The entire 2012-13 campaign has been one for atonement for Bayern Munich. After last season's 5-2 DFB-Pokal final humiliation at the hands of Dortmund and after defying the odds to find a way to lose to Chelsea at home in the Champions League final, the Bavarians—trophyless for two seasons—were compelled to make it up to themselves and their dedicated fans.
Bayern have done just that so far. Their domestic performance is, alongside that of Barcelona, the best in Europe: With 17 points separating them from Dortmund, it's a very real possibility that they could wrap up the title before April.
The German record champions put on arguably the best performance of any team in the Champions League Round of 16, beating Arsenal 3-1 at the Emirates. And on Wednesday, they reclaimed some of the confidence lost in last year's Pokal final as they beat Ballspielverein Borussia for the first time in non-preseason play in over three years.
Bayern's win came at home and was only by a 1-0 margin; it never was exactly safe. Yet, the dominance of their performance must not be underestimated. They swarmed Dortmund the way BVB swarmed them in years past—keeping a stranglehold on the midfield that would not let up. Mario Mandzukic again and again either directly dispossessed the Dortmund defenders—who sorely felt the absence of Mats Hummels—or forced a harried and hopeful long ball.
Mario Goetze was the only Dortmund player with any sharpness, only he had the technical wizardry to trick the Bayern defenders. Even so, he rarely had anyone worth passing to. When he went on his own, he eventually was dispossessed; when he passed, danger for Bayern was essentially averted as no man in black and yellow stood a chance of breaking down the defense.
The fact that Arjen Robben scored the game's only goal is perfectly fitting in the narrative of Bayern's season. Having missed two key penalties last season, the Dutchman—more than anyone else—had something to prove. He was only used from the start on Wednesday due to Franck Ribery's suspension. But, given his chance, the Robben scored a beautiful goal with skill and technique that conjured nostalgic memories of the 2009-10 season.
Bayern's triumph over Dortmund comes just days after Barcelona lost twice consecutively. The Catalans have been commonly referred to as Europe's strongest club ever since 2009. Their rare losses have been largely dismissed as mere flukes. However, consecutive multi-goal losses to Milan and Real Madrid are too significant to ignore.
Perhaps it's a systemic over-reliance on Lionel Messi that has led to Barca's downturn, or maybe it's the decline of Xavi, Carles Puyol and Dani Alves. Alternatively, the loss of Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova, the coaches who built the world's best team, might be the reason. Regardless, it's increasingly evident that Barca are beginning to crumble.
Milan deserve credit for taking part in the dethroning of Barca, but even the most ardent of Rossoneri supporters must admit that a team with Massimo Ambrosini and Sulley Muntari in midfield is not superlative across Europe.
Who are the best team in Europe?
Real Madrid have certainly gathered wind in their sails since eliminating Barca in the Copa del Rey, but the very same Real were fortunate to take one point from two matches against Dortmund in the Champions League group stage and were beaten in the semifinals by a worse Bayern side last spring. Real may be among the leading contenders to challenge Bayern, but they cannot be labeled favorites based on any measure of performance.
Juventus and Manchester United are the only other clubs that could have any claim to the title of Europe's best club, but both have much to prove. Neither ever plays against truly top opposition in domestic competition and both have gone years since facing the elite clubs in the Champions League. Both have done well in Europe this season thus far, but the title of best team in Europe is not won by beating teams like Galatasaray, Shakhtar Donetsk or even Chelsea. United have a chance of reclaiming elite status, but only if they eliminate Real Madrid in the Champions League.
Looking around Europe, no team seems to have the complete package that Bayern now offer. They've won an incredible 19 of 23 Bundesliga games, conceding an even more astonishing figure of just eight goals. They played Arsenal off the park in London. And on Wednesday, they comfortably dismissed a Dortmund side that despite its lack of depth, has proven capable of beating any team in a one-off.
No doubt, with newfound confidence, an unparalleled balance of attacking and defending quality and seemingly limitless desire, this Bayern team is now decisively Europe's best and will be favorites to win the Champions League.