From Bayern target to Barcelona flop: The checkered career of Aliaksandr Hleb

PROFILE
By Martin Ernst

“If Bayern and Barcelona meet in the Champions League semi-finals, it is likely that he will be playing for one of the two teams,” predicted Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.

These words were not about Javi Martinez, a known transfer target of the Catalans. They were concerning Aleksandr Hleb, now of BATE Borisov, whom Bayern Munich will meet on Tuesday in Minsk.

Half of Europe was interested in the then 27-year-old Arsenal midfielder. He eventually opted for a move to Camp Nou for an estimated €20 million. Today, he is rather generously rated at €2.5m by Transfermarkt, and many will be wondering how different Hleb’s career would have been if he had picked the red of Bayern over the Blaugrana of Barca.

Until his move to Catalunya, everything was going swimmingly for the Belarusian. In 2000, he left BATE, the club that had bred him, for the Stuttgart reserve ranks. A year later, Felix Magath called him into the first-team where, alongside the likes of Timo Hildebrand, Andreas Hinkel and Kevin Kuranyi, he finished second in the Bundesliga and qualified for the Champions League.

Way back when | Hleb was one of Europe’s hottest properties in north London

In his four seasons at the Mercedes Benz Arena, he played 137 league games, scoring 13 goals and providing 13 assists. He had developed a reputation as an excellent technician, and it had not gone unnoticed.

Arsenal came calling in 2005, and Hleb made the move to the Premier League, which proved to be the right decision. His time with the Gunners could well be classed as the most successful period of his career. The Belarusian fit perfectly into Arsene Wenger’s cast of athletes, scoring seven Premier League goals in 89 games, and reaching the Champions League final in 2006.

He was then at the peak of his powers, and Pep Guardiola, who had just replaced Frank Rijkaard at Camp Nou in the summer of 2008, stated his desire for the player, who then had a choice: Bayern or Barca.

Hleb’s answer is well-known, and so are its consequences. While Hleb could celebrate the Champions League and Liga double in 2009, he was confined to a bit-part role, starting just a few times and making a mere 19 appearances in his first season, as he struggled to ever warm to life at the club.

Frustrated with the situation, Hleb recalled in 2011: “I was upset when I could not play. Now I know that Barca are great because every player scales back their selfishness. At the time I could not see it that way.”

During his time frozen out in Spain, a new quest began – the search for a new beginning. For the next three years he was farmed out to three clubs, including Stuttgart, Birmingham and Wolfsburg, but could not manage to find his old form.

At Stuttgart, Hleb failed to find the net in 27 games under then-coach Christian Gross. At Wolfsburg, the statistics were better, scoring one in his four matches back under the tutelage of Magath. But the lack of consistency and match practice were apparent.

And so, in January 2012, he was snapped up on a free transfer by Russian Premier League outfit Krylya Sovetov, with his contract at Barca having been terminated. That summer, he went back to his roots and his first club BATE.

A step backwards? Not necessarily. The Belarusians are playing among Europe’s elite for a third time and have enjoyed moderate success. With the returning Hleb playing alongside Brazilian-born Renan Bressan, another player of European quality, the club have been strengthened greatly.

And Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes has warned his troops about the reunion with the 31-year-old: “I have seen some games and I have been very impressed. He has now returned to the level he had at Stuttgart. He is certainly the leader of the team.” Lille would certainly agree with the veteran coach.

The 2010-11 Ligue 1 winners faced the Borisov outfit two weeks ago, and the underdogs inflicted a 3-1 defeat on Rudi Garcia’s side. The first-half in particular was a prime example of effectiveness and efficiency in the final third. With their excellent counter-attacking and coolness, the underdogs were 3-0 up at the break. Hleb had played a key role in pulling the strings in midfield – and he will do so once again when he faces Bayern, as he looks to show the Bavarians what they missed out on in 2008.

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Even better than Barcelona & Juventus so far – why Bayern Munich will not repeat their 2011-12 collapse

COMMENT
By Enis Koylu | German Football Writer

A little over 12 months ago, it seemed to be all over. Borussia Dortmund had fallen to a 2-1 defeat away at Hannover, the champions’ third defeat in just six Bundesliga games. Bayern Munich, meanwhile had beaten Schalke 2-0 at the Veltins Arena. Jurgen Klopp’s side’s title victory the year before was a one-off, and the Bavarians were the true kings of Germany.

Fast forward to May, and it was a different story. Bayern’s eight-point lead in the Bundesliga had been turned on its head by a remarkable Dortmund revival, and the Ruhr side went on to thrash their rivals 5-2 in the DFB-Pokal final. Die Roten‘s last chance of salvation was the Champions League final, when they struggled to break down a distinctly limited Chelsea team on their own turf, and lost on penalties.

The start to the current season has been even more impressive for Bayern. Indeed, it has been perfect. While they cannot boast a 1,147-minute run without conceding a goal, they have swept aside all nine of their opponents with considerable ease, including the likes of Dortmund, Schalke, Werder Bremen and Valencia.

It’s all eerily familiar. As Bayern have gone from strength to strength, Dortmund have struggled to get going, recording disappointing results against lowly Nurnberg, Hamburg and Eintracht Frankfurt. Schalke are proving to be a credible force, while Bayern’s Champions League campaign has got off to a decent start with a win over Los Che.

However, Bayern look unlikely to repeat their 2011-12 collapse in 2012-13.

