If still alive today, the late great Hungarian-American escapologist Harry Houdini could do worse than form a double-act with Bayern Munich’s Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal.
Just as Houdini used to astound audiences by breaking free from strait-jackets or packing cases submerged in water, Van Gaal and his previously under-fire side ended the year with a death-defying feat of their own – digging themselves out of a deep Champions League grave.
Even Bayern’s most partisan fans would have regarded home and away defeats to Bordeaux in Matchdays 3 and 4, as tantamount to the last rites. Yet rather than a one-way trip to the mortuary – in these parts the Europa League is thought to be as enticing as a holiday in the Gulag – Bayern went into improbable fightback mode, first recording a hard-fought 1-0 win at home to Maccabi Haifa, then clinching a spot in the knock-out stage of the competition courtesy of a come-from-behind 4-1 win at Juventus, the first time they had ever triumphed in Turin.
Always loathe to let his tough guy mask slip, Van Gaal defiantly insisted on the eve of the Juventus clash that he was not under undue pressure. Deep down, however, the former Ajax, Barcelona and Holland boss knew that only five months into his Bayern tenure, his fate was on the line.
A seemingly never-ending sequence of of stodgy, colourless performances in the Bundesliga, a far from happy fan-base, plus several episodes of dissent within the squad – notably concerning skipper Philipp Lahm and Italian striker Luca Toni – already had severely weakened Van Gaal’s position. But an early Champions League exit would have been the last straw for a Bayern high command which splashed out £70 million on new players last summer.
Both freshly-installed club president Uli Hoeness and his predecessor, Franz Beckenbauer, gave an indication of which way the wind was blowing when talking of subjecting Van Gaal to a winter break performance review and with no Champions League action on the agenda, the verdict surely would have been fatal to the Dutchman.
Not that there is any chance of Van Gaal being jettisoned now. The comprehensive defeat of Juventus was his team’s most cohesive and enterprising performance of the season and domestically too, the signs are most encouraging. The 4-2-2-2 system featuring Mario Gomez and Ivica Olic up front and Bastian Schweinsteiger in a new role as a deep-lying central midfielder is clicking into gear and after constant changes in personnel, Van Gaal is finally reaping the benefit of a settled side.
Who would have thought it possible that a Bayern minus its two main creators – long-term injury victims Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben – could so spectacularly turn the corner ? One man only. Louis Van Gaal.
Bayern’s exploits in Piedmont were to largely overshadow events in Stuttgart, where the home team beat Romanian outfit Unirea Urziceni 3-1 to seal their Champions League passage, an achievement which, the south-westerners hope, will give them a much-needed boost in a generally depressing campaign.
After finishing third last season, the Stuttgarter have gone from one crisis to the next this autumn and with the relegation walls closing in around them, the board saw no other way out but to fire coach Markus Babbel and replace him with the ex Tottenham and-FC Basel coach Christian Gross, whose first game in charge was against Unirea.
Babbel’s last throw of the dice was to attempt to bury his boy next door image. In Operation Iron Fist, he stripped Thomas Hitzlsperger of the captaincy and curtly informed veteran keeper Jens Lehmann he could no longer have his post-match day off. It did no good. Within days, Babbel would be put out of his misery.