When Bayern Munich made their annual visit to Doha for warm-weather training at the beginning of January, they would have been forgiven for wondering how kind Qatar was going to be to them. After all, its World Cup, staged in November and December, left the German champions with a number of headaches.
Start with the misfortunes of Germany, whose top league resumes Friday evening after a two-month recess — the first part of it because of the winter World Cup, the last four weeks so that the Bundesliga players could maintain their time-honoured practice of a genuine mid-season break. German football has spent much of that period soul-searching after the national side, World Cup winners in 2014, were eliminated in the group phase at Qatar 2022, just as they had been at Russia 2018.
And no club is more engaged with the national squad than the serial Bundesliga champions. Seven Bayern players went to the tournament in ex-Bayern coach Hansi Flick’s party; six of them endured the 2-1 defeat to Japan that set back their campaign.
The entire front five that took on Costa Rica in the last match, with qualification no longer in their hands, were Bayern men. Germany won that fixture 4-2, but Japan’s win against Spain meant Flick’s team exited at the first hurdle.
When captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, without a World Cup clean sheet, returned home, he thought he would clear his head with a ski trip to the Spitzingsee mountains just south of Munich. He promptly broke his right leg.
That immediately reset Bayern’s transfer-window plans and on Wednesday they completed the purchase of Yann Sommer from Borussia Monchengladbach to cover Neuer’s absence — he is unlikely to play again this season — and could give the new signing his debut this evening at RB Leipzig. Sommer, who would have been out of contract in June and has cost an initial €8 million, can at least be optimistic his first club match since the World Cup goes better than his last game at that tournament, when he was in goal for Switzerland in their 6-1 defeat to Portugal.
Bayern are top of the table, four points ahead of an overachieving Freiburg and six clear of Leipzig. They paused a run of 10 successive victories, across competitions, for the World Cup. But there, their observers watched a series of mishaps.
Defender Lucas Hernandez ruptured a cruciate ligament within nine minutes of France kicking off their opening match against Australia. He will be out of action all season.
Their concerned head coach, Julian Nagelsmann, had already spoken with concern and sympathy to striker Sadio Mane, as the Senegalese battled in vain to overcome a calf problem and participate in his country’s campaign. But the injury, sustained in Bayern’s last game before the break, was grave enough to need surgery. Mane withdrew from Senegal’s squad and is still in recuperation.
There seemed to be some good news, in terms of player morale, from Noussair Mazraoui’s accomplished performances for Morocco during their impressive march to the semi-finals, the Bayern right-back showing his versatility by operating on the left of a back four.
But just as Nagelsmann was contemplating how Mazraoui might capably cover for Hernandez on the left of Bayern’s back line, he was diagnosed with complications following Covid-19. Mazraoui is expected to be out for a month, unlikely to be available for Bayern’s Champions League last-16 trip to Paris Saint-Germain on February 14.
In addition to Sommer, Bayern have this month brought in the experienced Dutchman Daley Blind, a free transfer from Ajax and a like-for-like replacement for Hernandez in that he can play at full-back or centre-back. Nagelsmann is anxious that, despite the disruptions, the momentum of November be reignited quickly and Germany’s figurehead club heal the dented pride of a major football nation.
“The standard in the Bundesliga was high before the break, and I want to get straight back into that,” said the Bayern head coach, who hopes to have all his German international outfielders — Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka, Jamal Musiala, Leroy Sane, Serge Gnabry and Thomas Muller — available in Leipzig as well as his three World Cup silver medallists, France’s Benjamin Pavard, Dayot Upamecano and Kingsley Coman.
But with the most experienced of all those, Muller, Nagelsmann faces major selection decisions over the coming weeks. The 33-year-old started all three World Cup matches but, largely because of injury or illness, had not featured in any of the six successive Bundesliga wins beforehand.
Muller hinted at international retirement last month, then appeared to change his mind. But to extend his 121-cap career, the acting Bayern skipper — in Neuer’s absence — will need to remain relevant for his club, where, in Mane’s absence, Eric Choupo-Moting is staking the strongest claim to lead the forward line and Musiala is making the attacking midfield role, Muller’s strongest suit, his own.
“He’s intelligent enough to see that ‘Choupo’ has been doing very well,” said Nagelsmann of Muller, “and to know he’s still world-class in several positions. Thomas remains a very important player for me.”