Even in its current punchdrunk form the Champions League is capable of posing some urgent questions. Questions such as: just how good are Bayern Munich? How bad, exactly, is almost everyone else? And can we just fast forward to the bit where Bayern and Liverpool finally get to pile into one another like a pair of peak-career Mexican middleweights?
Bayern erected another milestone on Tuesday at the Red Bull Arena, extending their record Champions League winning run to 14 games with a startlingly open 6-2 shellacking of RB Salzburg.
Steamrollering runs of form have become a feature of European club football as talent and wealth is hoarded ever more closely. This, though, is something distinct. Bayern will head into Der Klassiker on Saturday on the back of nine straight wins, plus five trophies won in the past five months. Two things stand out about this supremacy. First, it has come from something close to a standing start. Bayern sacked the gloom-ridden Niko Kovac last November. Since then the same group of players has won 11 games straight in the Champions League, including an entire shortened knockout stage, by an aggregate score of 42-7.
Second, and more striking, is the style of their dominance, just how beautifully well-suited that merciless front-foot game of sprints is to the current seasick state of European football. At which point it is worth pointing out the Champions League is a pretty grisly thing right now.
Why are we even doing this? The borders have closed. Europe is riven by plague. This is football played through a haze of money-panic, dragged from its bed, hauled out centre stage with its pyjamas poking out the bottom of its trousers, and ordered to perform.
On Tuesday Ajax had 11 positive Covid-19 tests before the game against Midtjylland, then four negative follow-up tests from that group who turned up on the night all the same. Teams have not been built, plans have not been laid. Some of these alleged champion teams resemble a collapsed souffle, oozing at the edges, soft in the middle, basic shape just about recognisable.
There is a paradox here. The football may be fan-free and played to order, an uncomfortably synthetic spectacle. But it is also entertaining as a TV product, and perversely authentic in some ways. Here, finally, we get a rare glimpse at times of heavily conditioned elite players performing off the cuff.
It is a kind of looseness that suits Bayern’s strengths and it was there very clearly on Tuesday in a Group B fixture that resembled something from a more carefree era, a galloping, cavalry officer kind of sport.
Bayern and Salzburg took 39 shots at goal. There were overturned penalties, shots against the post, a thrilling goal from Serge Gnabry ruled out by offside. Bayern scored four times in 11 minutes at the end as Leroy Sané and Douglas Costa entered a pitch drowning in lactic acid. Before then, though, Salzburg passed the ball with fizz and zip, Dominik Szoboszlai a constant menace, and often found space behind the Bayern defence.
This is the paradox of Bayern and the allure of their style. The advantages of blitzing midfield and relentlessly crowding opponents are deemed greater than the risks of pushing high in defence and relying on the odd burst of recovery speed.
It is a robust, concussive style and one that seems ideally suited to lockdown football. Bayern want to tear you apart in the opening 10 minutes, then tear you apart all over again for the remaining 80. But their methods are quite linear, based on rapid movement, clear passing lines and by a team without technical or physical weak links.
Bayern don’t just pass the ball, they spank it about at fearsome speed, shaving off touches taken and time in static possession. If the Spanish passing style feels like watching something being mercilessly unpicked, this is a constant battering at the hinges, a sustained blowing off of the doors.
It has been suggested the more careful, high-maintenance passing rhythms of a classic Pep Guardiola team will be hard to drill in the current schedule. Whereas Bayern, like Liverpool, have a less complex, more obviously repeatable set of movements, concerned as much with speed of execution as the carefully wrought manipulation of space.
It is an Anglo-German (or rather German-German) comparison worth making. If only because this is the match-up European football seems to be leaning towards. Liverpool and Bayern cannot meet until March. Plenty can change before then. But on the evidence of the last year these are not just the two leading teams, but a fascinating prospect in opposition.
Liverpool were wonderfully surgical in attack in the 5-0 defeat of Atlanta on Tuesday, albeit against brutally outclassed opponents. Goals three and five basically involved Liverpool players running unhindered from halfway to score.
More striking was the way Diogo Jota’s diagonal runs found pockets of space behind a high defensive line, a reminder that Liverpool’s most convincing attacking rhythms are geared towards exploiting this kind of defensive shape. Bayern have played like this, and won like this, for the past 12 months, taking a risk to feed a strength. In a time of confusion the two most coherent teams in Europe look an excellent world title match-up.
The football may feel unplanned, off the cuff and even oddly liberated. But if this Champions League can get to the spring in one piece, there may yet be some real treats in store. - Guardian