Munich - Anyone with the inclination to listen back to post-match interviews of FC Bayern München's opponents should pay special attention to the frequency with which the conditional tense is used.
Bayern defensively vulnerable
"If we'd made the most of our chances the game might have turned out differently," said TSG 1899 Hoffenheim's after Saturday's 4-0 reverse at the Allianz Arena. Borussia' Mönchengladbach's Christoph Kramer struck a similar chord after the teams' Matchday 9 encounter: "If Bayern hadn’t had Manuel Neuer in goal they’d have conceded a couple."
Those are some big 'ifs'. Bayern have only let in three league goals so far this season en route to amassing 30 points from a possible 36 to top the standings. It is an intimidating record and going up against what many experts believe to be the world's best team is doubtless a nerve-wracking task. And yet for all the rival players' wistfulness for what might have been, there is certainly an element of truth to their statements.
Anthony Modeste and, in particular, Adam Szalai both squandered clear-cut opportunities to find the net in Munich on Saturday, while VfL Wolfsburg's Junior Malanda (Matchday 1), SC Paderborn's Idir Ouali (Matchday 5) and Hannover 96's Artur Sobeich (Matchday 7), among others, also wasted gilt-edged opportunities against Bayern. So why can't highly-skilled, expertly-trained professional players nudge the ball over the line as they do countless times in training and against other sides?
Intimidated by Neuer
The common denominator in all of the above cases is that they have come face to face with Neuer and suddenly found themselves unable to perform actions that are otherwise second nature. A gentle giant off the pitch, the 28-year-old custodian, who stands at 6'3'', is an imposing presence on it and having won FIFA World Cup, Club World Cup, UEFA Champions League and Bundesliga titles, it is understandable that his opponents' knees should tremble when his looming silhouette appears before them. Even Xabi Alonso is in awe of his team-mate, telling English newspaper the Daily Mail that, "Manuel is by far the best goalkeeper I've ever played with".
Of course, Bayern may have won the games anyway, even if all of the aforementioned misses had gone in. We will never know, but what we do know is that Neuer's reputation precedes him and that Bayern coach Pep Guardiola banks on that fact to set his side up for all out attack. The sheer number of golden opportunities opponents have created proves that the Bundesliga champions' defence is far from impenetrable, yet Neuer, seemingly, is. Were he not such a fear-inducing figure at the back, Bayern could not afford to play with such bold tactics.
Manchester City await
"Hoffenheim had one or two chances that perhaps they should have done better with," Neuer said after Bayern's latest win. "That was good for us as the game was harder than the scoreline suggests." Come the end of the season you could feasibly replace 'Hoffenheim' in that sentence with any other Bundesliga club's name and not be too wide of the mark.
Bayern now need Neuer to carry his special aura into Tuesday's Champions League match away to Manchester City. Guardiola's charges are already guaranteed top spot in Group E, but know that victory would all-but eliminate a talented side from a list of potential opponents in the quarter-final stages. "It’ll be a special game," concluded Neuer. "We're playing under the floodlights in front of a capacity crowd in a fantastic stadium. It’s always great to play in the Champions League and we’re looking forward to it." Whether the same can be said for City's strikers is up for debate.
Jonathan Stockitt reporting from Munich