“There were hard times,” Jérôme Boateng says as his mind drifts back to Bayern Munich’s wobbles at the start of the season. “It’s like being a child. As a child if I had no confidence, if you don’t get trust from your friends, then you lose the joy of the game. That’s what happens now, even when I’m older.”
Boateng, one of the finest defenders of his generation, could feel the spark ebbing away. Bayern were on the slide under Niko Kovac, a coach struggling to connect with a champion squad, and time finally appeared to have caught up with the old guard. Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer were under pressure and Boateng, aware that people were starting to view him as a fading force, wondered whether a change of scenery was required.
“There were thoughts at some stage,” he says. “Do I need to change now? I won’t play for ever and I want to enjoy football. I knew I still trained good and in my opinion – not everybody has to have the same opinion – I deserved a chance to play and to show that I can play at a high level. At some point if you see it’s not working between the sides then you have to make a clean cut. A nice cut, not a dirty cut.”
Yet Bayern, languishing in seventh place in the Bundesliga at one stage, have come roaring back since replacing Kovac with Hansi Flick in December. They have won their eighth successive title, thumped Bayer Leverkusen in the German Cup final and are one of the favourites to win the Champions League before the second leg of their last-16 tie against Chelsea at the Allianz Arena on Saturday night.
It is hard to find weaknesses in Bayern’s team. Their defence is solid and they have an intelligent midfield. The wingers, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman, are excellent. Their Polish striker Robert Lewandowski has scored 51 goals for his club this season. Confidence is high and Boateng has felt the intensity return under Flick, who has revived Bayern with his expansive approach.
“He brought back the joy for us as a team,” Boateng says. “Everyone can see we have a plan on the pitch. We enjoy playing together. He is really focused on the details. He is doing an amazing job.”
Boateng, who joined Bayern from Manchester City in 2011, feels hungry. He was in the team when Bayern last won the Champions League, beating Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 final at Wembley, and knows what it takes to become a European champion. Focus is key and Boateng says Bayern cannot afford to be complacent against Chelsea, even though they won February’s first leg 3-0.
Bayern are not through quite yet and the disruption caused to the calendar by the coronavirus pandemic adds an awkward element. Whereas Chelsea finished their domestic campaign last weekend, losing the FA Cup final to Arsenal, Bayern have not played a competitive game since beating Leverkusen on 4 July.
Boateng, who won the World Cup with Germany in 2014, is wary of rustiness. He stresses that Bayern still have to secure a spot in Lisbon, which will host the final rounds of the Champions League in a mini-tournament format from 12-23 August. “We see Chelsea are in good form,” he says. “They have improved. They will be stronger than the match in London. We have to be prepared. It starts at 0-0. That’s the next step. Don’t talk about anything else.”
All the same it would take something extraordinary for Bayern to go out, especially with Lewandowski in scorching form. Lewandowski has never won the Champions League and would have been a contender to win the Ballon d’Or before this year’s award was cancelled. “I have played for years now with him and this has been his best season so far,” Boateng says. “He’s a world-class striker and would deserve to go for the Ballon d’Or. That’s unlucky for him and the rest who would be there. But I know him. He’s really motivated for the Champions League.”
Becoming the best team in Europe is the aim for Bayern. Nobody in Germany can touch them; domestic success has come to feel routine. Although the Bundesliga is regarded as a talent factory for young players, it only enhances Bayern’s dominance when rivals lose their best players to the Premier League. Chelsea have signed Timo Werner from RB Leipzig and are trying to buy Kai Havertz from Leverkusen, while Manchester United are chasing Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho.
“The Bundesliga teams give young talent time to grow,” Boateng says. “They feel well treated in Germany. They have time to grow slowly. Sometimes as a young player you have times when you don’t play so well. In some other countries I think it is really strict – they have a bad game, they are out for weeks. In Germany they take care of them.
“All these players had really good seasons. Kai, Timo and Sancho are all really good talents. They have played for a long time now and I think they are all ready for the Premier League. Of course you have to show that first of all. It’s not that easy because it’s a different league. The intensity is different. It’s a different style of game. They have to see if they feel comfortable and like it there.”
It works differently for Bayern: they have signed the Germany winger Leroy Sané from Manchester City. “He will bring extra creativity,” Boateng says. “He’s an outstanding player and is coming back from a long injury so maybe he needs a little bit of time to get back. But I am sure he will be even better than before. We have players who are special and he can decide games on his own.”
The challenges keep on coming. Bayern, relentless in their quest for success, refuse to stand still. There is talk they would be open to selling Boateng, whose contract runs out next summer, and the former City centre-back does not entirely rule out returning to the Premier League one day.
“I would not say no,” the 31-year-old says. “I loved it when I was there. For me it was really unlucky because I got injured straight away and then I didn’t really play the position they promised me. But I still took a lot from playing in the Premier League. It helped me a lot to play and train with great players. I am definitely down for it, but I don’t know for the future. You never know. But it’s not that I would say: ‘I never want to play there.’ It’s one of my favourite leagues for sure.”
The door is open if anyone wants to try. Boateng, who still believes he belongs at the top, is mulling over his next move. For now, however, the focus is on finishing the job against Chelsea and winning the Champions League. The smile is back on Boateng’s face and he is out to prove the doubters wrong.