Bayern Munich's 3-1 win against CSKA Moscow on Wednesday was tainted by the loss of Philipp Lahm due to a muscular injury. The captain came up limping after making a run and was forced off just 29 minutes into the match.
The wintry conditions in Moscow and dreadful state of the pitch at Arena Khimki made for especially dangerous conditions for players, and Bayern and Lahm were perhaps fortunate that the fullback-turned-midfielder suffered only a minor strain that the club confirmed should see him miss the upcoming Bundesliga matches against Braunschweig and Augsburg.
Lahm's absence is a big blow to Bayern, especially with the likes of key figures like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribery also sidelined with injuries.
But the 30-year-old's absence may not be all so great a loss after all—and there is reason to believe there is more than a little silver lining for the Bavarians.
Lahm has come under tremendous demands this season, even by his lofty standards, and the fact that his body—in a very rare instance—reached its limit in a non-contact situation is evidence that he needs a break.
In addition to the stress of fulfilling his duties as captain, injuries to many of his teammates have forced Lahm to play with very few breaks and out of position.
Switching from right-back to defensive midfield is never an easy task from a tactical perspective and athletically it demands a greater contribution. More yards run means more opportunity for a potentially serious injury and at least a dip in form.
Having played 2,308 minutes in 27 games (17 in midfield, 10 in defense) already this season for club and country, Lahm was getting tired—Germany coach Joachim Loew even sent him home before a recent friendly with England.
If Bayern are to be without Lahm's influence at some point this season, now is perhaps best. Their biggest tests of the fall campaign are past and the Bavarians look unbeatable in three competitions.
Lahm's absence came just days after Bayern moved seven points clear of their biggest rivals, Dortmund, in the Bundesliga and an hour before Pep Guardiola's side sealed qualification for the Champions League round of 16.
While it would be unwise to belittle any team, a home match against last-placed Braunschweig is exactly the kind of match Bayern would like Lahm to miss if he had to be sidelined. And although the Augsburg DFB-Pokal match will be played away from home and is a one-off, it still is a fixture against a team that has narrowly avoided relegation in consecutive seasons.
A player of Lahm's class is always missed when absent. But if it means being fresher for the matches that matter most—the upcoming Club World Cup in particular—it's perhaps an acceptable loss.
Lahm's injury means more opportunities for many of Bayern's fringe players, who have waited patiently for an opportunity. Thiago Alcantara, whose role upon arriving in Munich was not exactly certain, has spent much of the 2013-14 campaign thus far sidelined with injury.
He played well as a substitute against Dortmund and more recently came off the bench to replace Lahm; he also had a great hour against CSKA. Like Mario Goetze, who's flourished in the absence of Franck Ribery, Thiago has welcomed the extra responsibility that has come with Schweinsteiger and Lahm missing from the Bayern midfield.
Behind the Spaniard is 18-year-old starlet Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who made his senior debut last season but has been injured for much of the current campaign. He is a big talent who is finally fit and ready for action. He's regularly appeared on the bench for more than a month but is yet to make his season debut with the first team.
After seeing Emre Can lose his patience with the club and move to Leverkusen over the summer, Bayern could keep Hojbjerg in good graces if he is given more chances to prove himself.
The same goes with the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Mitchell Weiser and Julian Green, who could start in attacking positions if Thiago and/or Toni Kroos are deployed in a deeper area—an entirely possible scenario against weaker opponents.
More games mean more opportunities for injuries and, for Bayern, it has to be assumed that a full squad will be a rarity. They will want and need their best players for the toughest matches, but with some less important games coming up, Lahm having a break may not be all that great a loss after all.
Time and time again, someone or other has made the difference for Bayern. And in the next couple games, a new star could be born.