Created on 02-05-2008 at 00:00 AM
At half-past eleven, the Bayern bus left the deserted Petrovsky stadium for the 15-minute ride to the team hotel, passing the imposing cathedral, palaces and historic buildings in the former Tsarist stronghold of St. Petersburg. However, in the aftermath of Thursday’s hefty UEFA Cup semi-final defeat to Zenit St. Petersburg, it is doubtful whether Ottmar Hitzfeld and his men took much notice of their sumptuous surroundings.
“There’s no point beating around the bush, we’ve taken a hiding today. 4-0 is a bit steep,” chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told the midnight banquet at the Astoria hotel. “It’s been a terrible day for us with a catastrophic defeat,” Ottmar Hitzfeld acknowledged as he contemplated his heaviest European reverse with Bayern, in his last such game in charge too.
Treble dream in tatters
The players trudged from the field with heads bowed, and a pall hung over the banquet on this occasion as well, most of the stars disappearing to their rooms the minute they had finished their meals. It was an understandable reaction to the shattering of a dream, the final in Manchester on 14 May and a first-ever treble in the club’s history.
Munich fell to opponents for whom everything went right on the night. Pavel Progrebnyak’s fourth-minute opener set the stage perfectly for the Russians’ excellent counter-attacking skills. “The opener ruined our plan and played into their hands,” said Philipp Lahm. Later goals from Konstantin Zyrianov (39), Viktor Fayzulin (54) and a second from Pogrebnyak (73) were aided and abetted by thoroughly uncharacteristic Bayern defensive errors.
Zenit in Champions League form
”A good team can’t be conceding goals like that, especially not in a semi-final,” offered Lahm. Little worked out at the other end of the field either. “That was simply the worst I can ever remember us playing,” said Luca Toni. Oliver Kahn, on the other hand, felt Zenit had produced “a classy display. I’ve seldom seen such a good team in the UEFA Cup. That was worthy of the Champions League.“
Fifty games so far this term also visibly took its toll on the visitors. “We’ve been playing three times a week for months, and our opponents were simply in great shape today, fresher and fitter, whereas we were running on empty,” Rummenigge said sympathetically. “We couldn’t expect the team to produce another escape act like we did in Getafe or in the Cup final against Dortmund. We needed to take the lead or equalise quickly,” mused manager Uli Hoeneß, “we ran out of strength, especially mentally.“
Hoeneß: We hit our targets
Despite it all, Hoeneß saw no reason to be downhearted. “This doesn’t cast a shadow over the season whatsoever. I’m very satisfied with the campaign. I want to pay the team a huge compliment. We’ve hit all our targets, in my opinion,” he insisted. Bayern have indeed swept the domestic board with the league title, the DFB Cup and the League Cup.
”We shouldn’t fall into the trap of questioning the fundamentals and declaring the season a failure,” agreed Rummenigge, thanking Ottmar Hitzfeld and the players for “tremendous performances. There was a lot of pressure to win trophies with a reshaped team, and that we’ve achieved.“ Added Hitzfeld: “It’s been a terrific season, and there’s no need to think otherwise.“
No win in last five UEFA Cup ties
So where do Bayern stand after last summer’s spending spree and team rebuilding? The Bavarians failed to win any of their last five UEFA Cup fixtures, and conceded 19 goals in 14 matches. By comparison, FCB have let in only 18 goals in 30 Bundesliga outings. “We’ve not been as strong in Europe as we have been in the Bundesliga,” Hitzfeld concluded.
The question will probably not be answered until Bayern return to the Champions League next season, “where we really belong,” argued Hoeneß. Next season, Munich will certainly not be favourites before every game they play. “We’ve spent the season talking up the UEFA Cup, but it’s not an easy competition for Bayern,” said Kahn, “this team has bags of potential and will have learned a lot this term. The Champions League next season will indicate where we stand in Europe.“
Farewell Kahn and Hitzfeld
Kahn will not be there to find out. Saint Petersburg was the last European match for the Bayern captain and veteran of the 2001 Champions League triumph, as it was for hugely successful coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. “By the way, this is a fantastic city, I’d recommend it to anyone,“ the giant keeper remarked with a smile - and with what might even have been a hint of relief in his voice.