Amid all the speculation over his future, Thiago Alcantara looked like a man determined to live in the present on Sunday night. He grinned, he danced, he drank champagne out of the European Cup and he hugged almost everyone he could.
The longest and most notable embrace was with Hansi Flick. Still on the pitch, and long before the revelry began in earnest back at the team hotel, Bayern’s coach and their midfield maestro shared an intense moment which was pounced upon by the waiting cameras.
‘He told me he was staying,’ deadpanned Flick at the press conference later, but he was only pulling the reporter’s leg. Thiago was instrumental in Bayern’s Champions League triumph, but a sixth European Cup may well prove to be his parting gift to the club: a bittersweet finish to a long and complex relationship.
Thiago Alcantara may have played his last game for Bayern Munich in Sunday’s win
He shared an intense hug with boss Hansi Flick after the 1-0 win over PSG in Lisbon
Despite recent rumours of a late bid from Arsenal, it still seems most likely that Thiago will move to Liverpool this summer. Having expressed his desire to leave Bayern, it now seems only a question of whether the Reds will cough up the asking price of around £27m. If he does leave, he will almost certainly do so for England, as Flick himself revealed earlier this month.
‘Thiago has played in Spain for Barcelona and in Germany for Bayern. I totally understand if he wants to try the Premier League now,’ said the Bayern coach. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has been equally forthcoming.
‘At 29, he is at an age where if he wants to try something new, he has to do it now,’ said the Bayern CEO recently.
Given that they were confident of keeping him as recently as May, it is in some ways astonishing how philosophical Bayern are about the prospect of losing such a player. In the last few weeks, Thiago has once again proved himself to be one of the finest midfielders in the world and an arguably indispensable asset for Bayern. And yet here they are, dispensing of him.
Yet Thiago’s value, the extent of his brilliance, has long divided opinion in Germany. Seven years have passed since the Spaniard arrived in Munich, following Pep Guardiola’s insistence that it was ‘Thiago or nothing’ in his first transfer window at Bayern.
That one phrase has hung over his head ever since, skewing expectations and inviting people to judge a subtle player in terms of black and white.
In a country where the pundits’ sofas are still dominated by the tough guys of yesteryear, Thiago is often accused of not making enough of an impact on big games, or not giving enough to the cause. Lothar Matthaus recently dismissed him as ‘replaceable’.
Such criticism infuriates Thiago’s supporters, who see him rather as a cerebral artiste misunderstood by crude conservatives like Matthaus. Yet as Thomas Muller recently pointed out, Thiago’s ability to win balls back is as important as his creative flair: ‘He doesn’t just enchant you when he is on the ball, he is also an excellent ball thief,’ gushed the Bayern forward.
Thomas Muller raves about Thiago’s ability to win possession and calls him a ‘ball thief’
Bayern believe Leon Goretzka (left) and Joshua Kimmich (right) can thrive together in midfield
Despite or perhaps because of his versatility, the biggest problem Bayern have with Thiago is where to put him.
As long as Muller is around, he will never be the attacking spearhead of Bayern’s midfield. Instead, the Spaniard is generally kept to a deeper role, but even here, competition has grown more fierce in recent years, as Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka mature into a formidable midfield duo for both club and country.
With Kimmich set to inherit the captaincy and time very much on their side, Thiago’s chances of breaking that pairing will only get smaller. Even in the Champions League, his place in the starting line-up was only guaranteed because injury to Benjamin Pavard forced Kimmich to play at right-back.
The question then becomes less whether Thiago is replaceable, and more whether he is required at all. Even just a few weeks ago, Rummenigge suggested that Bayern would not look to buy a replacement, but rather look to Corentin Tolisso to fill Thiago’s shoes.
Bayern have not completely given up hope of keeping Thiago, but he is all set for Liverpool
In that sense, Thiago is a luxury, a useful handyman who just happens to be one of the best players in the world. To lose such a player is sad, but perhaps not the body blow that it would be to lose Robert Lewandowski, Manuel Neuer or even Muller.
Yet like any luxury, Bayern would still like to keep him if they can. Flick may have been joking on Sunday, but he also appeared not to have given up hope entirely of keeping Thiago.
‘I don’t know and he doesn’t know himself,’ said the Bayern coach. ‘We need to wait and see what the next few days bring.’
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