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Bayern must consolidate dominance with Champions League title

Photo: Massimo Pinca/AP

Bayern Munich's Mario Mandzukic celebrates his goal against Juventus on Wednesday.

It was the least dramatic of the quarterfinal second legs, and the matter-of-fact attitude with which Bayern Munich had seen out a 2-0 win in Turin was also prevalent in the post-match statements. A box had been ticked, nothing more.

"We can be proud of beating Juventus, but now it really starts," Arjen Robben said. Club president Uli Hoeness did pay tribute to a "sensational 4-0 win (on aggregate)," but didn't seem particularly moved. Hoeness got more emotional later, when he mischievously picked out Borussia Dortmund as the board's preferred opponent in the semifinal.

"They are beatable," he insisted, full of confidence.

The most interesting comments on the night came from Gianluigi Buffon, however. The Juventus keeper noted that his side had "played to the best out of its possibilities" but that it hadn't been enough. Bayern had been "technically and physically superior," he added, before admitting that he hadn't thought the Bavarians were "this strong."

This is quite remarkable, if you think about it for a moment. It's hard to see Buffon coming out with a similar line after a defeat by Real Madrid or Barcelona, it would have sounded strange as well if Dortmund had been the opponent. With Bayern, though, he must have felt that the jury was still out on just how good this team was before the meeting with the Italians.

Why is that? There could be an Italian-German dimension to this, because Italian teams -- the national team and the Serie A outfits -- had found ways to beat their opponents in the decisive matches over the last couple of years. Maybe Buffon had seen the less-than-convincing performance of Jupp Heynckes' team in the second leg against Arsenal, a 2-0 win by the Londoners in Munich, and concluded that the Reds were overrated.

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Another possible explanation is that Bayern's true quality has been obscured by scintillating league form. This sounds faintly ridiculous, but that's how teams in a similar position are often seen. When one team towers so far above the competition, perspective is in danger of getting lost. You might call it the Gulliver syndrome. Show me a club that dominates its league at will and appears like a giant, and I'll show you a bad league populated by minions. To those looking in from the outside, Bayern's freakish brilliance in the Bundesliga this season -- it has won the league with six games to spare and is on course to break almost every meaningful record -- has made it hard to evaluate its true strength.

But this is not just a German phenomenon. One team running away has been a feature of Europe's top divisions this season, with point tallies that are quite extraordinary. In the Bundesliga, Bayern has averaged an incredible 2.67 points per game. It has clinched the league title with six matches to go (with 75 points to second-place Dortmund's 55), and breaking Dortmund's points record from last season, 81 points, should be a formality. Barcelona is on 2.6 points per game. It's unlikely but not impossible that it will equal Real Madrid's record century from the last campaign. In the Premier League, Manchester United has 2.48 points, so Chelsea's historic record of 95 points from 2004-05 is well within their sights. Only Juventus' 2.29 figure is more in line with the usual exploits of an Italian champion.

Taken in isolation, these numbers look like a useful way to rank the respective strengths of these four teams. But it doesn't quite work so well when you add the averages for Real Madrid (2.16) and Dortmund (1.96) -- unless you are prepared to conclude that those two teams are quite significantly weaker than Bayern and Barcelona this season. We'll have to wait and see in the Champions League semifinals.

In the meantime, Munich will take comfort in the fact that its duels with its European counterparts are increasingly showing just how much of a giant it is on the European stage, even if quite a few people -- Buffon included -- are still surprised by what they see this season.

Three semifinal appearances in four years in the Champions League is the best Bayern has done since the mid-'70s side of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Co, and that of the turn-of-the-millennium outfit of Stefan Effenberg and Oliver Kahn. But those teams also won the European Cup four times in total, so getting to the last four isn't cause for celebration at Säbenerstrasse, the club's HQ, just yet.

On the contrary: everything less than a final win at Wembley will be seen as failure for this team, and the championship (or a possible double of league and DFB Cup) will be scant consolation. That's the curse of its domestic success this season: it has only raised the stakes. And for some, winning the trophy for a first time since 2001 will still not be enough.

"You need to win it a few times to feel that you're really dominating Europe the way we did," warned Paul Breitner, Bayern's former captain. Such are the harsh realities at Germany's biggest club. No wonder that Bayern feels its season has just begun.

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