As Bayern took a measure of revenge for their Champions League final defeat to Inter Milan this week, Mario Gomez and Thomas Kraft showed just how important they are to the German champions.
Bayern were known as FC Hollywood in the era of Effenberg, Matthaus & Co. but it seems unlikely that even the silver screen could tell a tale seemingly as far-fetched as Gomez’s season so far. With the €30m price tag of the Bundesliga’s record buy hanging heavy, ‘Mr Reliable’ was as dependable as a second-hand car salesman in his maiden season in Bavaria, netting a paltry ten goals in 29 laborious Bundesliga games.
You could say Gomez’s confidence was so low that he wouldn’t have been in the position to score the goal he did against Inter given the same chance last season. The truth is, he probably wouldn’t have even been on the pitch. Only injuries to Ivica Olic and Miroslav Klose have allowed Gomez a sniff of a regular start this season as nothing in the first matches of the campaign indicated Van Gaal had changed his mind. “The best striker always plays here,” said Van Gaal on Wednesday after seeing Gomez poach a precious 90th-minute winner. “Mario Gomez is now much better than last year.”
No argument there. Eighteen goals in 21 games in the Bundesliga, and seven in the Champions League now after that precious winner in the San Siro are testament to just how Gomez’s fortunes have been transformed. The goals are not the only difference either. Oft criticised for his lack of mobility, Gomez has tried to add some of Olic’s never-say-die attitude to his game, his first touch has been assured, while he has also re-found the cutting edge that made his name.
That has meant the matador goal celebration has been given a regular airing, though not on Wednesday. “From time to time I watch goals on Youtube,” admitted Gomez before revealing the surprise source of ‘inspiration’ for his unusual display of joy against Inter. “This celebration was done by my idol, Jay-Jay Okocha, during his time in England. I said to myself that I would also try it.”
While Gomez has seized the opportunity the Fates handed him with remarkable aplomb, Kraft has also taken full advantage of the chance to shine that Van Gaal’s bravado afforded him.
“He could be excellent, but it also might not work when he’s put under pressure,” said Oliver Kahn when Van Gaal’s decision to swap Jörg Butt for Kraft was made public last month. “Therein lies the risk.”
Kahn was not the only naysayer, but after being blooded tentatively in the dying throes of the Champions League group stage, Kraft has so far proved a winning gamble for Van Gaal. Though not always wholly convincing in the Bundesliga – hardly surprising for one who is only 22 and has a handful of games under his belt behind a whimsical back four – Kraft showed against Inter that he may not be the new Michael Rensing after all, and could well turn out to be the next Olli Kahn.
“You have to say Thomas Kraft was absolutely fantastic,” gushed Franz Beckenbauer, bowled over by the young keeper’s sure-handed excellence.“Samuel Eto’o has proved he’s world class. But he met his match in Thomas Kraft.”
While Gomez’s ghosts appear to have been fully exorcised, Kraft’s initial promise requires further conformation. Given they way he has played already this season, though, you would guess the arrival of Dortmund in Munich this weekend will give him the chance to sow yet more doubt in the minds of the Bayern bosses that Manuel Neuer is the man they need between the posts.
Eurosport 2 Bundesliga commentator
The Week 24 action on Eurosport 2 kicks off on Friday with a relegation six-pointer between Wolfsburg and Mönchengladbach (LIVE 20:30CET) . St Pauli and Hannover go head-to-head LIVE at 15:30CET on Saturday before extended highlights of Hoffenheim v Mainz (17:30CET) keep things on the boil ahead of Bayern Munich v Dortmund (LIVE 18:30CET). Frankfurt will be hoping to get out of a rut when they face relegation-threatened Stuttgart on Sunday (LIVE 15:30CET) before Werder Bremen v Leverkusen rounds the weekend off (LIVE 17:30CET).