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Bayern’s Bastian Schweinsteiger on a mission

Midfield maestro facing fascinating duel with Arsenal's Wilshere

Image Credit: AFP
Bayern Munich midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger is determined to put last season’s Champions League disappointment behindhim by leading his side to Wembley in May for a third final in four years.
Gulf News

Munich: Smiling wildly and with his hair slicked back like an extra in a Great Gatsby party scene, Bastian Schweinsteiger ran off in celebration after his graceful free-kick hit a post before making itself at home in the net.

Schweinsteiger sprinted away, soon caught by Bayern’s Brazilian centre-half, Dante, who taught him a few Samba-style dance steps before they headed back, laughing, to their own half.

Showing technique and vision, Schweinsteiger then chipped a ball through for Arjen Robben to set up Mario Gomez. Stars glitter everywhere in the Bayern galaxy. That was the 4-0 victory over Schalke on February 9. Bayern’s most recent appearance, Friday evening’s 2-0 win at Wolfsburg, saw Schweinsteiger running the show, touching the ball 107 times. Arsenal beware.

Schweinsteiger is the all-action midfield hero, the box-to-box dynamo who has unfinished business with London teams. He was embarrassed in his Bavarian backyard by Chelsea’s Frank Lampard last May in the Champions League final. That hurt. Schweinsteiger, quietly but determinedly, now appears on a mission to drive Bayern to this year’s climax at Wembley. The 28-year-old is held in high regard on these shores.

Lampard and other England players who were in Bloemfontein in 2010 talk of how respectful Schweinsteiger was when Germany deservedly knocked Fabio Capello’s side out of the World Cup. There was no gloating from Schweinsteiger, just a proffered handshake to Lampard and the offer of his shirt. Lampard repaid the compliment in Munich, consoling a grieving Schweinsteiger, who gave a performance touched by celestial powers but then turned mortal, missing a penalty.

English audiences should relish the opportunity to see Schweinsteiger in the flesh. Billed as 6ft tall, he seems smaller in person yet exudes a muscular, athletic aura, a real presence. Bayern have assorted other dangers that Arsenal must guard against, from Philipp Lahm raiding down the right, to Thomas Muller’s sinewy, goalscoring runs, to the wing-play and shooting of Franck Ribery and Robben. In attack, Mario Mandzukic has six goals in four league games.

Bayern are heading for a record-breaking season at a time when the board is planning for a brave new world next term, with Pep Guardiola as coach and Robert Lewandowski as main striker. The current coach, Jupp Heynckes, seems to be a master of spectacular farewells, being dismissed in 1998 within days of steering Real Madrid to Champions League glory. Mandzukic is in prolific form, keeping out Gomez, with the threat of replacement by Lewandowski. Bayern currently have a well-run, well-balanced team of defensive organisation and real potency which could be dismantled next season. Guardiola is a fine coach, rightly admired for the beauty of the football that he fostered at Barcelona, but he is not being asked to refloat a boat caught on a sandbank in the Isar. Tighten the defence? Bayern have not shipped in a goal since December 14 (at home to Borussia Moenchengladbach). Nurture youth-team talent like La Masia? Lahm, Muller and Schweinsteiger all came through Bayern’s productive youth system. Guardiola has powerhouses like Schweinsteiger to work with. Lucky man.

Those who view the world through a Premier League prism must admit disappointment that the man from Kolbemoor is unlikely ever to play in England. It would be easier to reverse the august Isar than prise him from Munich. Pity.

Schweinsteiger would be such a star here. All that energy, that tackling strength, that ability to mop up an opposing attack at one end and then appear in seconds down the other. Yet some reporters like the former Bayern player, Olaf Thon, claim Schweinsteiger is not the player he was, that his pace has ebbed. Any signs of decay - surely a fanciful notion? - will be detected by Jack Wilshere on Tuesday.

Their duel will be ramped up in usual indelicate fashion in heated headlines as England versus Germany. Leave aside the history and the hype. Schweinsteiger against Wilshere promises a fascinating collision of wholehearted competitors of good technique and a self-belief that they can dominate games. Whatever the result of the game and their personal match-up, Wilshere could do worse than ask the Arsenal video whizzes to compile him clips of Schweinsteiger’s display, the movement, the assuming of positions, and also the shooting, a skill Wilshere needs to develop. Lampard won their meeting last May but Schweinsteiger’s performance was immense.

Forgive any seemingly excessive eulogising. This observer has always had a weakness for the Bundesliga’s frequent champions after attending school in Munich in 1979, acquiring a lasting admiration for the club. The Olympic Stadium was an obvious draw, providing a chance to watch Sepp Maier, a bearded Paul Breitner, Martin Jol with sideburns, the favourite Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Gerd Muller, at 33 still a good poacher of goals. That stadium was celebrated architecturally, and home to many golden memories for Bayern (and England) fans, but the Allianz Arena is a wonderful upgrade in terms of beauty, facilities and atmosphere. Bayern have got it right. Arsenal must avoid conceding an away goal to Schweinsteiger, Mandzukic and Muller because the Allianz can be forbidding territory. Not every visitor is Lampard.

So Wilshere will need to be at his very best. Bayern resemble a juggernaut rolling down the Holloway Road, ignoring red lights, crushing traffic cones and honking at pavement drinkers. Bayern are now unbeaten in 18.

Arsene Wenger will be prepared, having done hours of research on Bayern. He enjoys German football, once joking that he was celebrating his birthday by putting some candles on the television and having a quiet night in watching a Bundesliga game. Wenger knows how Bayern defend from the front, closing down opposition defenders, a worry for Arsenal if their full-backs panic (although Andre Santos has left). A sift through the statistics of Bayern’s games in February will remind Wenger of the harrying work of Heynckes’ attackers. Against Wolfsburg, Mandzukic committed five fouls, followed by Muller and Ribery with four offences apiece. Against Schalke, Ribery (three) and Robben (two) were penalised. In the 3-0 success at Mainz it was Mandzukic, four, while Muller and Kroos committed two fouls each. Schweinsteiger was running around, nicking the ball. He has been to Arsenal before, on the bench at Highbury as a 20-year-old for the 2005 meeting. Even with Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Ashley Cole on the pitch, and then Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas and Robert Pires coming on, the Germans knocked Arsenal out.

Arsenal fans will need to be noisy. Bayern fans will certainly make themselves heard. Their anthem, FC Bayern, Star of the South talks of standing “together in good times and also in bad times”, but ultimately of winning because “is there anything more beautiful than a Bayern victory?” At the Emirates and especially the Allianz, Arsenal must watch out... Schweinsteiger’s about.