As Bayern’s red shapes rampaged around the Allianz Arena, running rings around their traumatised opponents, it was easy to forget that this was a fixture they had approached with a certain foreboding. Salzburg are a dangerous team, and had played well enough in the first leg to raise the spectre of a calamitous defeat. By the time Leroy Sané was slamming in the home side’s seventh goal from a tight angle, all that seemed a very long way away.
Instead it was a night simply to purr and to appreciate, and for Bayern’s prospective Champions League opponents to ponder on how they might be stopped. Sané was excellent, Kingsley Coman too, Thomas Müller burgled a couple of goals in the second half and Serge Gnabry showed flickering signs of a return to form. But for all Salzburg’s impressive industry and intent, they were ultimately beaten by a player currently without equal in world football, who at the age of 33 still seems to be honing and sharpening and adding new edges.
The common theme running through Robert Lewandowski’s three goals in the first 23 minutes was that all three came from 50-50 challenges. But then the very concept of a 50-50 requires reassessment when it comes to Lewandowski, a striker who simply bullies the odds, relishes the head-to-head contest, wins loose balls with a combination of superior physicality, superior intelligence and superior will. Lewandowski’s hat-trick ended his shocking recent goal drought for the Bundesliga champions, a drought that admittedly stretched to all of two games.
It was a vindication of sorts, too, for Julian Nagelsmann, who was rewarded for his brave tactical setup against an accomplished counterattacking side. Nagelsmann persevered with the three-man defence that has had mixed results of late, in the knowledge that defeat would almost certainly have invited speculation about his future. Such is the lot of the Bayern manager these days, a job whose success is measured not in domestic clout (their 10th consecutive Bundesliga is virtually certain) but European progress.
And so Bayern began aggressively, certainly more so than they might have been in the away goals era. Coman and Gnabry were genuine wingers rather than wing-backs, which allowed Bayern to launch lightning-quick one-touch attacks but left them incredibly open on the counter. Within one minute it had produced the first shot on goal through Lewandowski and within two minutes a fine chance at the other end for Nicolas Capaldo.
The first goal felt crucial and in a game as open as this it never felt far away. On 10 minutes Lewandowski took in a low cross from Coman and shrugged off the challenge of Max Wöber with a thrilling 180-degree turn. Swindled and humiliated, Wöber was forced to hack Lewandowski down for the penalty. Nine minutes later it was a similar story: Sané with the pass this time, Lewandowski squirming away from Wöber and gratefully accepting the clip on his ankle.
And then in a twinkling it was 3-0, Müller capping a decisive counterattack with a lovely diagonal ball into Lewandowski’s path. Goalkeeper Philipp Köhn came out, only for his clearance to hit Lewandowski and loop amenably towards the empty goal. It’s worth noting that the move had begun with a smart long pass from Manuel Neuer, restored to the team after a month out with injury and immediately giving Bayern an assurance they have recently lacked.
Weirdly, we didn’t learn too much else about Bayern here. We already knew what they could do going forward. But it is at the back where they still feel a little suspect, and by the time Salzburg finally broke through the game was already well beyond saving and Bayern playing at around half-intensity. Still, a record of one clean sheet in their last eight games will certainly interest their quarter-final opponents.
The Allianz was still only a quarter-full, a result of Bavaria’s strict Covid regulations, and following Bayern’s fourth goal, buried by Gnabry after an error from Mohamed Camara, a good deal of the sting seemed to go out of the game. In a way you had to feel for Salzburg: a team with a Plan A and a Plan A+, whose only real response to adversity is simply to double down, throw more chips into the pot, commit ever more fully even as confidence drains from them.
There was still time for Müller to make his mark, collecting Sané’s pass early in the second half, finishing low from 18 yards and celebrating with a feral roar, as if he’d just severed the head of an ox rather than scored the fifth goal in a routine demolition of a team named after a soft drink. The 18-year-old Maurits Kjaergaard, the latest off the famous Red Bull production line, reduced the deficit with a fine shot from a tight angle.
But Bayern would have the last word, Müller finishing low in a packed penalty area and Sané issuing the final insult. Call it what you like: a demolition, a humiliation, a ruthless show of strength. Of course Bayern have their flaws. But there are few teams better at covering them up.