Bayern Munich's title rivals are about to find out that no one does it quite like James Rodriguez. - © 2018 DFL
Bayern Munich's title rivals are about to find out that no one does it quite like James Rodriguez. - © 2018 DFL

Is James Rodriguez the man to lead Bayern Munich's Rückrunde resurgence?


Liverpool fans are no doubt rejoicing the news of Thomas Müller's suspension for their UEFA Champions League last 16 meeting with Bayern Munich, but did anyone care to mention that James Rodriguez is back in first-team contention after injury?

Colombia star James, 27, makes a timely return for the defending Bundesliga champions after sitting out the last eight games of 2018 with a torn ligament in his left knee - and it's not just Jürgen Klopp's English Premier League pacesetters that should be worried.

James Rodriguez returned to first-team training at Bayern's winter training camp in Doha. - 2019 Getty Images

A taker and maker of chances

Despite starting just eight of the 16 games he has been available to Bayern coach Niko Kovac so far this season, James remains almost as influential now as he was in 2017/18, particularly in the Bundesliga.

Last term, James averaged a goal (seven) or assist (11) every 92 minutes spread over 23 Bundesliga appearances (19 of them starts). Although he has played just nine times in the Bundesliga in 2018/19, he has still scored one and supplied three goals at a rate of one every 121 minutes. Only Robert Lewandowski (11 goals and five assists in 1,517 mins - one every 95 mins) and Serge Gnabry (four goals and three assists in 774 mins - one every 111 mins) have fared better.

Müller, the player regularly deployed in the No.10 position in James' absence, has scored or assisted every 147 minutes.

Standards have not slipped, even if game time has.

"I know he's a top player, I know what he can do," Kovac said following James' return to full training in January. "He's shown that not just here but at other big clubs. I expect top performances from him, just like I do any other player. We finished the first half of the season strongly, and competition for places is fierce, as is always the case. Now it's down to him to show he deserves a place in the team again."

Watch: All James' Bundesliga goals and assists in 2017/18

When the going gets tough, James gets going

As Kovac alluded to, James' influence on games is unquestionable. His goals and assists this season have all come in wins - three in the Bundesliga and one in the Champions League - while he only lost two of the 13 matches in which he had a direct hand in a goal in 2017/18. But for a calf injury that forced him to miss four fixtures during the second half of the campaign, you wonder how much more quickly might Bayern have clinched the title.

As it was, Bayern had to wait until Matchday 29 of 34 to put the seal on a sixth successive Bundesliga crown - a first for James after joining the Bavarians from Real Madrid on a two-year loan deal in summer 2017.

A second for the former Porto and Monaco wizard hangs in the balance, with Borussia Dortmund the team to beat after carving out a six-point lead over the record champions at the halfway stage. And while being the hunters is uncharted territory for Bayern's current generation, it's nothing out of the ordinary for the extraordinary James.

He rebuilt his career at Bayern after two years of turmoil in Madrid, keeping teething troubles to a minimum and hitting peak form exactly when it mattered most. The fact five of his seven league goals and eight of his 11 assists came in 10 devastating Rückrunde displays attest to that.

Set-pieces are another James Rodriguez speciality. - 2018 Getty Images

James and Müller: a recipe for success

That's two fat ticks next to quality and mentality, and a third to come alongside versatility.

James has played on the right- and left-hand side of the Bayern attack, off the shoulder of Lewandowski and in central midfield. He has shown himself to be both consistent and chameleon, while his penchant for pin-point raking passes from all manner of angles put him on a par with the very player he is supposedly in direct competition with for a starting berth in terms of individuality.

Not that Müller sees it that way.

"I don't think we're in competition," Bayern's self-titled Raumdeuter (space interpreter) told German daily TZ recently. "James is involved in the play long before I am. He wants to be on the ball in the middle of the pitch. He's someone who distributes the ball, and actually makes passes that perhaps no one else here does. He showed last season how effective he is as the attacking player in a double midfield pivot, and his technique is fantastic. I like being on the pitch with James."

"Attaboy!" James Rodriguez and Thomas Müller linked up brilliantly in 2017/18. - 2018 DFL

Given that James typically hits the mark with around 87 per cent of his attempted passes, there is no arguing with Müller's assessment of his teammate's laser-guided vision. But are the duo compatible?

In the 13 Bundesliga games James and Müller have lined up together since 2017/18, Bayern have taken 33 from a possible 36 points, scoring 33 goals. In the 11 matches that only one of the two has made the starting XI, the Bavarians have won seven, drawn two and lost two, scoring 20 goals.

What is more, six of James' 10 goals and eight of his 12 assists in the German top flight to date have come in fixtures which he and Müller have started.

It turns out they're made for each other.

James Rodriguez is unbeaten in his two appearances for Bayern against current leaders Dortmund, registering one goal and four assists. - 2018 DFL

Opportunity knocks

Kovac's fortune-changing switch back to the 4-2-3-1 formation that served Bayern so well under predecessor Jupp Heynckes also plays into James' hands. He could play with or instead of Müller in attack, or operate from deep alongside the likes of Leon Goretzka, Joshua Kimmich and Thiago. He has the proven aptitude, after all.

That's not to say James is going to waltz back into the team, not least after Bayern ended 2018 with five successive Bundesliga victories. Kovac may feel he already has his winning formula, but the season is long and the Croatian knows full well that his returning No.11 adds another significant string to the champions' bow.

A fit and firing James could be the one to swing momentum firmly back in Bayern's favour.

Chris Mayer-Lodge