Bayern Munich's Class of '16 Could One Day Rival Manchester United's '92 Vintage

Stuart Telford@@StuartTelfordFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2016

CHARLOTTE, NC - JULY 30:  Danilo D'Ambrosio #33 of FC Internazionale challenges Timothy Tillman #16 of FC Bayern Munich for the ball during an International Champions Cup match at Bank of America Stadium on July 30, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. FC Bayern Munich defeated FC Internazionale, 4-1.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Despite being crowned Bundesliga champions, the 1998-99 campaign was ultimately one of frustration for Bayern Munich.

Moments away from their fourth European Cup/UEFA Champions League title thanks to a first-half Mario Basler free-kick against Manchester United in Barcelona, the Bavarians were undone by a pair of injury-time goals from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson may have had a veteran English forward and a Norwegian import to thank for that fabled victory, but his side throughout the tournament were filled with academy graduates such as David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil.

The fabled "Class of '92" was a golden generation for the English record champions, with 1999 a particular highlight. However, on a season that Bayern were digesting that disappointment, the seeds for their own future success were already being sewn.

Stefan Effenberg (r.) was in a state of disbelief after Manchester United snatched Champions League victory from Bayern in 1999.
Stefan Effenberg (r.) was in a state of disbelief after Manchester United snatched Champions League victory from Bayern in 1999.CAMAY SUNGU/Associated Press

Coach Carlo Ancelotti this week named his first Champions League squad as coach of Bayern, with the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Arturo Vidal and Jerome Boateng unsurprisingly named on his final European list.

Those with a keen eye, however, may have noticed that alongside those luminaries of the world game are a few names they may not have stumbled across until now.

With UEFA introducing expanded squad lists for this season's competition, clubs are allowed to name a "B" list, which features a backup pool of talent who qualify, this season, if they were born after January 1, 1995.

Fabian Benko, Niklas Dorsch, Timothy Tillman and Marco Friedl—remember the names.

The progress of midfielders Benko and Dorsch through the youth academy at Sabener Strasse has been so meteoric that the pair—despite only being 18—have bypassed the club's under-19 side and are already strutting their stuff with Bayern Munich II in the Regionalliga Bayern, the fourth tier of German football.

On watching them perform, it quickly becomes apparent why they are being played at a level two years ahead of the curve, with comparisons to former academy products and future Bayern greats Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos seemingly justified—certainly in terms of their style, and perhaps one day in terms of their execution, too.

The pair, alongside Friedl, were even taken to Bayern's midseason camp in Qatar last year to train with the first team. "It is a sign to the other young players that anything is possible," then-sporting director Matthias Sammer was quoted as saying by (in German). "Despite great competition, they have an opportunity to show their talent."

Germany and Croatia have both expressed interest in capping Benko at full international level.
Germany and Croatia have both expressed interest in capping Benko at full international level.Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press

Benko has perhaps built most upon the opportunity afforded to him so far, starting on the wing in impressive pre-season victories over Manchester City and Inter Milan in the USA. A versatile attacking midfielder with a wide range of passing, he made his competitive debut in the recent 5-0 DFB-Pokal win over Carl Zeiss Jena.

Named one of 50 best young talents in world football by the Guardian late last year, Germany youth player Benko has also attracted admiring glances from Croatia, for whom he is eligible through his parentage. The No. 10 is taking his progress in his stride, though. "It has been more intense than in the amateurs," he says. "But it's fun."

Where Benko may attempt a shot or a through ball on the edge of the opposition's box, Dorsch is more reminiscent of the deep-lying playmaker that Schweinsteiger evolved into later in his career.

"Niklas has the qualities of a central midfielder," says Germany youth coach Marcel Lucassen, according to (in German). "When he picks up possession he already knows where he is going to send the ball next. He can turn and speed the game up. This is a rare quality, and in his position, indispensable."

Alongside his vision, Dorsch also has an admirable work ethic and determination. Having broken his leg as recently as May 2015 in the opening game of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship with Germany in Bulgaria, Dorsch was back to full fitness the following September.

His tattoo—a German translation of former NFL great Jerry Rice's "Today I will do what others won't, so tomorrow I can do what others can't"is artwork on his arm that runs more than just skin-deep.

Dorsch (l.) impressed after coming on for Xabi Alonso against Manchester City, helping Bayern to a 1-0 win.
Dorsch (l.) impressed after coming on for Xabi Alonso against Manchester City, helping Bayern to a 1-0 win.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press/Associated Press

Tillman, meanwhile, is the youngest player in the squad, born in January 4, 1999. He is unlikely to feature when Bayern kick off the competition against Rostov in five days' time, but he would be only 17 years, eight months and 10 days old if he did.

While Benko and Dorsch were nine and 12 respectively when they first joined Bayern, Tillman was a relative veteran when he signed last summer aged 16—to the tune of €500,000, per Sport 1 (in German). An attacking midfielder like Benko, Tillman was tempted from Greuther Furth with the club also signing his younger brother Malik and helping their mother find a job in Munich.

Those who witnessed the German-American's second-half showing in the 4-1 win over Inter in July should be unsurprised to learn that he contributed five goals and eight assists in only 13 appearances for the under-17 team last term. Academy coach Heiko Vogel's description of Tillman as "a very good transfer" in an interview with Merkur (in German) is quickly proving an understatement, despite the headline-grabbing fee.

With an embarrassment of attacking riches, Bayern are also cultivating their team of the future further back. Kroos took Dorsch under his wing before leaving for Real Madrid in 2014, and David Alaba has adopted a similar position with his Austrian compatriot and fellow left-back Freidl.

Originally a striker, Friedl's cultured left foot and willingness to learn has seen him moulded into a defender since signing for the academy in 2008, the same summer as Alaba. Alaba made a similar positional journey deeper on the field under the auspices of the academy.

"[Friedl] is like a little brother to me," said Alaba, in an interview with (in German), who has gone on to claim five Bundesliga titles and a Champions League crown since graduating in 2010. "If he stays so determined, he can do it too."

Taken together, the gifted quartet were given nearly 600 minutes of playing time in pre-season, which also took in games against AC Milan and Real Madrid, alongside those victories over Manchester City and Inter.

Benko, Dorsch, Tillman and Friedl may have to wait until they are thrown in against similar opposition at Europe's top table, but with time, 1998-99 may well prove to be one of the best seasons Bayern ever had—they simply didn't know it then.


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