Bayern Munich’s website described it as the “best display” of the season, whilst Niko Kovačechoed those sentiments, believing their display in Dortmund was their “best match” since beating Schalke in September.
Bundesliga fans around the world, at least those not of a Bayern persuasion, had that familiar sinking feeling as Bayern looked set to move on from their troubled start of the season, close the gap on Dortmund to just a point and presumably proceed to a seventh-consecutive Bundesliga title.
There were times when they looked vulnerable on the break in the first half, with Borussia Dortmund’s young talents looking to prove they were the real deal against the most-established force in German football. Yet it was Bayern’s youngster, Serge Gnabry, whose cross halfway through the first half set the ball up perfectly for Robert Lewandowski to head in yet another goal against his former club.
Manuel Neuer had been equal to what Dortmund threw at him, but he was caught out early in the second half as Jadon Sancho played through Marco Reus, with the Bayern and Germany goalkeeper bringing him down in the box after the ball had gone.
Borussia Dortmund’s captain equalised with the resulting penalty but just three minutes later Bayern had restored their lead. Gnabry, Thomas Müller and Joshua Kimmich were all involved, with the latter, like Gnabry, finding the head of Lewandowski to seemingly restore, as Bayern see it anyway, the normal order of things.
In previous seasons, that would have been that. Yet all sides accepted that it had been a game of two halves with Bayern on top in the first and Dortmund in the second. The fact that Dortmund actually went on to win this match speaks volumes about just how this side have developed under Lucien Favre and caught with up an aging, fracturing Bayern side. No moment summed this up better when Sancho robbed Franck Ribéry of the ball, launching a counter that led to the winning goal, scored by Paco Alcácer.
It was a couple of veterans that made the second equaliser with Lukasz Piszczek crossing in from the right, finding Reus who drew them level again. Whilst Alcácer took the headlines, as he has so often this season, this win was ultimately about the 29-year-old. He is finally having a season where he has stayed clear of the injuries that have hampered his time at Signal Iduna Park and is thriving after being reunited with his former coach at Borussia Mönchengladbach. He has the main man to lead them to glory once more.
All in all though, it was simply a game that lived up to the name ‘Der Klassiker’. “It was an incredible match that was a lot of fun to play in,” said Reus himself afterwards. “After levelling at 2-2, we had the wind in our sails. We put our foot on the gas at that point.” The two coaches echoed his sentiments. “It was a completely crazy game,” said Favre, whilst Kovač called it “a fantastic football match.”
All too often in recent years, Bayern have been too strong for Dortmund for there to be anything of the sort. This was just Dortmund’s second win in nine Bundesliga encounters. The nadir in the decline of this great contemporary rivalry was as recent as March, when Bayern led 5-0 at half-time, winning 6-0. On that night, what was then Peter Stöger’s side never looked further away from the Bavarians, undermined by the by years of selling their best players and changing their manager whilst Bayern have stayed steady in their ways and won title after title.
Those constant revolutions every summer has been like rolling the dice each time, praying that something will finally click into place. This season, the dice have clearly fallen right. Bayern, by contrast have stagnated, with age catching up with some and form with others. Their stubbornness in refusing to drastically overhaul the squad or spend big to hammer home their dominance of the league has held them back and weakened the hand given to Kovač when he took after in the summer.
The balance of power might be swinging back the way of Dortmund, but let’s not forget though that they were far from outclassed here. “It was our best match since Schalke,” said Kovač, “in terms of technique, fighting spirit and tactics, especially in the first half. We have to build on it and turn in similar displays in the future.”
In that sense, they have something to build on after the international break. Yet with all the sides around them winning, they have now slipped out of the top four whilst even an “optimistic” Uli Hoeneß is speaking of simply keeping the title race “exciting until the last matchday.” Dortmund, on the other hand, aren’t getting carried away. “We’ll do well to focus on ourselves and to take each game one at a time,” he said. “We’ll have to see what happens. But it’s too early to talk about whether we can become champions.”
That may be true in the Dortmund camp, but after that performance, even the doubters must now be starting to believe.
1 | Fortuna Düsseldorf and VfB Stuttgart continue to prop up the table, although both picked up much needed wins on Saturday. Despite six defeats in a row, Düsseldorf coach Friedhelm Funkel has been assured of his position by president Robert Schäfer and that run finally came to an end with an impressive victory over high-flying Hertha BSC, reduced to ten men after Maximilian Mittelstädt saw a second yellow card. That helped as the swashbuckling football that won them the 2. Bundesliga title last season returned to the fore. Takashi Usami scored his first Bundesliga goal in six years, Rouwen Hennings got his second for the season and Benito Raman added a brace. “I’m happy for the team and this game will give us courage,” exclaimed Funkel afterwards. Markus Weinzerl meanwhile tasted victory for the time as Stuttgart coach – winning in Nürnberg to drag their hosts deeper into the relegation battle.
2 | With Hannover 96 winning as well, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke could not avoid to lose their matches on Sunday afternoon. Instead, both were comfortably beaten 3-0 by RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively. Leverkusen lacked any threat in Leipzig, with Heiko Herrlich changing formation barely 20 minutes into the game and waiting until Lukas Klostermann made it two before brining on a second striker in Lucas Alario. Schalke were similarly limp in the weekend’s final game, a 12-minute second half brace from man-of-the-moment Luka Jović sending the Eagles soaring above their former coach Kovačand his Bayern side into fourth place. Herrlich is probably under more pressure than Domenico Tedesco at the moment but both clubs now have time to take stock and could decide it’s time for a change.
3 | Alongside Dortmund, Leipzig and Frankfurt, Borussia Mönchengladbach continue to occupy a place in the top four and remain Dortmund’s closest challengers. They overcame a dip in form by beating Düsseldorf last weekend and were back to their best as they inflicted another defeat on Werder Bremen at the Weserstadion. Alassane Pleá scored a hat-trick, with team mate Matthias Ginter praising his “brilliance” in making the difference. Pleá only had good words for the rest of the team. “They have taken to me so well and I really feel part of the team,” he said after the match. “I just want to help them out with my goals and bring success to this club.”
4 | It was not a good weekend for Freiburg. They lost 3-1 to Mainz, with two Jean-Philippes, Gbamin and Mateta, scoring again inside the first 20 minutes. There were also injuries sustained by Nicolas Höfler and Roland Sallai, whose goal only briefly threatened at comeback before Karim Onisiwo settled things. Whilst he admitted those opening exchanges cost his side in the end, Christian Streich was nonetheless left raging over a couple of decisions by referee Sascha Stegemann. “We were not happy, but others were not happy either,” he said, seemingly of the officiating. Of note as a handball claim against Moussa Niakhaté, for which Stegemann wasn’t sent by the VAR to have another look at. “It’s unbelieved that the person in Cologne can say: it’s clear, it was not a clear handball,” argued a frustrated Streich, calling the decision “madness.”
By James Rees.