All matches matter but some matter more than others. This is one of the matters-more variety. An insecure Bayern will meet Basel at St. Jakob-Park for the first leg of this year’s Champions League round of 16. Another step to a ruined season or a much-needed gain of confidence?
Freiburg wasn’t good. Hamburg wasn’t good. Gladbach wasn’t good. If you ignore the two matches in Stuttgart, it’s been quite a while since Bayern’s last convincing performance away from home. The dominance, the focus, the calmness, the mia san mia – all long gone. Why is it that, as soon as they leave the Bavarian state capital, the assembly of talented and experienced players turn into a nervous wreck?
This is a confused team. Just a few months ago, they played brilliant football. They actually had a realistic chance to win the Champions League title. Then came the second half against Napoli and together with Bastian Schweinsteiger’s collarbone broke the dream of playing the most convincing season of any Bayern team in decades. First they lost the solidity. The midfield and defense became shaky. Then they lost the unpredictability. There suddenly were easy ways to stop Bayern’s attack. Now they even lost the confidence. The current mindset is more “we’re not good enough to win a title” than “we’re the best around and can beat any opponent”. They only thing that can stop this downwards trend is winning matches. Big wins are needed. What better opportunity to start than in Basel where other big guns already failed?
Let’s take a closer look at the current situation. Breno, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Daniel van Buyten are injured and will definitely miss this match and a few more to come. Diego Contento started practicing again but it’s very doubtful if he’ll be fit enough to be a part of the squad in Switzerland.
By the way, speaking of Schweinsteiger: this would’ve been his match. The last three, and as far as I know only, times he played in this very stadium known as “Joggeli” he scored at least one goal. During the Euro 2008 he played there twice with the German national team and scored a goal each in the quarterfinal against Portugal and the semifinal against Turkey. In September 2010, Bayern already had to face the Swiss FCB in the Champions League, although that time in the group phase, and Bastian Schweinsteiger scored both goals to secure the 2-1 win. So if you’re looking for a cheap excuse if Bayern fail to score, just let them know that the Basel bomber didn’t play.
The opponent will have to do without a few players, too. Allrounder Scott Chipperfield and right-back Philipp Degen are both sidelined, coach Heiko Vogel will have to replace them, although there’s a decent chance for Degen to be fit again. A man who just returned is left midfielder Valentin Stocker, he instantly proved his worth by scoring the last-second equalizer against Young Boys on Thursday.
Bundesliga fans will see many familiar faces. I don’t think I have to introduce Xherdan Shaqiri. However, there are also former Bayern employees working in Basel now. Regular right-back Markus Steinhöfer spent four years in Munich, playing for the U19 and the reserve team. More important though is the past of coach Heiko Vogel. The man who replaced (the former Bayern player) Thorsten Fink started his coaching career as a FCB youth coach and, in the nine years of working for the club, trained, among many others, several current Bayern stars such as Thomas Müller, Holger Badstuber and Toni Kroos. Other people who are well-known in Germany are the aforementioned Philipp Degen (Dortmund, Stuttgart), Alexander Frei (Dortmund), Marco Streller (Stuttgart) and Benjamin Huggel (Frankfurt). Furthermore, midfield talent Granit Xhaka is constantly linked with Hamburg.
Since they aren’t the most famous side in Europe, I asked Basel fan Rafael (follow on Twitter) to tell us a bit about the Swiss club that shocked Manchester. Enjoy the expert analysis:
How did Basel manage to do so well in Champions League this season if last season they failed? Well, the system didn’t really change. What, in my opinion, makes 11-12 Basel better than the 10-11 one is, basically, the squad. Despite having been a good goalkeeper once, Franco Costanzo’s constant mistakes last season aren’t really missed. Yann Sommer has proved to be a great prospect during Euro U21, not suffering a single goal until the final against Spain, and hasn’t disappointed Basel fans this season as well. Also, Dragovic, who signed in the 2011 January transfer window, has been a great addition to the team, being the main reason why Basel’s defense is better than it was a year ago (it’s also fair to say that Vogel has been more succesful defensively than Fink).
The midfield has also been boosted by the increasingly better form of Granit Xhaka, Fabian Frei (who might lose his starting place for Valentin Stocker) and Xherdan Shaqiri. The first one, being mostly a sub last season, is now a sure name in FCB’s lineup. His great skills and awesome passing have turned him into the perfect partnership for Benjamin Huggel, as the two central midfielders in the usual 4-4-2. Fabian Frei, who was loaned to St Gallen last season, has also proven to have a great sense for goals, having already scored three in this season’s UCL. Xherdan Shaqiri, the soon-to-be Bayern player, was already a regular last season, but has improved a lot for the past months, especially after Euro U21.
How will they play against Bayern? Probably the same way they’ve played against Manchester United. For those who haven’t watched it, it means basically sitting back and defending, and trying their luck on counter-attack. As they also did against the English champions, they might try to slow the game by keeping the ball on the midfield. This is probably when Bayern has the best chance of scoring in a breakthrough, as some of the Basel players, like Beni Huggel and David Abraham are quite slow.
