Munich - His initial long-awaited taste of competitive action came as a substitute in the 1-0 Matchday 27 win at Borussia Dortmund; four days later, he came off the bench again with 20 minutes to go at the BayArena, this time racking up half an hour of extra time and the decisive spot-kick as well, as Bayer 04 Leverkusen were dispatched from the DFB Cup quarter-final on penalties; and last weekend, finally made his first starting appearance for FC Bayern München in over a year, in the home game against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Long and winding road to recovery
It was, he admitted afterwards, “one of the nicest moments in my life,” and coming as it did on the day he turned 24, doubtless the ideal birthday present for good measure. The 3-0 victory over Thomas Schaaf's unusually toothless charges capped a highly satisfactory afternoon's work for the Spanish midfielder, and brought belated closure to a year of much frustration.
It began late last March, when he suffered a partial tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the home league meeting with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. A month of conservative treatment followed - and then another rupture, this time promptly followed by an operation. Well down the comeback trail last October, he damaged the same ligament again in training, requiring a second bout of surgery. Now, he is raring to go again at last and his return could scarcely be more timely.
Motoring down the final season straight and with his team still battling it out on three fronts, Pep Guardiola found himself with just three match-fit outfield players on the bench for the meeting with Frankfurt. It was thus with as much relief as pleasure that the head coach was able to turn at last to the former FC Barcelona charge who was the one name on his initial must-have list when he took up the reins at Bayern in the summer of 2013.
And Thiago made his presence felt straight away. After a couple of relatively cagey displays by their own standards - both ending in victory away to two of the country's top sides - the record champions were back in dominant mode against Frankfurt. Thiago lined up on the left side of a deep midfield trio alongside and skipper . Alonso, signed from Real Madrid CF last August, partly in response to an injury list that was growing even then, sat slightly further back in his accustomed central role and, almost by default, saw far more of the ball than any of his colleagues, with 154 touches all told.
Thiago was on 93 when he came off with 20 minutes to go, the second-highest total in the team and, more significantly than the bald statistics, he was at the heart of some tremendous combination play down the left with another of his compatriots, , and the free-roaming . The restored No 6's close-quarter skill and vision had a palpably refreshing effect on Bayern's game, all the way through to his withdrawal for Sebastian Rode, one of that trio of available subs.
'Qualities that no other player has'
This week, Thiago also marked his first UEFA Champions League appearance since 11 March 2014 with a goal in Bayern's 3-1 quarter-final first-leg loss at FC Porto on Wednesday. The Bavarians are no doubt up against it, but the 24-year-old's goal has given them a lifeline as they seek a place in the last four for the fourth year in a row.
When he got his man back in his maiden Munich summer, Guardiola noted that, “Thiago has qualities no other player has.” The Spain international looks like getting plenty of opportunity to put said qualities on display in the weeks ahead, given the club's current personnel woes. Sporting director Matthias Sammer, for one, evidently shares the coach's faith in both the aptitude and attitude of the midfielder who, he joked, “would still play football carrying his head under his arm.”