Louis van Gaal has seldom seemed so cheerful. The head coach of Bayern Munich has taken a few months to reveal his alter-ego, but 12 victories in a row now regularly reveal the smiler behind the better-known tough-guy. Van Gaal was busily explaining after Saturday's 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund the term of affection - something like "sweetheart" - that he had called his winger Franck Ribery.
The joker in Van Gaal has also been showing itself. He quipped the other day that he might take out German citizenship, now that there is uncertainty over who the head coach of the national team will be after the World Cup. Van Gaal is Dutch. Very Dutch. His team are playing a fluent, attacking game in the best traditions of the most fabled Dutch coaches, of which the former Ajax, Barcelona, Holland and AZ Alkmaar manager certainly counts as one. Van Gaal, 58, arrived at Bayern last summer and after a tepid and often fractious start, has built up a head of steam the club have been lacking for some time.
They never captured it under Jurgen Klinsmann last season, although Fiorentina, whom Bayern host at the Allianz Arena, would be forgiven for thinking that the Bayern of 14 months ago were also quite a challenge. When Fiorentina last met the Germans, in the Uefa Cup, Bayern progressed 4-1. Ominously, Bayern have quite an appetite for Italian opposition. They are in the last 16 of the Champions League thanks to the remarkable performance they produced in Turin in December, thrashing Juventus 4-1.
Van Gaal enjoyed that one tremendously. The Dutchman has never made much of a secret that he bears something of a grudge against Juve for the defeat of his Ajax in the Champions League final of 1996. Juventus's medical staff were later found to have been using unauthorised drugs on certain players during that period. Ajax had won the previous European Cup, beating Milan, under Van Gaal. He has never been as close to winning the trophy since.
Whether his Bayern can aspire to reach the last four, or the last two, of the competition remains to be seen. They stand second in the Bundesliga, but only by the narrowest of margins - they have conceded just one more goal than Bayer Leverkusen. A majority of Bundesliga coaches polled last month predicted that Germany's mightiest club would finish the campaign as champions. And a vast majority of Italians as well as German partisans see a home win tonight.
Even the striker Luca Toni - not Van Gaal's most enthusiastic cheerleader since the Dutchman marginalised him at Bayern, causing the Italian to seek his January loan move to Roma - feels Fiorentina face an uphill task. "I think la Viola will come under a lot of pressure," says Toni, a former Fiorentina player, "and they have to be very careful about stopping Ribery and Arjen Robben." Toni believes Ribery and Robben, when fit, constitute as fine a pair of wide attackers as there are anywhere. And at centre-forward Mario Gomez, who has 10 Bundesliga goals, ensures Toni is not badly missed.
Fiorentina are wise to the threat and Cesare Prandelli, their coach, looks inclined to leave Alberto Gilardino on his own up front and thicken his midfield. The casualty may well be Stevan Jovetic, so prominent in the defeat of Liverpool during the group stage of the Champions League, but not in strong form lately. "We have to change our approach somehow," said Prandelli, whose team have garnered just one point from their last five games in Serie A. "We are not getting a lot of breaks away from home particularly." Nor is he getting much sympathy at home.
"Prandelli," said one banner displayed at the Artemio Franchi during the defeat against Roma 10 days ago, "your time is coming to an end." Injuries and other absences are not helping Fiorentina's cause. Adrian Mutu's suspension for having - as he claims - mistakenly ingested a banned substance contained in a herbal weight-control medicine applies to both European games and domestic ones. At the weekend, Alessandro Gamberini, the defender and Mario Santana, the midfielder, joined the injury list.
Prandelli's hope is that his remaining players recover the confidence they showed in the autumn and winter. "This is the Champions League," he said. "We have done well in it so far. We need to be fearless." @Email:email@example.com