Speak to an Arsenal fan in the run-up to Tuesday's Champions League Last 16 second leg against Bayern Munich, and most will tell you there’s more chance of Arsene Wenger admitting to witnessing a clumsy challenge from a member of his own team than the north Londoners trouncing the Bavarians on their own patch to progress.
Their scepticism is understandable on two fronts. Firstly, FFT is reliably informed that no team has ever overturned a two-goal home defeat in the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie. Secondly, and this is important - Pep Guardiola's men are rather good at football.
Bayern and Borussia Dortmund enthralled us all at Wembley last May, when only the stoniest of hearts could have resented Jupp Heynckes’ men banishing the painful memories of two defeats in the previous three finals of the world's premier club competition. That win represented the end of an era for Bayern. As Heynckes hopped on the Jubilee Line and wound his way out of London (possibly), his place in the dugout was taken by a Spaniard who also harbours fond memories of English football's home.
It was there, on a balmy late spring night in 2011, that Guardiola inspired Barcelona to an unforgettable 3-1 win over Manchester United – a win that convinced everyone who witnessed it that the Spanish side weren’t just a thing of footballing beauty, but also the most ruthless winning machine to play the game in a generation.
Now Guardiola is doing the same with Bayern, and as the club prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their first European Cup win – sealed with a replay victory over Atletico Madrid in front of just 23,325 people at Heysel in May 1974 – it doesn’t seem too fanciful to suggest that the current crop could emulate their forefathers and scoop a hat-trick of European titles themselves. No team has matched Bayern’s fantastic feat since their hattrick of wins between 1974 and 1976, with only Liverpool and Milan coming close.
Little wonder then, that one of the club’s most highly regarded former managers, Ottmar Hitzfeld, gets a little misty-eyed at the thought of it.
“How good was that Bayern side? Simply the best, I am tempted to answer,” Hitzfeld tells FourFourTwo. “The best of that time, I mean. There were outstanding players everywhere on the pitch; Sepp Maier, the goalkeeper, Franz Beckenbauer the Kaiser, and Gerd Muller the penalty-area striker. I could give you many more.”
Bayern’s hat-trick of European Cup titles weren't without their controversies, however. Leeds United were left feeling hard done by in Paris in 1975 – as were residents of the French capital after fans went on the rampage, following the Whites' 2-0 defeat to the Germans in a match marred by questionable refereeing.
By the time the club won the trophy for a third year in succession, Bayern, although still formidable, were in decline. A goal from Franz Roth sealed a 1-0 win against a Saint-Etienne side who had the neutrals in their corner.
It would be another 25 years before the club were crowned European champions again, and this time it would be Hitzfeld, rather than legendary bosses Udo Lattek and Dettmar Cramer, guiding the side.
That Champions League triumph over Valencia in 2001 was just one of the 11 pots won by Hitzfeld in an initial six-year reign that saw him claim more silverware than most managers get their hands on in a lifetime - he also returned for an 18-month encore in 2007, winning the domestic double in 2007/08. Now the onus is on Guardiola to deliver (although we mustn’t forget that the Spaniard has already won the Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup).
According to current Switzerland manager Hitzfeld, Bayern and Guardiola are the perfect match.
“It is not out of nothing that a man like Pep Guardiola chose Bayern to become his new club - he had an amazing group of clubs to choose from,” says Hitzfeld. “It’s the whole package with Bayern that makes it so attractive.
“Uli Hoeness (general manager and then president) made sure that both the economical and sporting base would become very solid. Bayern have not been spending money that they had not earned before. That sounds very simple as a principle, yet not too many clubs seem able to adopt it. If Bayern want to buy a player they pay cash, whereas clubs like Real Madrid seem to be allowed to do any transfer they like only to pile up more and more debt.
“This doesn’t fit very well with the slogan of Financial Fair Play, does it? Bayern Munich showed the world how you build up a football club on solid foundations and become very successful.”
Hoeness himself is facing charges of alleged tax evasion in the German courts this month, although the club have insisted he remains their president. That case, however, is unlikely to impact majorly on Guardiola’s assault on the Bundesliga title and Champions League.
In 1999, Hitzfeld was preparing to do similar with a side that would achieve their domestic goal but find their door to European glory famously blocked by Manchester United at the Nou Camp. The late drama from Sir Alex Ferguson’s side would become the stuff of legend, although Hitzfeld tells FFT that it ultimately proved constructive for the development of a team that would banish that ghost two years later.
“I have never had any nightmares about that, although that defeat in Barcelona is one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had,” he says. “I remember when we were sitting in the bus from the Camp Nou to the team hotel, and an official sat next to me said: ‘Who knows? This defeat may turn out to be for good.’
“In those minutes I was closer to wanting to kill him than listen to the meaning of his words. The day after, though, I had the longest team meeting ever.
“I told my players that first of all the Manchester United team had given us a lesson in how to never give up and keep believing in victory. That deserves a lot of respect.
“Secondly, I opened the eyes of my players to the errors and mistakes they had made the night before. And I told them that, if we are able to learn from all those things, it would not take long until we were going to win the Champions League. Two years later, we did.”
Arsenal could do with a large slice of United’s luck against Bayern if they’re to pull off the impossible at the Allianz Arena. But with the hosts still heeding the lessons taught by Hitzfeld, it’s still unlikely to be enough.
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