BERLIN: With former Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, Bayern Munich is in its best condition to win the Champions League since claiming the last of its five titles in 2013.
The Italian, who led Madrid to its 10th European Cup title in 2014 after claiming two with AC Milan in 2003 and 2007, has steered Bayern into a comfortable position this season.
Bayern has a 10-point lead in the Bundesliga, where it is all but sure to claim a record-extending fifth straight title; it has a German Cup semifinal match at home against Borussia Dortmund, which it beat 4-1 in the league on Saturday; and it next faces Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals, with Wednesday's first leg at home.
In contrast to the three previous seasons under Pep Guardiola, Bayern is almost at full strength for the crunch games to come, testament to the 57-year-old Ancelotti's man-management and the conditioning work of his coaches to ensure his players are in top shape when it matters most.
"I'm not a coach who kills his players in training," Ancelotti told Kicker magazine in January. "In Spain there's a saying, 'Demasiada agua mata la planta' - too much water kills the plant. So it is with training, too."
Ancelotti, who prefers training with the ball and less emphasis on running exercises, said, "You can train hard but you have to give the body the chance to recover."
Only central defender Mats Hummels will miss Wednesday's game after sustaining an ankle injury in training on Sunday. Striker Robert Lewandowski is confident of overcoming a knock to his right shoulder, while goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and forward Thomas Mueller both returned to training on Monday after recent absences.
Bayern stumbled at the semifinal stage in each of Guardiola's three seasons in charge - losing 5-0 on aggregate to Ancelotti's Madrid in 2014, then 5-3 to Barcelona in 2015 when the damage was done in a 3-0 first leg defeat, before bowing out on away goals last season against Atletico Madrid.
Under Guardiola, Bayern dominated teams from the start, wracking up big Bundesliga leads and setting records for consecutive games unbeaten and earliest title wins, but the players ultimately suffered from the intensity needed to maintain that level through a full season.
Bayern's dominance under the perfection-obsessed Guardiola also came back to hurt the side, as rivals didn't play with the same commitment they might have displayed if they had the impression there was something to be gained from doing so. Rivals frequently rested players for more winnable games to come. When Bayern had to play Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico, the players faced another unfamiliar level of adversity.
Ancelotti's Bayern has conversely benefited from its own relative drop in level after the winter break with rivals playing to their full potential before ultimately falling short.
Hoffenheim produced a huge effort to beat Bayern 1-0 last Tuesday, though it was only the team's second league loss and it did little to stop its progress toward the title.
Apart from taking care not to overload his players in training, Ancelotti has also relied on rotations among his well-stocked squad to ensure his players stay fit. His laid-back approach has also coaxed the best from veteran wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, both in devastating form against Dortmund. Ribery's performance even earned a kiss on the cheek from the Italian.
Ancelotti's approach is appreciated by Bayern bosses, happy to have a calming influence at a club previously known as FC Hollywood for the slew of tabloid stories it used to provide.
"I've experienced all sorts of coaches at Bayern. What I always like about Carlo is the real calm and self-assurance with which he carries out his job," Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told news agency dpa. "Even when there was a bit of criticism against him - and that's not such a long time ago - he stayed quite calm and said at the time, 'We will be in good shape at the right moment.' And he seems to be quite right there."
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