Bayern Munich and Nagelsmann Outperform Lewandowski's Expected Return

Bayern Munich and Nagelsmann Outperform Lewandowski's Expected Return

The Barcelona legend returned to the stadium where he once shone, but it was his old club and manager who breezed through an early Champions League test.

Robert Lewandowski was a key player in his return to Bayern Munich, but not in the way he had hoped. Lewandowski had chances - two especially before halftime - but after a shaky first half, it was Bayern Munich who won the UEFA Champions League Group C clash between the two giants, beating Barcelona 2-0 at the Allianz Arena.

With two wins from two games, Bayern can almost certainly secure their place in the round of 16 with two wins against underdog Viktoria Plzen, while Barcelona's future in the competition depends, as always likely, on their two games against Inter Milan. But while this continued a familiar pattern - Barcelona have not won at either the Allianz Arena or the Olympic Stadium, while Bayern are unbeaten in 30 games in the group stage - it was a far cry from Bayern's two 3-0 victories over Barcelona last season when Lewandowski played for the German national team.

Bayern Munich and Nagelsmann Outperform Lewandowski's Expected Return
Following Bayern Munich's victory against Barcelona in the Champions League, Nagelsmann and Lewandowski have a moment.MIS/Imago Images

Lewandowski won eight Bundesliga titles and two Golden Boots in Europe in eight years, but his departure from FC Bayern was a tough one. While the club accused Lewandowski's agent, Pini Zahavi, of alienating the player, the striker accused the club of lacking respect. There was a puzzling argument about whether or not a contract offer had been "concrete" before the Polish international left. Not for the first time, one had the impression that the Bayern hierarchy proceeded with a certain arrogance.

His departure was controversial, as was his arrival at Barcelona, where the club had to pull various "economic levers" to finance his summer trip. But once he played, Lewandowski settled in immediately. His start has been dramatic: six league goals in four games, plus a hat-trick in the Champions League last week against Viktoria Plzeň - that's as many goals as Sadio Mané, Leroy Sané, Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry had scored combined this season before Tuesday's kick-off, when he was greeted with applause and a number of supporters' signs thanking him for his eight successful years at the club.

Bayern Munich and Nagelsmann Outperform Lewandowski's Expected Return
Bayern fans demonstrate their appreciation for Lewandowski's return to Munich.Jose Breton/NurPhoto/Imago Images

Dayot Upamecano was picked over Matthijs de Ligt in Bayern's center defense, allegedly because he had previously performed well against Lewandowski - presumably also in training last season. But, in a first-half controlled by Barcelona, Lewandowski volleyed a great chance just wide of the net and then parried a Manuel Neuer header.

Bayern Munich have slowed down recently after a scorching start to the season, drawing three league games in a row, but they did achieve a 2-0 away triumph against Inter last week. In some ways, Bayern's domestic form is immaterial if they finish 11th. What counts is Europe, and here is where coach Julian Nagelsmann faces criticism.

Last season's quarterfinal loss to Villarreal came after a string of disappointments, including losses to RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim to Liverpool FC. That's the problem for any Bayern coach: when the Bundesliga is just a formality, there are few opportunities for a young coach like Nagelsmann to learn how to compete with an opponent's highest class, except in the biggest European games.

In that sense, this was a significant victory for Bayern and Nagelsmann, who defeated not just a huge name, but also a very talented club. However, it was hardly a straightforward triumph. Bayern improved significantly after halftime, playing much more aggressively and resourcefully, and altering the play, to Nagelsmann's credit. However, the first half reminded me of many of Nagelsmann's European failures: there's a degree of freedom and lack of worry that can make sense in the Bundesliga, but leaves Bayern vulnerable against superior opponents.

Bayern Munich and Nagelsmann Outperform Lewandowski's Expected Return
Lewandowski with Mané, one of the players who has taken his spot in Bayern's assault. Revierfoto/Imago Images

Although Pedri later steered a very good chance against the post, Tuesday's game was decided by two goals within four minutes. First, Lucas Hernandez escaped Marcos Alonso's attempts to mark him, nodding in a Joshua Kimmich corner (50th minute) before Sané ran onto a pass from Jamal Musiala and finished expertly. Sané's testy reaction to his substitution, however, suggested there might be something to the reports of unrest in the Bayern dressing room. If Nagelsmann is under pressure after the league defeat, the sudden availability of Thomas Tuchel will not ease it.

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