England fans will remember the scene all too well. Harry Kane went about his penalty routine in the usual way, as he adjusted his socks, repositioned the ball on the edge of the spot and took seven steps back before first looking into the the eyes of France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, and then at the ball. There following his trademark staccato run-up, the slight crouch, the opened hips, and a clean strike.
But instead of nestling in the net, the ball soared off his foot, clipping the top of the crossbar before sailing into the stands behind the goal. The Three Lions went on to lose 2-1, and fell out of the 2022 World Cup at the quarter-final stage when many thought this might just be their time.
And so continued the curse of Kane. The England captain, for all of his brilliance, is yet to win a trophy in his career. He has come close – heartbreakingly so – on several occasions for club and country, but that elusive winners’ medal has not yet been placed around his neck.
Having joined Bayern Munich last summer, many believed it was a foregone conclusion that Kane’s curse would be broken in 2024. But it hasn’t been that simple. The Bavarians sit second in the Bundesliga table, are out of the DFB-Pokal and face an uphill task to win Champions League if their recent performance-level doesn’t improve.
Not much of that can be pinned on Kane, who is on pace to break the Bundesliga single-season record for goals scored while enjoying the most prolific campaign of his career. On Saturday, he will get another chance to add to his tally when Bayern travel to face unbeaten league-leaders Bayer Leverkusen in a fixture that will go a long way to deciding who wins the German title.
The top-of-the-table encounter offers Kane another opportunity to exorcise his big-game demons – and take a huge step towards finally having a team trophy to place alongside all the individual awards in his trophy cabinet.
Bayern’s troubling form
Given Kane’s career trajetory, it is somewhat ironic that Bayern have endured their shakiest start to a season in years – especially considering how often he has been finding the net. Although their Bundesliga and European form doesn’t look overly bad, a closer look at their displays suggests that something is amiss.
While they have only suffered two Bundesliga defeats all season, they have come since the start of December, as they fell 5-1 to Eintracht Frankfurt before being beaten at home by Werder Bremen, a side they had not lost to in any of their previous 32 meetings.
Since that game, Thomas Tuchel’s side has put together a run of three successive wins, though they have hardly been convincing in any of them, as they edged out Union Berlin and Augsburg by solitary goals before coming from behind to beat Borussia Monchengladbach last time out.
The Bavarians also suffered brutal embarrassment in the DFB-Pokal second round earlier in the campaign, crashing out of the competition with a 2-1 loss to third-division Saarbrucken – one of the most significant upsets in cup history. Kane spent all 90 minutes of that fixture on the bench, and could only watch on as an otherwise full-strength line-up paced around a raucous stadium after conceding a stoppage-time winner, his chances of a first domestic cup win gone just like that.
This time last season, it was Borussia Dortmund who looked almost certain to end Bayern’s era of Bundesliga dominance. The Jude Bellingham-led side went on an unexpected charge during the second half of the campaign, going 10 games undefeated. It all fell apart, of course, as a damning home draw on the final day with lowly Mainz saw Edin Terzic’s side throw the title away.
A year later, though, and Bayern’s latest title rivals seem more fearsome. Leverkusen have now gone 30 games undefeated in all competitions, with Xabi Alonso’s side rolling through the season with aplomb. The former Bayern midfielder has constructed a dominant side that is excellent at both ends of the pitch. Leverkusen’s defence has only let in 14 goals in the league, while they have netted 90 times in all competitions.
Alonso has overseen a clinic in squad building, with the notorious pretenders having revamped their roster over the summer with a series of bargain-bin finds and hot prospects to piece together a well-balanced side. Granit Xhaka looks like a midfielder reborn, while Florian Wirtz is well on his way to realising his potential as a world class No.10, two years removed from a devastating ACL tear. Piece it all together, and they are top of the league by two points – and every bit deserving of their lead.
