Football can come down to simple questions: how do you compete with Philipp Lahm? You don’t. It’s a predicament Rafinha has faced ever since he arrived at Bayern Munich in 2011, signing from Genoa. In February, Lahm announced that he will hang up his boots at the end of the season. For Rafinha, it will provide even greater opportunity.
“His retirement was in the making,” says Rafinha. “He had been talking about it and we had a hint that it would come someday soon. He is a great player, the best in the position. His experience, style of play and the decisions that he makes on the pitch make him the best right back in the world.”
At 33, Lahm has changed little. He remains quick-thinking and authoritative. Pep Guardiola once called the German “the most intelligent player” he has ever coached. With a lengthy and trophy-laden career the German has cemented his place in the pantheon of footballing gods. “He is right up there with the very best,” says Rafinha. “He has won everything with the club and many titles. He deserves all the respect.”
Bayern can offer their captain the perfect send-off if they reach the final of the Champions League in Cardiff on June 3. In the round of sixteen they dispatched Arsenal with a beguiling ease, 10-2 on aggregate. In the second leg at the Emirates Stadium Rafinha deputised for Lahm.
“We played a good game and took the advantage when we were able to equalise,” says Rafinha. “They needed the result and with counter attacks we got a good result. It was difficult for Arsenal to get a big win without Laurent Koscielny. They had to attack, they did, and so they left too much space for us to take advantage of.”
But Rafinha agrees with his coach Carlo Ancelotti that Arsenal had troubled Munich at times over the two legs. “Both matches were closer than the result shows,” reflects Rafinha. “In the first game we scored three goals in ten minutes and in the second game we gained the upper hand in the second half as well.”
Pep Guardiola had been appointed at the Allianz Arena to deliver the European cup but the Spaniard never did. Three times, Guardiola and his Bayern faltered in the semi-finals against familiar foes. This time Munich will renew their rivalry with Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.
“We play the defending champions and it will be a very tough clash,” says Rafinha. “Every team that has reached this round of the Champions League is a favorite. The last eight teams got there on merit and everyone can become the champions.”
Facing Real Madrid in April, Bayern have clicked at the right time in search of the treble. In the first half of the season Munich were at times lackadaisical. Neither potty in possession nor offering a typically Ancelloti pragmatism, the Bavarian giants were challenged by RB Leipzig.
“We have all been surprised by Leipizig,” says Rafinha. “They have a good team and they are playing good football, proving the critics wrong. Their team is young and has a great system. In Ralph Hasenhüttl, they have a good coach.”
Ancelloti’s introduction was to foreshadow the end of a ball-hogging neurosis, but that has not entirely transpired. With a thumping 23-1 goal record in their last five matches, Bayern Munich still recorded high levels of possession – 72%, 65%, 75%, 57% and 71% – against Hamburg, Schalke 04, FC Koln, Arsenal and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively. Those stats, however, don’t reveal that Bayern have become more direct under Ancelotti.
“True, this is something that has changed in our game,” admits Rafinha. “Ancelotti said that he didn’t come to change things, but every coach has his own style. The season is long, we have a new coach, we need to adapt to his style and to what he wants from us and this is a process.”
“We have been working hard to reach our peak at the right moment,” concludes Rafinha. “Thiago [Alcantara] is having a great season. Lewa [Robert Lewandowski] is amazing. For me, he is the best striker in Europe. His positioning is great as well as his killer instinct. We are in the hunt for all that we want to achieve this season. This is the right moment in the season.”
And it all coincides with the right moment for Rafinha to stamp his authority on a position defined by the exiting Lahm. Opportunity now awaits with the chance to both provide a perfect send-off and the catalyst for a new post-Lahm era at Bayern.
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