After 188 minutes of wildly entertaining, at times outrageously open football Tuesday, it all came down to Bastian Schweinsteiger's tired legs. The Bayern Munich midfielder failed to keep up when Goran Pandev started running from the halfway line and could only watch in horror as the Macedonian smashed in the epic winner that sent Internazionale into the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
The manner of the defeat for the German champions might have been unfortunate, but the consequences are likely to be grave. Quite a few people in the Allianz Arena were reminded of the freakish loss to Manchester United in the 1999 Champions League final, but a more apt comparison would be with the 1987 European Cup final against FC Porto, when Lothar Matthäus and Co. dominated the match only to throw it all away late in the second half by conceding two goals in three minutes. Everybody looked to blame each other after that night in Vienna, and relations between the players and manager Udo Lattek soon broke down irretrievably. He was fired after winning three championships and two cups in four years.
A similar tumultuous outcome for Bayern Munich is possible now. Tuesday's exit has exposed the fault lines and created new problems in four key areas.
CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge was not prepared to debate Louis van Gaal's future on Tuesday. "He will be the manager until the end of the season, that's absolutely clear," Rummenigge said in the mixed zone after the game. In reality, it's anything but clear. Saturday's trip to Freiburg is yet another final for the Dutchman; defeat in the Badenova-Stadion would surely end his tenure immediately.
Rummenigge, a van Gaal supporter in the sense that he persuaded the board to stick with him when president Uli Hoeness wanted to sack him after the loss to Hannover on March 5, seems to have lost confidence in the 59-year-old coach, too. His annoyance at Bayern's naivety in the final 30 minutes ("Tactically, we played very badly. You have to see such a game out") could be read as a fundamental critique of van Gaal's overly offensive, uncompromising approach. Even the manager, who's not often prone to self-criticism, conceded that "the defeat was a consequence of our identity."
Schweinsteiger did tell TV reporters that van Gaal had stressed the importance of cl osing down spaces and defending in numbers before the match, but the midfielder hinted at a disconnect between the instructions and the players' actions on the pitch. "We talked about playing a compact game," he said, "but somehow we just can't do it."
In many ways, the Inter game followed a pattern that was discernible last season and has now become totally ingrained. Bayern is potent going forward but lack stability at the back. Consequently, every game is on a knife-edge, as the team veers from destroying the opposition to self-destruction at the drop of a hat. It's this all-or-nothing approach that worries the bosses ahead of the final weeks of the season, when Bayern must battle hard to achieve the minimum aim of finishing in third place.
In view of the club's relatively easy fixture list, further setbacks will not be tolerated. Van Gaal won't find job security until the end of May, and the players must deal with it.
"It will be difficult to motivate the team after this kind of blow," captain Philipp Lahm said. "We are used to playing for the titles until the end of the season."
After the final whistle, Thomas Müller stumbled around the pitch, shouting words of anger into the night. "I don't want to say anything now, because anything I would say would be wrong," he told reporters before storming off. His vow of silence could not hide his frustration. On the pitch, he argued with Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry; Mario Gomez also exchanged words with the wingers. The offensive quartet was annoyed with each other for missing opportunities, neglecting better positioned teammates, for not putting the game to bed. There's always been a certain disquiet inside the dressing room about Robben's and Ribéry's egocentric style, but only lack of success turns concern into annoyance.
Robben blamed the defense for losing the game, saying, "You can't play like that in the Champions League." Right back Lahm, in turn, pointed out the profligacy in front of goal.
The Inter game showed that the tactical division of the team has the capacity to divide the dressing room, too. Both camps look to apportion blame, and both have plenty of justified grievances. It's a very volatile state of affairs: Loss of unity and confidence in your teammates is generally a precursor to more defeats.
"You have to think offensively together and think defensively together," Schweinsteiger said. "If you can't do that, you can't win the Champions League."
Or anything else.
Ribéry is grateful for the way Bayern stood by him in the wake of his sex scandal and his post-World Cup ostracism in France. The Frenchman will be wearing red next season, come what may. Others are less loyal. Robben came very close to threatening his departure Tuesday night.
"A club like Bayern needs to play in the Champions League," Robben said."I find it hard to imagine playing in the Europa League next season."
A team that looked like embarking on a new era with van Gaal last season might well fall apart if qualification to UEFA's top competition will not be achieved. The many suitors of Schweinsteiger and Lahm will try to tempt them one final time, and the two leading players in the dressing room will weigh their options. A summer of extreme uncertainty could follow -- and the need to rebuild at a time when finances become stretched.
Bayern's record turnover of €312 million ($434 million) in 2009-10, a figure that makes it the fourth-richest club in the world behind Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, was boosted by the run to the Champions League final, along with marketing and merchandising. All told, success in Europe contributed approximately €60 million ($83.5 million) to the balance sheet. Bayern's profit, however, was still relatively low, at €2.9 million ($4 million). Take away the Champions League money and replace it with a third -- that's a generous estimate, considering the lesser appeal of the Europa League -- and you see why the club bosses don't stop stressing the importance of making it into the Champions League.
The fact the 2012 final takes place in the Allianz Arena would make staying on the sidelines even more difficult, but that embarrassment would be nothing compared to the huge hit Bayern's finances would take. The club could survive a second season in the wilderness -- it was in the old UEFA Cup in 2007-08 -- but efforts to bring in the top class reinforcements it so desperately needs at the back will be hampered. Stagnation at the European level would be the consequence.