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Testing times for Van Gaal at Bayern

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Phil Minshull | 20:06 UK time, Monday, 28 September 2009

The Champions League game between Bayern Munich and Juventus on Wednesday may ultimately prove to be one of the defining moments of Louis van Gaal's career.

It's a bold statement to make considering that the notoriously authoritarian and rather taciturn 58-year-old Dutch coach, who took over at the German giants at the start of July, guided Ajax to the 1995 Champions League title.

Also on his CV is a myriad of other honours with Barcelona and, most recently, current Dutch champions AZ Alkmaar.

However, his new club's less-than-impressive start to the season means that the four-time Kaisers of Europe languish down in seventh place in the Bundesliga and the spotlight is shining firmly on Van Gaal.

vangaal_blog_getty.jpgVan Gaal moved to Bayern from AZ Alkmaar

The backroom power brokers at Bayern - Uli Hoeness, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Franz Beckenbauer - will be looking for significant reassurance against their Italian visitors that they made the right decision in employing the club's first non-German coach in more than a decade.

After last season's rollercoaster season which saw continual conflicts with Bayern old boy Jurgen Klinsmann, leading to the ex-Spurs striker and German national team coach being fired five weeks before the end of last season, that trio of power brokers brought in Van Gaal to be, as World Soccer magazine called him recently, "a Dutch rod of iron".

However, the problem with rods of iron is that they don't bend, they just rust with age.

Unkind people in Germany and much further afield are saying exactly that about the little loved - at least beyond the Dutch borders - and some would say unlovable, Van Gaal.

Bayern accrued 11 points in their first seven Bundesliga matches, but when it came to the crunch against Bundesliga leaders Hamburg on Saturday, even by Van Gaal's own admission, the 21-times German champions were found severely wanting and went down 1-0.

The problems just seem to be piling up for Van Gaal, especially with his most talented players.

Nobody within, or outside, Bayern seems to know what's going through Frank Ribery's head at the moment, but he seems to be thinking more about Madrid - with extensive press speculation that he'll join Real sometime in the next 12 months - than Munich.

The new big-name signings Mario Gomez and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk are also demonstrably struggling to adapt to what Van Gaal might want from them, perhaps with him resenting their arrival as their signings were finalised before he arrived.

Bayern, probably observing how their former coach Felix Magath's traditional Germanic and disciplined coaching methods had worked so well at surprise champions Wolfsburg last season, opted to bring in someone with a reputation of being of similar ilk.

However, anyone who remembers that Van Gaal's last coaching job beyond the Dutch borders was at Barcelona could have anticipated problems, even if Munich is physically, linguistically and culturally much closer to the Netherlands than Catalonia.

"The jury is out on Van Gaal, a Dutchman lacking the humanity of Bobby Robson and the popularity of Johan Cruyff," wrote Jimmy Burns in his book Barca, published shortly after van Gaal's first season in Spain.

This was despite him winning the La Liga title in 1997-98.

"Van Gaal has treated Barcelona's other players as if they were Dutchmen. He is like an expatriate business executive who cannot understand the local way of doing things," added Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times around the same time.

And according to the prevailing Spanish media portrayal of him in the late 1990s, Van Gaal apparently possessed a personality that could be called, in contradictory fashion, defensively aggressive.

However, that wasn't the Van Gaal I encountered. I spoke to him several times during his two stints at Barcelona and, when he wanted to, he could be extremely amiable.

From a Bayern fan's perspective, it probably doesn't matter which Van Gaal manifests himself in the coming days.

ribery_blog_afp.jpgRibery has been linked with a move to Real Madrid

If he can motivate Bayern's players to rise above their recent mediocrity and give "The Old Lady" a good mugging on Wednesday then he will be forgiven, at least temporarily, for many of his other perceived failings in Bavaria during his first three months there.

On the other hand, if Ciro Ferrera's Juventus frustrate Bayern, then Van Gaal is likely to face more hostile headlines.

Van Gaal's current situation reminds me of the final scene of the terrific 1960s science fiction film "The Day The Earth Caught Fire", which is one of my favourite films.

The camera lingers on two separate newspaper headlines, 'World Saved' and World Doomed', while waiting to hear the outcome of a nuclear explosion designed to tilt the world back into it's right position.

Perhaps Suddeutsche Zeitung has prepared similarly dramatic sports pages for Thursday morning.


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