Bayern off to a winning start in Champions League against Benfica

On paper, FC Bayern’s tie in Lisbon against Benfica was billed as the most testing of their six Champions League group phase matches. In the end, it was all a bit of a breeze. Robert Lewandowski’s early goal settled the Bavarians at the Estádio da Luz, before homecoming king Renato Sanches bagged a fantastic second.

The Champions League is always seen as a step up from domestic action, and it was no different when FC Bayern headed off to the Portuguese capital. Shuffling the starting lineup again, there were a few raised eyebrows. But it seems that many fans are starting to get it. Niko Kovač might just be a pretty decent coach after all.

No Müller, a start for Renato

Before kick off, much of the social media babble was about Thomas Müller. Having played 99 previous Champions League matches (scoring a not too shabby 42 goals), everybody’s money was on der Raumdeuter making his 100th start. I will admit that I was rather surprised, but at the same time liked the look of the midfield. Robben, James, Ribéry. RJR.

Having been left on the bench on Saturday against Bayer Leverkusen, it was no surprise to see James Rodríguez in the starting lineup. Either side of the Colombian were the two senior citizen wingers, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. With Robert Lewandowski up top, there was only one place for Müller: the bench. Not that he seemed too bothered. Before coming on as a late sub to get that 100th match on the board, Müller had a smile on his face all evening.

The composition of the defensive midfield was also a bit of a surprise. With Corentin Tolisso out and Leon Goretzka not quite there yet, Thiago was the surefire bet. Only that he wasn’t. With the Spaniard withdrawing at the last minute, there was only one man who could fill the breach.

It was as if it had been scripted perfectly. Renato Sanches was that man. Back at the ground where he had become a young hero before his move to Munich in the summer of 2016, and making his first start of the season.

Bayern boss first half

Bayern started the match with a decent tempo, and were quick to stamp their authority on the contest. Bar one decent opportunity where Manuel Neuer had to rub the sleep from his eyes, all of the play belonged to the visitors.

Kovač’s men may have been sporting their new all-grey third kit, but their approach was far from dull. After the customary sparring opening sparring session, David Alaba found Robert Lewandowski, and the Polish striker engineered the space for himself before sending the ball smartly into the bottom-left hand corner.

In truth, Die Roten could have ended the contest by half-time. Ribéry was foiled by Benfica’s German ‘keeper Odisseas Vlachodimos, and Arjen Robben’s (right-footed) effort was also kept out. Neuer dived to his left to keep out Eduardo Salvio, before Ribéry forced Vlachodimos into a sharp save.

If there were any worries, there was nothing to write home about. Mats Hummels had a slightly wobbly moment. Sanches was trying a little too hard. Lewandowski was hogging the ball a little too much.

Stunning Sanches

One of the biggest problems with Renato Sanches has been his trying too hard. Running into opponents. Giving the ball away too cheaply. Losing concentration. Then, it all clicked. Just like that. Latching onto the ball in his own half, Renato barrelled forward. Past one red shirt. Then another. Then, past the half-way line.

Rather than running into the men in front of him, he was leaving them in his wake. The misplaced pass never came. Renato found Lewandowski outside him to the right, who then swung the ball across the width of the pitch to Ribéry.

Ribéry slipped a pass to James outside him, and the Colombian’s teasing cross into the six-yard box was only ever going to be finished by one man. Continuing into the box and with a hairstyle reminiscent of the Predator, Renato finished like one.

The script had been written, and even the home crowd were standing and applauding.

It takes care and confidence to bring the best out of a young and talented player. Kovač had played his part by giving Renato a start. The kid did the rest. It was what the club paid 35 million Euro for.

Of course, one goal does not suddenly turn the 21-year-old into a stunning success. But it could be the start of something. Has the switch finally been flicked? Much has been said about Bayern not signing any new players this summer, but if a talent like Renato can really start firing, it could make all the difference.

He doesn’t really do much, does he?

Manuel Neuer usually does not have to do too much. Usually, the well-drilled line in front of him keeps chances for the opposition down to a minimum, with the Bayern ‘keeper only called into action when he has to.

Against Benfica, Neuer could have afforded to set up camp for most of the match. But when he does pull out a stop, it is usually something to remember. His first-half stop to keep out Salvio was excellent. But his taking flight to deny Ruben Dias’ well-directed header in the second half was even better.

Last season, Sven Ulreich had a magnificent run of form. But there was always that one nagging question. Might things have been different had Neuer been there? The answer to that question, no matter who you ask, is usually a resounding yes.

The debate will continue to rage about who is the best goalkeeper in the world. Everybody has an opinion. But you can take your David de Geas, Hugo Llorises and Jan Oblaks. If I had to pick one man to be my last line of defence, it would always be Manuel Neuer.

It could have been better

The Bayern coach has forged a reputation as a man who gets things done. Niko Kovač has made it clear that he does not tolerate any nonsense, and does not make a habit of dishing it up either. He talks to the players. There is a purpose to everything. One could say that there is a bit of the Ottmar Hitzfeld about the Croatian.

After this match, plaudits will be given. Backs will be slapped. Three points away from home in the Champions League is always a good thing. But it could have been better. On another night, Arjen Robben could have had a hat-trick. Even Serge Gnabry, on as a 62nd-minute substitute, could have scored a couple.

It was a comfortable win, but in a fits and starts sort of way. Bayern cranked up the tempo when they needed to, and wound things down when they didn’t. There were some slack moments, but Benfica were unable to capitalise. If Bayern are to be in with a chance of winning the trophy, there will be far more testing opponents in their way.

Müller makes his mark

With just two minutes remaining, Thomas Müller made that 100th Champions League appearance. The change was probably not planned, with a rather heavy-legged Javi Martínez making way.

All in all, it was more than a satisfactory evening for the Bavarians. Next up, it is Ajax at the Allianz Arena at the beginning of October.

Statistical Summary

S. L. Benfica – FC Bayern München 0:2 (0:1)
– / Lewandowski 10., Renato Sanches 54.

Benfica: Vlachodimos – André Almeida, Ruben Dias, Jardel (c), Grimaldo – Fejsa – Gedson (75. Živković), Pizzi (62. Rafa Silva) – Salvio (62. Gabriel), Cervi – Seferović

FC Bayern: Neuer (c) – Kimmich, Boateng, Hummels, Alaba – Martínez (88. Müller) – Renato Sanches, James (79. Goretzka) – Robben, Ribéry (62. Gnabry) – Lewandowski

Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (Spain)
Attendance: 60,274

Yellow Cards: Fejsa 22., Jardel 39. / Kimmich 18., Hummels 52.
Red Cards: – / –

Shots: 14 / 14
Passes: 476 / 622
Completed Passes: 377 / 526
Pass Success: 79% / 85%
Possession: 44% / 56%
Fouls: 9 / 8
Offsides: 1 / 3
Corners: 5 / 4