Kane’s history of near misses
This would all seem to be rather cruel on Kane. The Englishman is the subject of ridicule for his barren trophy cabinet, despite being one of the most talented and statistically-brilliant forwards the nation has ever produced. A look at his stats – 312 goals and 66 assists in 507 club games, an average of 0.86 goals or assists per 90 minutes, and three Premier League Golden Boots – suggests that he deserves a glistening array of silverware.
The reality is different. Kane doesn’t have a single trophy – major or minor – to his name. Instead, his career has been defined by a glut of near-misses, and a dusty shelf packed with silver medals. Kane has lost two Carabao Cup finals, a Champions League final, and a European Championship final with England.
And in the biggest games, he has pulled off something of an unwelcome disappearing act. He failed to find the net in the 2018 World Cup semi-final, went missing in the 2019 Champions League final, and then suffered that penalty woe in Qatar just over 12 months ago.
This season, though, it would be hard to ask Kane to do much more to break his own personal curse. He is not only having his most prolific season ever, but he’s also piecing together one of the great Bundesliga campaigns. He has bagged 28 goals in 27 appearances in all competitions, with eight assists thrown in for good measure. He has scored hat-tricks against Bochum, Darmstadt and Dortmund.
His tally of four goals in six in the Champions League is less impressive, but a wider look at the stats shows that he had a hand in half of the Bavarians’ goals in the competition so far. The natural fears of durability around Kane’s famously unsteady ankles haven’t been given any life either. He has started all but one game for Tuchel’s side, and has played every possible minute of football since late October. This is what dominance looks like.
The records have racked up as a result. Kane is the quickest player to ever reach 20 Bundesliga goals, the top-scoring Englishman in a single Bundesliga season, and has already surpassed the goal total of 2022-23 Golden Boot winner, Christopher Nkunku. The single-season goalscoring record, Robert Lewandowski’s 41 in 2020-21, is now well within reach.
Bayern’s best is yet to come
When it comes to late-season rallies, Bayern do have previous. In 2019-20, when promoted assistant Hansi Flick led them to the treble, Bayern were seventh in the Bundesliga after 14 matchdays. They won 29 of their next 30 games, and secured silverware in every single competition they entered – winning the Bundesliga by a massive 13 points.
And for all of Dortmund’s immense collapse last year, Bayern still had to do some winning of their own. The Bavarians rolled through the second half of the season, beating their title rivals 4-2 on April 1. The same happened in the 2014-15 campaign, when a Pep Guardiola-managed side found their groove late to hold off Wolfsburg in the title race.
They will need to do much of the same here. Even though the gap between them and Leverkusen is just two points, the Bavarians have looked shaky in recent weeks. Talk of Tuchel being sacked may be overblown, but the rumours aren’t entirely unjustified. Any criticism is well-deserved.
Attention now turns to Saturday. Bayern have played a number of high-profile Bundesliga games in recent years, but few have been as significant as this.
They are operating in unfamiliar territory, too. Bayern are the chasers, playing against an undefeated opponent, and in need of three points. Win, and they will suddenly become title favourites. Lose, and it would seem that 11 straight will be unlikely to become 12. For a club that simply has to bring home silverware every season, failure would be catastrophic, grounds enough for Tuchel to lose his job in June – fairly or otherwise.
Leverkusen aren’t exactly at their best, though. They have made things difficult for themselves in recent weeks, and have required last-minute winning goals in three of their five games since the winter break, while they were forced to settle for a frustrating point against Gladbach.
That signature attacking style has lost its sharpened edge, too, as top scorer Victor Boniface underwent surgery for a muscle tear last month. An optimistic recovery date would seem to be early April, and Alonso reacted in the transfer market by bringing in Borja Iglesias from Real Betis – but it might not be enough.
Bayern, meanwhile, are struggling with an injury crisis, and will be without Alphonso Davies, Dayot Upamecano and Joshua Kimmich at the BayArena. And so, it all comes down to Kane; the man who has a knack of fading when it really matters will have to show up on Saturday, and continue to do so for the rest of the campaign.