Bayern Munich v Benfica, Tuesday April 5, 10.45pm (UAE)
It is one of the oldest phrases in the dictionary of manager-speak. You take games “one at a time”, eyes on only the immediate 90 minutes, never further.
It is a contagious cliche.
Players endlessly trot it out in front of microphones, especially at this stage of the season, while chasing titles, “each day as it comes”, or battling relegation, when every fixture is “just like a cup final”.
But something else, something refreshing, and candid, was heard from Pep Guardiola, the Bayern Munich coach, on Saturday evening, when he picked over his team's 1-0 win against Eintracht Frankfurt.
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It was a result that kept Bayern five points clear of Borussia Dortmund at the top of the Bundesliga, but a performance that lacked verve.
“I was a player myself,” Guardiola told reporters, “so I know how hard it can be to not be thinking about the next game, looking ahead.”
He detected symptoms in some of his men of distraction against Eintracht, their minds telescoping to three days later, and a Uefa Champions League quarter-final. “That was a problem for some of them. But you need to be fully focused or things don’t work.”
So much for the one-game-at-a-time platitude.
Fact is, Bayern Munich’s players have been so accustomed, over the past three years, to wrapping up their domestic title by early spring that it would be to imagine them robots if they did not cultivate mechanisms to preserve their adrenalin for tasks they know to be more demanding than the challenges they usually confront in the Bundesliga. It is also likely they think well beyond the remaining games of 2015/16, given Bayern’s managerial situation.
Because Guardiola is leaving in June, to join Manchester City, and Bayern’s players know his successor, Carlo Ancelotti is watching each of them as he plans his version of the German champions, they sense what their big audition dates are. And a last-eight European Cup clash with Benfica, with the first leg on Tuesday night in Bavaria, is bigger than a routine home win over relegation-threatened Eintracht.
Which is a pity for Franck Ribery, whose spectacular volleyed goal on Saturday eased Guardiola a step closer to his third consecutive Bundesliga Shield. Ribery’s return to fitness, and form after a long lay-off, has increased competition for places in attack. He competes with Douglas Costa, Arjen Robben and Kingsley Coman for two spots on the wings.
Meanwhile, Robert Lewandowski, the centre-forward, looked disgruntled when he was substituted against Eintracht. He had not put comforting distance between his 25 league goals so far this season and the 23 of Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Lewandowski cannot help but project ahead to his target of finishing with the Bundesliga’s top goals total, advertising himself to Ancelotti or any of the several suitors he will hear from ahead of, and during, the summer transfer window.
Then there’s Mario Gotze, superb for Germany in the international break at the end of March, still struggling to get many starts for Bayern.
This jostle to find favour with a coach, Guardiola, whose mind also wanders – if only on his days off – beyond the next 90 minutes, to his own plans for City, may turn out to be Bayern’s strongest motor over the rest of a European campaign in which they have amends to make, for the successive, heavy semi-final defeats in the Champions League of the previous two seasons. But the jostle needs careful managing.
So do Benfica, top of the Portuguese Primeira Liga, with the leader of the race for Europe’s Golden Shoe up front – striker Jonas has five more league goals this term than Lewadowski – and eager to play on a recent black spot in the memory of Guardiola’s Bayern.
At this stage a year ago, Bayern played Porto. It was widely thought, by getting Portuguese opponents, they had landed in one of the easier quarter-finals. Porto blitzed them 3-1 in the first leg – from which Bayern recovered in style in the return game at home – giving a sharp reminder that you really do need to focus on the immediate task, not project too far ahead.
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