Just over a year ago, Thomas Muller scored in a Champions League final.
With barely seven minutes remaining in a match that looked to be headed to extra time, he peeled off Ashley Cole and directed a downward header from Bastian Schweinsteiger’s cross that hit the ground before beating Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech and bulging the roof of the net.
It was only the then-22-year-old’s second Champions League goal of the campaign, and while his season had been an overall disappointment, the tally in Europe’s biggest club contest seemed sure to cheer him, his club and its fans.
But it wasn’t to be.
In the 88th minute, Didier Drogba equalized for the Premier League side. After a pair of scoreless 15-minute sessions, the Blues won their first European Cup on penalties.
A week earlier, Bayern had been crushed in the DfB Pokal final by Borussia Dortmund. Some weeks before that, they had dropped out of the title race as well. Through it all, Muller managed only seven Bundesliga goals and 11 in all competitions—his worst record since breaking into the first team in 2009.
Defeat for Bayern, defeat for Muller.
The summer may have brought rest, but it came with trepidation about the coming season as well. Could the club and the player survive another annus horribilis?
Fast-forward 11 months.
Once again, Bayern found themselves in a Champions League semifinal—this time against Barcelona—and in one of the more monumental matches in recent times, Muller scored twice as his side romped to a 4-0 win at Allianz Arena.
A week later, he found the back of the net once again as Bayern put the finishing touches on a 7-0 aggregate win over the Catalans.
Coming into this season’s Champions League final against Borussia Dortmund—Bayern and Muller’s second in as many years—Muller has 22 goals to his name, eight of which have come in Europe’s most prestigious club competition. He also finished second only to teammate Franck Ribery on the Bundesliga assist chart.
Since the German Super Cup match against Dortmund that kicked off the campaign in August, Muller has been a man on a mission. He scored just 11 minutes into that contest and found the back of the net in Bayern’s first Bundesliga match as well.
So quickly did he hit the ground running that manager Jupp Heynckes was forced to drop Arjen Robben to make room for him. Out on the right of the Bayern attack (which is where he also operates for Germany), he rediscovered his game.
And his game is all about space.
With four full seasons at one of the biggest clubs in the world already under his belt, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Muller is still only 23. It’s easier still when you watch him play—so instinctive is his movement off the ball, so clever his interactions with his teammates that he often looks like an attacker much older than he actually is.
But it took an injury to Toni Kroos for him to really get the chance to shine.
After his fellow Germany international had been ruled out for the remainder of the season with an adductor injury in early April, Muller moved back into the middle and Robben took up his old position on the right.
With the Dutchman on one side and Ribery on the other, Muller’s instincts were given a dual barrel and the trio has been shooting goals for fun ever since.
Still, there’s a couple more matches to play.
Even with a record-setting Bundesliga season and upcoming DfB Pokal final against Stuttgart, the campaign will once again be seen as a failure if Bayern can’t lift the European Cup at Wembley on Saturday.
Muller, however, has proven his point.
Win or lose in the Champions League final, he has rediscovered the form that made him the top young player at the 2010 World Cup. He has turned the disappointment of last season into the ecstasy of this one—an annus horribilis into an annus mirabilis.
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