The 2012-13 season may well go down in history as the football year that changed the tides in Europe's game. The Bundesliga could emerge from more than a decade of underperformance in the Champions League by sending three teams to the quarterfinals, meaning a German team could hoist Europe's most coveted club trophy for the first time since in 2001. And it just might be the year that Bayern Munich begins a long-term dominance of European club football.
On Wednesday, Bayern beat a Dortmund side that outplayed Real Madrid and Manchester City earlier this season, claiming a victory in the DFB-Pokal that coukd've been far greater than the 1-0 final scoreline. The Bavarians have won every match they've played in 2013, each by at least two goals.
Barcelona, on the other hand, are eliminated from the Copa del Rey and appear set for a Champions League exit in the round of 16. There are other strong clubs like Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United, but none can claim to have the combination of quality and otherworldly performance as Bayern. As further explained in this article, it's hard to deny that the Bavarians are Europe's best club right now.
The question now is, how can Bayern sustain their level of play for years to come?
Many of the stars of this Bayern team are still young, but others are running out of time. Jupp Heynckes is the first to go, but the German giants seem to have found a more than adequate replacement in Pep Guardiola.
Among the players, Philipp Lahm, Dante and Franck Ribery all turn 30 this year. Based on the nature of his position, the Brazilian can expect to have the most longevity of the three; in all likelihood he won't begin to decline for two or three more seasons.
Full-backs require more quickness and overall legwork than centre-backs, and Lahm accordingly has less time than Dante. But even he can be useful for as many as four more seasons, he will start to naturally regress much sooner. The Bavarians will certainly be wise to begin the search for his long-term successor sooner than later.
As an attacking player who relies on pace and explosiveness in beating players on the dribble, Ribery has even less time. As well as he's played this season, he's not quite at the level he was in 2011-12.
His productivity in the Bundesliga is somewhat less consistent; before last weekend, he hadn't scored since November, and given just two assists in his last nine matches. He's still a great player, just not quite the Ribery of yesteryear. And as he ages and naturally loses his explosiveness, he will only continue to decline.
Just behind Ribery are Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who both turn 30 next year. The Dutchman already is a substitute and will be less critical to replace, but the German remains a key player both as a central midfielder and as his club's vice-captain. Players of his position are enormously influential and cover more ground on average than those of any other area on the pitch, so it will be critical for Bayern to have a replacement lined up.
The good news for Bayern is that their new-found status and especially the arrival of Guardiola makes them an extremely attractive team for Europe's top talent. A laundry list of names has been linked with Bayern in recent weeks, including Neymar.
However, although the Brazilian forward admitted he could see himself playing for Bayern in the future, the official word from Saebener Strasse is that the Bavarians will not break the bank anytime soon. Club president Uli Hoeness recently told TZ: "I do not think that in the next few years we will buy a player that is more expensive than [Javi] Martinez."
Martinez cost a whopping €40 million, meaning there is plenty of room to spend significantly in lesser amounts. Lahm's eventual replacement will almost certainly command a sum less than this figure, given that the most expensive fullback transfer ever (Dani Alves) was €35.5 million.
Centre-backs are also typically less expensive than attacking players, and although Rio Ferdinand and Thiago Silva commanded sums in excess of €40 million, it's likely that a backup for Dante will eventually be found at a more modest price.
Ribery will be trickier to replace. Although he and Robben both cost €25 million, it's very difficult to find such class anywhere near that valuation. However, current substitute Xherdan Shaqiri could be a ready-made solution if he reaches the Frenchman's level. Alternatively, it's likely that other options will become available in the next year or two—and with Guardiola at the helm and Bayern apparently the strongest team in Europe, the club will have the X-factor to attract elite stars.
Guardiola's arrival really does mark the beginning of a new era for Bayern: In signing decidedly the best coach of the last five seasons or so and fighting off tremendous competition from the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, the Bavarians have affirmed their class. And although Hoeness has not exactly been forthcoming about new signings, one can expect Bayern to reach into their coffers if Guardiola has some players in mind. After all, it would defeat the purpose of signing such a world-class coach if the bosses were unwilling to give him the team he wants to succeed.
Currently, it seems that Bayern's transfer plan is focused on smaller things with bigger upside. They have, for example, been linked with Bochum and Germany U19 midfielder Leon Goretzka, as well as 16-year-old Hamburg starlet Levin Oztunali. Neither is a star just yet, but in a few years they—along with other youths in the Bayern reserves like Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Emre Can—could become top players in the Bundesliga and world football.
Guardiola and Bayern sporting director Matthias Sammer both have earned reputations for valuing young players and nurturing talent. The former made Pedro Rodriguez, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and more into stars of world football and convinced countless others to stay at Barcelona despite their rather intermittent playing time.
Otherwise, Guardiola attracted young and still rising talent like Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas during his Barca tenure, convincing them that a place on the bench was sufficient at least initially. Neither would have considered a move to Munich a couple years ago, but the lure of Guardiola could prove decisive in bringing similar talents to Munich.
In 2008, Ricardo Quaresma claimed Germany to be "very, very cold" and asserted "that alone is the reason for many players not wanting to play in Germany." Now even Neymar considers Bayern an option.
For now, Bayern are in no immediate need of transfers. No key starter is sufficiently past his best, and there is plenty of depth in every position. There are several top prospects on loan and with the reserves, and overall Guardiola probably will not need any new players this summer.
However, if there is a major injury or an opportunity arises to sign an elite player, Bayern are now like flypaper for football's greatest. And if an up-and-coming talent becomes available, the Bavarians will be every bit as competitive for his signature as Real Madrid, Barcelona or otherwise.
No longer do Bayern have to scour the markets for lesser-known options, the whole spectrum of stars is within reach. The ideal of talent without end and prolonged success is now a real possibility.
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