on target. For all of Bayern's dominance on the ball, it felt neutered in its attacks, and Lazio continuously hit on the fast break, though with no real success of its own. Well, no success until the 67th minute, when one of those counter-attacks led to magic.

Despite Felipe Anderson seemingly killing off this specific counter with a poor decision—he sent an underhit pass to Ciro Immobile on his left instead of to the more wide open Gustav Isaksen on his right—Immobile was able to maneuver his way into the box and a loose ball landed to Isaksen anyway. The Dane tried to take a shot but it was deflected by Dayet Upamecano out for a corner. Unfortunately for the beleaguered French defender, the deflection came with a side of gnarly studs-up tackle, landing his left foot on Isaksen's shin late, as clear a penalty and a red card as it gets.

After the VAR check confirmed the obvious, Immobile stepped up and sent Manuel Neuer the wrong way, slotting the match's only goal into the right side of the net.

Bayern had a couple of half-chances the rest of the way, but it was more of the same: languid possession leading to nothing of consequence. In fact, it was Lazio that had the best chance in the final stage of the game. Manuel Lazzari drove down the right side of the pitch in the 92nd minute, initiating a bit of a sloppy cutback that eventually landed at the feet of former Barcelona star Pedro, who could only shoot softly right at Neuer. Just like the goal, some shoddy defending from Bayern left Lazio with a better chance than any the Germans put together, and it was only a poorly hit shot that avoided doubling the pain.

So, where does Bayern go from here? Like a horror movie monster, the German giants aren't dead until they're dead, and now they return home for a second leg they should still be favored to win. Lazio will rue not doubling its advantage through Pedro's chance, as Munich is a tough place to play. However, nothing in Bayern's season has provided enough evidence that this is still the same team that will lock down its home fortress and walk, scathed but alive, into the quarterfinals. Elsewhere, Leverkusen has its hands firmly on the steering wheel in the Bundesliga, but that has been the case with other pretenders to the throne who have ultimately fallen apart in the dying months of a season. (Borussia Dortmund, the last non-Bayern team to win the league back in 2012 and one that has come close many times since, knows this role well.) It's certainly possible, and maybe even likely if history is to be believed, that Bayern will find its footing just as Leverkusen starts to slip.

History is fickle, though, and all dynasties eventually end. Juventus won the league nine times in a row, and now that side has gone three seasons without even seriously contending for the Serie A crown (this season looks no different, even with Juventus in second place; it is currently seven points back of Inter with one more match played). Manchester City is still in full force in England, but that will eventually end as well. (Right? Right??) Barcelona would kill to be winning La Liga right now, instead of fighting for its top-four life.

Is it Bayern's turn now? With Thomas Tuchel at the helm, it just might be. The German is a brilliant coach, but he also drives his teams crazy, and this current collection of players isn't playing like a team anyway. Harry Kane came in from Tottenham and has scored his usual tally of goals, but he seems to have dragged his trophyless curse with him. Leroy Sané started the season well but hasn't scored in 16 games. Thomas Müller is declining. Joshua Kimmich is having a bad season. Upamecano is proving week in and week out that Bayern grabbed the wrong RB Leipzig defender in 2021 (Ibrahima Konaté is doing great work over at Liverpool).

All of these players have shown that they can be world class, and there's more than enough talent on Bayern to turn things around. There's also enough turmoil that it might just be that this is the season where Bayern falls, for real this time. After this week from hell, it sure feels like there's no easy fix coming, and even firing Tuchel might not be enough. Bayern Munich is in crisis, that's for sure, even if only by their astronomical standard. That's the thing about a crisis, though: It's all relative to the expectations of the team involved, and no one expects Bayern to succeed more than Bayern itself.

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