Thomas Muller is rarely short of words. That makes Bayern Munich’s dressing-room chatterbox a useful asset when there are awkward media duties to negotiate. Jobs like explaining his club’s worst Pokal Cup exit in 20 years.
Bayern had just lost on penalties at second-division Holstein Kiel. Snow was blowing across the pitch, the head coach was gloomily contemplating the broken dream of repeating last season’s historic treble, and, shivering against the cold, Muller was filling air-time for the broadcaster ARD. He described a “ping-pong” match, in which Bayern had twice thrown away a lead in the 90 minutes. He highlighted “bad luck”.
And then he paused, fixing his interviewer, Valeska Homburg, with a steely gaze, and said: “You’re laughing now.”
Homburg started to explain she was not smirking at the misfortune of Bayern, the reigning European champions. “Of course you’re laughing,” insisted Muller. He has been around long enough to know that even if Homburg was not amused, many viewers would be at an underdog shock that had floored the all-conquering, swaggering super-heavyweights of German club football.
The suspense, the possibility of an unlikely giant-killing, had been building through a riveting two-and-a-half hours. Kiel had twice equalised in normal time, and scored their second goal in the 95th minute. They held out at 2-2 through extra-time. The penalty roulette then went into sudden death until Bayern substitute Marc Roca, taking the 12th spot-kick of the shoot-out, saw his effort saved. Kiel’s Fin Bartels, scorer of the first equaliser during normal time, converted his penalty to complete the upstart club’s perfect record in the shoot-out, six out of six, against Manuel Neuer.
Neuer was one of five World Cup winners on show for Bayern through the evening. Head coach Hansi Flick had chosen to rest only a few of his strongest XI and, although Robert Lewandowski started on the bench, Bayern’s leading scorer was called into action for extra-time, a frustrating, goalless half-hour for the serial Bundesliga champions.
It has been a frustrating week. Last Friday, Bayern conceded another lead, from 2-0 up at Borussia Monchengladbach, and it cost them three points, Monchengladbach responding with the 22nd, 23rd and 24th goals Neuer has conceded so far in the Bundesliga this season.
That’s in 15 matches. The champions are currently owners of the ninth-best defensive record in Germany’s top division.
“There’s a pattern at the moment,” Flick noted. “We are seeing far too many goals scored against us. We have spoken about it a lot. We have to make the centre of the defence and the middle of the pitch more secure.”
In that area, there are distractions, not least the continuing uncertainty of David Alaba's future. The Austrian, whose masterly conversion from left-back to centre-back was key to Bayern's high pressing and slick build-up from the back during last season's march to the treble of Champions League, Bundesliga and Cup, has stalled on a new contract. Alaba's representatives are actively exploring possible moves from the 28-year-old once his current deal expires in June.
Potential David Alaba destinations
His form has faltered, but Alaba is not alone for that. The central defensive pairing that Flick watched allowing Bartels to chase a long ball and score Kiel's first equaliser were Niklas Sule, the Germany international, and Lucas Hernandez, the French world champion. The verdict on both from Germany's leading newspaper was brutal. Bild-Zeiting gave Sule a mark of 6. That's on a scale that runs from 1 (outstanding) to 5 (very poor indeed). Hernandez? He escaped with a mark of 5.
No Bayern player will have enjoyed reading Bild, or being a part of history. The last time the club failed to make it to the last 32 of the German Cup was in the 2000/01 season; the last time they were knocked out by lower-division opposition was back in 2004.
“You can imagine what the mood is like,” said Muller, having made his peace with the reporter from ARD, and turning his mind to the Bundesliga confrontation with in-form Freiburg - they have five wins on the trot - on Sunday, by which time RB Leizpig could have leapfrogged Bayern to top place in a division picking up the scent of a genuine title race. Leipzig trail the champions by two points, Bayer Leverkusen by four, and Dortmund, in fourth, are five points shy of Bayern.
Flick finds himself in uncharted territory. He guided Bayern through a run of 32 matches unbeaten in the stunning, treble-winning season of his appointment, and the last time he lost two on the trot was just after he had started. Bayern’s rivals are curious to see how he responds to his worst week yet.