Jupp Heynckes’ men went into the winter break top of the pile last season, but with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Arjen Robben, amongst others, injured, a stretched Bayern limped to draws with Freiburg and Hamburg and suffered a 1-0 loss to Basel in the Champions League round of 16 in a disastrous February.

This term, an injury to the Germany midfielder would be no catastrophe: €40 million-man Javi Martinez and first-team regular Luiz Gustavo could man the deep-lying midfield positions. If the Dutchman were to suffer another injury, Xherdan Shaqiri would be a more-than-able deputy.

Last time out, a Mario Gomez undergoing ankle surgery would have meant that an ageing Ivica Olic led the line. This season, Mario Mandzukic has been in rampant form up front as he begins his Bayern career, while Claudio Pizarro provides them with the credible third-choice striker that Nils Petersen never was.

Holger Badstuber’s suspension necessitated the fielding of Anatoliy Tymoshchuk as a makeshift defender in the Champions League final in May. Should the 23-year-old fall again, Dante will be on hand to step in.

Toni Kroos is a year older, and finally seems to be finding his best form on a consistent basis, while Emre Can, now 18, is ready to fill in when needed and has already showcased his versatility by acting as an emergency left-back.

Of course, Bayern were by no means poor last season. The 73 points they managed in 2011-12 would have been enough to win the Bundesliga in four of the previous five editions of the competition, and they memorably outplayed Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid in both semi-final legs of the Champions League.

Whether domestic rivals Dortmund can string together another long unbeaten run remains to be seen: they have already displayed defensive frailties in the Bundesliga this season, and a top-three finish in a tough Champions League group containing Madrid and Manchester City would see their thin squad extended to their full capabilities.

On a European level, the turmoil at the Bernabeu has been well documented, while Manchester United and Manchester City have serious question marks over their midfield and defence respectively. Chelsea, additionally, will have the Club World Cup to contend with alongside their hectic Christmas schedule in December.

Juventus and Barcelona have both enjoyed unbeaten starts to the league, but the Turin side are still without a credible striker, and have survived scares against Fiorentina and Genoa, while Tito Vilanova’s Blaugrana are not the fearsome machine they were under Pep Guardiola, escaping shocks against Getafe, Spartak Moscow and Sevilla thanks to individual brilliance – mainly from Lionel Messi.

If the early signs are to be believed this season, Bayern are not just the most complete team in Germany, but in Europe, and they have a golden opportunity to banish the memories of two seasons without major honours and finally get their hands on the trophies that the quality of their squad merits.

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BATE have the advantage over Bayern, claims Heynckes

Bayern Munich coach Jupp Heynckes has insisted that BATE will be the favourites heading into Tuesday’s Champions League match between the two sides.

The Bavarians have won all nine of their matches so far this season, including victories over the likes of Schalke, Borussia Dortmund and Valencia.

However, due to the long-haul nature of their trip to Minsk, and with the hosts having had more playing time this season, the veteran trainer feels his side are at a disadvantage.

“BATE will have a slight advantage as they play at home, and with BATE’s season in full swing, Bayern have no advantages,” the Borussia Monchengladbach legend explained at a press conference.

“I must say I was impressed by BATE’s performance and victory at Lille. BATE played a great game in France, so we must take them seriously.

“BATE have become Champions League regulars in recent years and perform with relative success. They are a unique team. As for our side, we have big targets, but it is too early to speak of them.

“First of all we have to successfully qualify from our group. Playing in the Champions League is a big challenge for our side.”

Former Barcelona midfielder Aliaksandr Hleb plies his trade for the Borisov outfit, and Heynckes went on to voice his admiration for the 31-year-old.

“I have a lot of respect for Hleb, who I remember playing in the Bundesliga. He is perhaps BATE’s key player, and he has found his Stuttgart form.”

BATE's Hleb eyes Bayern shock

Aliaksandr Hleb has insisted that all the pressure is on Bayern Munich in Tuesday’s Champions League group stage match against BATE.

The Belarusian club won at Lille 3-1 in their first match and sit top of Group F, ahead of last year’s runners-up in the continental competition on goal difference.

The former Barcelona and Arsenal midfielder believes the Bundesliga giants possess quality in abundance but that a victory is not implausible.

“The pressure is on Bayern as they’re the favourites,” he told Bundesliga.com. “It will be difficult, they’re a fantastic team, but anything is possible.

“I believe we [relish the role of underdog]. But we’re not looking too far ahead as we know that other teams, in particular Bayern and Valencia, are favourites in this group.

“Likewise, Lille could still progress despite the defeat. We’re just trying to take it step by step and we’ll see how far we’ve got after the six matches.”

Hleb’s contract with BATE runs out at the end of the season, and he insists he wants to use this European charge as an opportunity to announce himself to bigger clubs.

“I haven’t even started thinking about what I will be doing next year,” the 31-year-old claimed. “But one thing is for sure: I want to play in a good league and with a club that’s involved on the international stage.

“In a sense, I’m using BATE as a springboard but at the same time I want to help the team achieve their goals and maybe even make a bit of Belarusian football history in the process.

Hleb said a return to the Bundesliga – where he has played before with Stuttgart and Wolfsburg – is not out of the question.

“Definitely, I love Germany”, he added. “There are no stadiums like those in the Bundesliga. It’s the league with the best atmosphere as well. I’ve always really enjoyed playing in Germany.”