Can ‘lame duck’ Tuchel conjure Champions League magic before Bayern exit?

Lame ducks still quack. Do they also guide their flock to Champions League titles?

Make no mistake about it, Thomas Tuchel remains a lame duck at Bayern Munich. It can’t be otherwise when you’re told, with three months to go, that despite being under contract, your services won’t be required next season.

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When the news broke last month, I made the point that this was a foolish decision by the club. Not because he’s done a good job — he hasn’t, as I see it, and evidently, as Bayern see it the same way — but because in these situations, you either lance the boil and bring in an interim boss or you fire him at the end of the campaign. Leaving him there in these circumstances means leaving Bayern with a humiliated, undermined Tuchel, which is a worse version than the Tuchel they had before.

And yet, after the 3-1 aggregate win over Lazio, they’re through to the Elite Eight of the Champions League, raising the question: can Tuchel actually win it and deliver the ultimate kiss-my-bony-backside farewell as he rides off into the sunset?

To be clear, I’m not getting carried away because they beat Lazio, who are a measly ninth in Serie A and have won just three of their past nine games — one of them was the first leg against Bayern. Bayern’s wage bill is 3½ times higher than Lazio’s. When Bayern needed a striker in the summer, they signed Harry Kane from Tottenham Hotspur for €100 million ($108.6m) … Lazio picked up Taty Castellanos from New York City (via a loan spell at Girona) for €15m. These are clubs that live in different neighbourhoods.

Nor do I think that Bayern are the best team left in the Champions League — that would be Manchester City, far and away — or even the second-, third- or fourth-best, but this only matters so much. Why? Because it’s a knockout competition, which means there are foibles and quirks, incidents and bumps in the road, favorable draws and even more favourable referring errors, goalkeepers standing on their head and journeymen turning into Ballons d’Or.

Think back to this time last year. Who would have had Inter coming within some Romelu Lukaku misses and Éderson saves of winning it all in Istanbul? Nobody.

Stuff happens — heck, even in this two-legged tie against Lazio, things could have taken a very different turn. Imagine Gustav Isaksen buries his chance in the first leg and Ciro Immobile converts his header on Tuesday night, and suddenly, Bayern are 0-3 down on aggregate, Tuchel is in sensory overload, and the crowd starts to murmur.

The basic (if unimaginative) formula of shutting up shop and letting your individual superstars conjure up goals can work in knockout competitions. Bayern have both gifted individuals and a manager in Tuchel who, for all his faults (real and imagined), already won a Champions League playing that way with Chelsea in 2020-21. They have the best center-forward not named Erling in the competition (Kane). They have players who, on a good day, can dribble past an entire back four and the keeper (Jamal Musiala, Leroy SanéKingsley Coman too, on a very good day). They have eight guys in their squad who have won it before including Manuel Neuer, who can still be a shutdown keeper on his day, Joshua Kimmich, who is still the Golden Boy and Thomas Muller, who is still the ultimate Bavarian folk hero.

And, of course, the silver lining of having screwed up the Bundesliga — they’re 10 points behind Bayer Leverkusen with 10 games to go, which means there’s a very good chance they will not be crowned Germán champions for the twelfth consecutive year — is that Tuchel can shift all the focus onto the Champions League. That means resting players domestically, testing out new concepts and treating every league game as a training session for the next round.

Does it matter that relations between Tuchel a number of senior players are reportedly — to put it mildly — strained? Does it hurt them that every time Tuchel shows up at the Bayern HQ on the Sabener Strasse, he knows that hiding behind the blinds are the guys who don’t want him there? Is it a concern that every time he talks in training, someone could turn around and say “Yeah, but you’re the guy who managed to add Kane to the squad and make things worse!”

Yes to all of these things, but the flip side is that nobody has anything to lose. The big reset button is being pushed this summer. There’s no long term, only the here and now. Five games to make history.

We’ve all seen those bad movies where the coach says “Men, you don’t like me and I don’t particularly care for you, but we’re either going to stand together, as a team, or we will crumble, as individuals.” That’s the thing about sports. There’s always a common purpose: winning. It benefits everyone, no matter how much or how little they like each other.

Does Tuchel dare to dream? How sweet would it be — and how foolish would the men who fired him look — if he walks away with his second Champions League title in four years?

What if the lame duck has one last magical flight left in him?