Some information about players in general:
Basel usually plays on an 4-4-2. The possible lineup is the one that faced Young Boys on Thursday: Sommer; Steinhöfer, Abraham, Dragovic, Park; Shaqiri, Huggel, Xhaka, Fabian Frei; Streller, Alex Frei. Possible changes are Philipp Degen as right-back, and Markus Steinhöfer as left-back. If Degen is fit until Wednesday, this will probably happen, since him and Steinhöfer are much better players than Park. Valentin Stocker, after a 7-month and a 1-month injury consecutively, might start over Fabian Frei, if he’s 100% fit. There’s also the chance of Cabral or Gilles Yapi replacing one of the central midfielders.
Enough has been said about Yann Sommer. He’s not a world-class keeper yet, but can be fairly hard to beat if he’s in a good form. His only weakness is being far from goal often, what might get him unprepared sometimes.
The defense is still Basel weakest part. However, with a bit of luck, they can do their job perfectly for an entire match if it’s needed. Abraham and Dragovic are both good centre-backs, that combine really well. The Argentinian, despite slow, is great on the air, while the young Austrian is an all-round defender who makes few mistakes. The full-backs, Steinhöfer and Degen, are the main reason the defense isn’t that great. Despite being awesome on attack (Steinhöfer has about 10 assists this season already), they tend to commit mistakes when it’s coming to defending. The likes of Robben, Ribery, Müller, Kroos and even Lahm might give them nightmares, if Bayern concentrate their actions on the flanks.
The midfield, on the other hand, is probably Basel’s best point, not only because if the quality, but also because of the big number of players available. While there isn’t a defender who can back-up Abraham and Dragovic or a striker who can back-up Frei or Streller, losing a couple of the starting midfielders without losing much of the team’s quality is something affordable for Basel. The central midfielders are Huggel and Xhaka (Huggel is a more defensive one, while Xhaka is more free to attack), but can be replaced by Cabral or Yapi. Down the flanks, there are even more options. Shaqiri, Stocker, Frei, Zoua, Andrist, Chipperfield and even Xhaka can all play there, and most of them are able to play on both sides of the pitch. They’re also really important to the team, since attacks are usually done on the sides of the pitch. Shaqiri, the right-midfielder, is probably the most famous player in the entire squad, after calling a lot of attention to him for the past months. His agility, his intelligence, his skills and his powerful shot makes him the only player on the squad who can turn a match around all by himself. Some may have doubts if he’ll give his all against his future team, but this will probably only make him play even better, to try to impress the club and its fans months before he travels to Germany. On the left-side, you’ll probably see either Fabian Frei or Valentin Stocker. The first isn’t a really technical player, but is always trying to do his best, and score goals. Stocker, on the other hand, is a skilful player, and a specialist in assist, having been the assists leader on last season Axpo Super League, despite missing the some matches on the end of the season due to his long-term injury that started last April.
The attack will never change unless there’s a suspension or an injury. Alex Frei and Marco Streller. The two former Swiss NT players combine very well and will give Neuer, Badstuber, Boateng and co. trouble when they have a chance to shoot, especially Frei, the all-time best Swiss goalscorer, who has 8 goals in 11 UCL appearances (this season and last one), and has this year broken a UCL record, of having scored 5 goals in the group stage with only 15 shots. He’s usually helping the midfield, while Streller is usually near the box. Once the things get going, Frei goes to the box, and either passing to Streller or receiving from him, they have, together, about 60% of all the goals scored by Basel.
Can you find a better analysis of the opponent? I highly doubt it. Thanks a lot, Rafael!
Back to Bayern: what changes can we expect? One thing I already expected to happen in Freiburg: Arjen Robben is going to start. To be honest, Heynckes doesn’t really have much of a choice this time. Interesting is kicker’s prediction: they think that Toni Kroos will move back to central midfield as a result of Bayern’s extreme struggles to control the match on Saturday evening. Putting Gustavo and Alaba under pressure was enough to eliminate the ball possession dominance and Kroos was basically invisible between the lines. Will this happen? I can’t say for sure but I wouldn’t be surprised. Considering these things, here are the probable lineups:
Rafinha – Boateng – Badstuber – Lahm
Tymoshchuk – Kroos
Robben – Müller – Ribery
Streller – A. Frei
Stocker – Xhaka – Huggel – Shaqiri
Park – Dragovic – Abraham – Steinhöfer
To finish this long (and hopefully informative and enjoyable) preview, here are some of UEFA.com’s match facts:
- Basel conceded ten goals in the group stage; more than any other team in the round of 16.
- Benjamin Huggel has collected four yellow cards in this season’s competition, the joint highest group stage total along with Jerko Leko of eliminated GNK Dinamo Zagreb.
- Huggel, Alexander Frei, Granit Xhaka and Marco Streller are within a booking of a ban.
- Valentin Stocker’s first goal of the season earned Basel a third successive draw, extending their unbeaten run to 13 matches. They have won nine since and drawn four since their 2-0 defeat by SL Benfica on 18 October.
- Streller has scored in six of his last seven competitive outings for Basel; Alexander Frei has struck 16 goals in his last 19 games for the club, including three penalties.
- Heiko Vogel remains unbeaten after nine league games in charge of Basel, winning six. His first match at the helm was a Swiss Cup win at FC Schötz on 15 October following Thorsten Fink’s departure for Hamburger SV.
- The Swiss title holders have kept nine clean sheets in 20 league games this season.
- Mario Gomez is the competition’s second highest top scorer with six goals, one fewer than Lionel Messi.
- Franck Ribéry has been fouled 23 times; more than any other player.
- Bayern have won just four of their last 12 away games in all competitions.