Just for once this season, things don’t seem so bad at Bayern Munich. A good run before Christmas and a revitalising break since have left them in bullish mood and the first 45 minutes against Hoffenheim on Friday night saw them play as well as they have done this season, with two Leon Goretzka goals setting them on their way to an eventual 3-1 win.
Even if the performance levels dropped in the second half, which gave Hoffenheim hope after Nico Schulz’ superb goal, Robert Lewandowski’s game-settling goal made sure they had set down the marker to leaders Borussia Dortmund ahead of their own match the following evening.
“We’ve cut the gap to Dortmund, now they have to react,” Niko Kovač said after the game, with his side just three points behind at the top. “We’re the hunters and want to hunt them. I don’t care when we overtake them, the crucial thing is we end up on top.”
Borussia Dortmund were no doubt under pressure. Plagued with injury issues, Abdou Diallo rushed back to the side as the only fit recognised centre-back (he partnered Julian Weigl). Also missing was their most important player in Marco Reus due to an ankle injury. Previous Dortmund sides may have wilted at the hands of a youthful, if not quite swaggering, RB Leipzig side in their own stadium.
This was far from easy, but they got there in the end, a sublime strike from Axel Witsel all that was left to separate the sides after a 90 minutes where plenty could easily have gone wrong for Lucien Favre’s men.
Maximilian Philipp, playing up front with Paco Alcácer yet again only fit enough for the bench, couldn’t take his chance to impress. The German’s best chance came in the second half, but whereas a Reus or an Alcácer might have avoided the out-stretched foot of Péter Gulácsi to score, he was not so lucky. Alcácer himself, when he finally came on, hit the bar but the second goal they might have needed would never come.
Roman Bürki almost gifted Leipzig an equaliser too. Caught wrong-footed by a Thomas Delaney back pass, he just about prevented Timo Werner from scoring, although he may have fouled him in the process – the referee and the VAR saw nothing wrong. Recovering to prevent Yussuf Poulsen from shooting with the loose ball, he could breathe a sigh of relief.
That moment was not reflect of the goalkeeper’s night though, as he came to Dortmund’s rescue on plenty of other occasions in the second half. Werner was frequently denied, fair and square, by the Swiss, whilst he also did well on the post to stop Marcel Sabitzer’s rather clumsy attempt soon after half time.
There have been times in the past – especially last season – where he had been a liability for Dortmund. Those days are long go now. “I’ve continued to develop this season and I’ve learned from my mistakes,” Bürki said after match. “It helps the team when I make saves. I try to contribute with the best-possible performance and I’m happy things are going so well at the moment.”
Even he was happy to admit things might not have worked out for him in this game last season.
He has clearly moved on from those nightmare displays in the Champions League last year, worked at his game and got a better sense of his priorities. He has even taken the decision to put his international career into “standby mode,” believing he can better help Dortmund’s cause if he’s not playing second fiddle to Yann Sommer on international duty.
Reflecting on his side’s performance, he admitted that “not everything went perfectly,” but for him there was one big positive from the display – being able to win without Reus. “It was helpful for us to see we can cope with Marco’s absence. It’s obviously easier when we have him in the side.”
The good news is that Reus should be back next week against Hannover 96, with Michael Zorc confirming that the injury was not long-term. And they need him, with the pressure set to mount, Bayern stirring again and plenty of people just waiting for Dortmund to blink first in the first proper Bundesliga title race for many years.
Everyone though has their eyes on this most intriguing of races. Everyone except Dortmund coach Favre it seems. He insisted after the game that all he was interested in was the next game, not the table. Bürki though implied his manager wasn’t so unaware of things. “The coach said in the final meeting before the restart: We’re going to try to win every game.”
You can sure Bayern will be trying to do the same too.
1 | All eyes were rightly on the Bundesliga title race this weekend but what your average fan will have missed is Stuttgart’s extraordinary game against Mainz, both of whom are fighting relegation. Three-nil down to visitors Mainz after 72 minutes on Saturday, Markus Weinzierl’s Stuttgart fought back almost brilliantly. Goals from Nicolás González and Marc-Oliver Kempf brought the hosts to within one of snatching a draw. Two goals in two minutes with five plus stoppages remaining fired Stuttgart into life. One minute after Kempf’s header, Anastasios Donis saw his effort cannon back off the post which would have eased some of the pressure that Weinzierl is certainly facing. The arrival of Ozan Kabak from Galatasaray will hopefully shore up their defence but with just nine points from a possible 36 since September, Stuttgart are facing some serious problems, sitting just three points above FC Nürnberg and Hannover 96 at the foot of the table.
2 | Appointed as head coach following Heiko Herrlich’s dismissal, Peter Bosz couldn’t have asked for a better performance from his Bayer Leverkusen side on Saturday. Unfortunately, in football there’s only one statistic that wins game and that’s goals scored. Die Werkself dominated every stat: 64% possession, 22 shots to Gladbach’s seven and boasted an 86% pass completion but it was Dieter Hecking’s side that travelled home with three points thanks to Alassane Pléa’s sublime goal. If there’s anything for Bosz to take from this game, it’s that his players look re-energised under the former Ajax and Borussia Dortmund head coach. Julian Brandt looked back to his best in a new role while there’s now a sense of optimism around the BayArena once more. “You can see we’ve learned a lot over the past two weeks,” said Kai Havertz.
3 | Crisis or no crisis? One week Schalke excel and the next, not so much. This time though, their performance against VfL Wolfsburg warranted three points. Domenico Tedesco has struggled of late and with money extremely minimal at the minute, the 32-year-old is making the best of a tough situation. They’ve yet to replace the creativity of Leon Goretzka and Max Meyer – both of whom left on a free transfer – but Tedesco’s decision to play USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie as a number ten paid dividends. The youngster was at the heart of every move but it’s a striker that Schalke are missing. Mark Uth misfiring, Guido Burgstaller injured and Franco Di Santo likely leaving, it doesn’t bode well for Schalke, who have done well in that department for the past decade. If European football really is the aim this season, then Christian Heidel & Co. need to work hard, and fast, in these closing stages of the transfer window to find their goal-getter.