Six minutes into Bayern Munich's game at VfB Stuttgart on Sunday, it was shaping up to be a rather traumatic afternoon for Mario Gomez. The 26-year-old striker had come under a bit of criticism for going 344 minutes without a goal before the match and just missed "a sitter" against his former club, a gentle tap-in from a meter out. Somehow, Gomez managed not to connect with Arjen Robben's inch-perfect low cross. "It was a 1000 percent chance," he said later, still unable to comprehend his miss.
A few seconds after the mishap, the inevitable happened. Christian Gentner scored for the home-side. Bayern now had to come from behind against the fired-up Swabians. And it was obvious who would get the blame if Jupp Heynckes' team lost the match in the Mercedes-Benz-Arena. "Vienna!," one Munich-based paper wrote, remembering Gomez's infamous miss against Austria in the 2008 Euros. A miss so bad that it was probably
But after spending almost the entire 2009/10 season on the bench and getting nearly pushed out on loan to Liverpool in August 2010, Gomez has become a very different player. "I've learned to laugh about these misses," he said later. "I told myself to keep calm and reminded myself that this is the stadium where I learned how to score." The internal pep talk worked, almost instantly. Gomez took his next chance -- a much tougher one -- steering a Rafinha cross past VfB keeper Sven Ulreich. The forward added a second one to decide the match against the 10-men hosts in the second half and secure Bayern's first "autumn championship" since 2007/08. The Bavarians will go into the winter-break top of the table, "looking down on the opposition," as CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge put it. It's more than a psychological edge: 14 out of 16 times as "autumn champion," Bayern ended up winning the league.
In the absence of injured midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, Gomez has arguably been his team's key player this season. His 14th and 15th goals in his 15th game have taken his league tally to 31 in the calendar year. But look more closely and the numbers get even better. He's scored seven in seven Champions League games (including the playoff against FC Zürich) and one in his only outing in the DFB Cup. Overall record this season: 23 in 23 games. Only Lionel Messi (23 in 21) and Cristiano Ronaldo (20 in 19) have been more prolific thus far.
In total, he's scored 76 times in 113 games for Munich since 2009. Only the legendary Gerd Müller (365 in 427 Bundesliga games) has a better ratio. Müller's 40 goals in the 1971-72 season are yet to be surpassed in the league.
Gomez was asked whether he could break Müller's record. His answer spoke volumes. "I don't think about these things at all, " he said. "I know what it's like in football. Last week, I was the guy who could not score, this week I'm going after Müller's record. It all doesn't matter. I've always said that I need to be healthy and on the pitch, then the goals will come."
"We are seeing the best Mario Gomez ever," said former Germany striker Karl-Heinz Riedle on German television. That's actually debatable, at least on Sunday's evidence. Gomez, with his two goals from five attempts, was incredibly efficient but had seen much better games. His first touch was mostly off, his linkup play anything but stellar. Take away those two goals -- for a second -- and one could argue that Gomez had had an awful match.
He's never the most elegant of players, perhaps that's his main problem in an age where pacey forward/winger/midfielder hybrids like Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are setting the benchmark. He doesn't run much with the ball, either. Gomez is a technician of the highest order, but only within shooting range: he's almost two-footed and more than useful with his head. Former Bayern defender Willy Sagnol, now sporting director at the French FA, recently called him the one "irreplaceable" player in Bayern's starting XI.
Gomez was quite dismissive of the "autumn championship," stating that the win "meant nothing," stating that "Every one saw how quickly it goes. Three weeks ago (after losing 1-0 to Dortmund), we were the third in the table and the nation's idiots." No one knows more about the fickle nature of the game than him. Only a year ago, he spoke philosophically about being seen as a "Chancentod" (literally: the death of chances) by the German public. "That's my lot, I have to accept it," he said at the time.
It's since become clear, however, that Gomez hasn't accepted it. Club insiders say he's been doing extra-shifts to improve his technique; in addition, Gomez has obviously worked on his mindset, too. "I've stopped dwelling on misses," he said, "I know that the next one or two chances will come along."
Maybe that's only strictly true at Bayern, where Gomez spearheads an impressive offense, with Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Thomas Müller behind him. Gomez, his detractors say, still misses far too many chances to be seen as a true great. That particular argument will probably run until he chips in with a few goals in next year's Champions League's knockout stage and the Euros, perhaps even longer. From Bayern's point of view, €30 million-35 million ($39M-46M) it spent on the son of a Spanish immigrant and a Swabian mother is increasingly looking like a bargain, regardless.
Extending his contract beyond the summer of 2013 has probably become a more pressing issue than tying the fragile Robben, also out of contract in 18 months, down to a new deal. The club is encouraged that Gomez is no longer talking about his dreams of playing in La Liga -- unlike in the spring of 2008, when Stuttgart came close to agreeing an offer from Barcelona before Gomez's disastrous run at the Euros. "As I long as I'm needed here, I don't see a reason at all to why I should leave," he said on Sunday. Maybe Bayern are secretly happy that his international reputation is yet to catch up with his sensational stats.