If Bayern Munich complete their incredible turnaround and win the Bundesliga title in May, it could become known as a last hurrah for a group of players who have achieved so much for the club in the past decade.
Arjen Robben is on his way, possibly Franck Ribéry too. Others like Thomas Müller, Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng are becoming increasingly expendable – something that Joachim Löw clearly agrees on. A new generation of stars, like Joshua Kimmich and Serge Gnabry, will be central to a new era that looks set to start with a summer spending spree.
But the old guard aren’t finished just yet, and they’re not going anywhere without reminding everyone of what they achieved. The last two performances have been a clear signal of intent, a warning shot to everyone who thought they were finished. Liverpool beware – Bayern are hungrier than ever.
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Müller was heavily involved in their 6-0 thrashing of Wolfsburg on Saturday. After all, he was left “puzzled” and “angry” after Löw’s surprise visit to Bayern’s training ground last week, where he informed Müller, as well as Hummels and Boateng, that there were no longer in his plans.
Some have said the move by the Germany coach was too harsh, others say it should have happened sooner or that the timing was all wrong – Karl-Heinz Rummenigge pointed out it was three-and-a-half months since the last Germany game. Either way, the 29-year-old, who for many has been in steady decline for a while now, would have been itching to prove a point.
He would set up the opening goal, laying the ball off for one of the new guard, Gnabry, having himself been found after a run down the wing by Kimmich. He would then score the fourth goal of the rout himself, set up by the first of three Ribéry assists.
The Frenchman himself may have wanted to vent his frustration at being on the bench and made the most of his 35 minutes on the pitch. All three assists came from crosses on the right, with the second headed in by Kimmich and the third, the sixth goal, flicked in by Robert Lewandowski. It was a second for the Pole, who had earlier made it 2-0, with James Rodríguez making it 3-0 soon after the break.
The result had important implications in the title race. Even though Borussia Dortmund beat Stuttgart 3-1, the six-goal margin for Bayern was enough to tip the goal difference in their favour, meaning they top the table for the first time since September. To underline how tight things are at the top, at one during the afternoon they were level on points, goal difference and goals scored.
The victory came just a week after they put Borussia Mönchengladbach – who like Wolfsburg are in contention for a European place – to the sword in equally clinical fashion, and there’s the nagging feeling that they’ve come into form at the right time, whilst they are still fighting on all three fronts. “We are where we wanted to be, at the top of the table,” said Niko Kovač after the game, “and we want to stay there.”
You have to admire the run that they have put together since the defeat in Dortmund and draw with Fortuna Düsseldorf either side of the November international break that appears to finish off their title hopes. They’ve won 12 out of 13 Bundesliga matches in that time, scoring 39 goals. If the league had started in December, Dortmund would be in the familiar positon of craning their look at the nine point gap Bayern would have opened up on them.
They appear to be thriving in their role as underdogs – something Kovač as a coach is more than comfortable with as shown when in charge at Eintracht Frankfurt – and the us-against-them mentality suits them. Case in point, the memorable press conference held by Rummenigge and Uli Hoeneß earlier in the season, laying their grudges on the table to have the dual effect of deflecting attention away from the team and helping to rally them for the battle to come.
Löw’s abrupt axing of the Bayern trio can be seen in the same context. Müller et al will want to show they are far from past it, and taking starring roles in completing the most incredible of title victories would be the perfect way to do is. Even more so if they can add a couple of other trophies too. Next up, Liverpool. Without Müller, of course.
1 | Some big names have been relegated in recent years, but Schalke going down would be almost unthinkable, especially given they only finished second last season. Yet it remains a real danger with just four points (plus Augsburg) separating them from Stuttgart in the play-off position. After Breel Embolo had given them the lead on his latest comeback in Bremen, things were looking up for Domenico Tedesco’s men. But Bremen kept up their record of scoring in every Bundesliga game this season, and then some. Milot Rashica scored twice, Max Kruse converted a penalty and Martin Harnik got his customary goal against the Royal Blues. A consolation from Embolo was not enough to lift the doom, or to other any hope ahead of their second Champions League meeting with Manchester City on Tuesday.
2 | There were reports last week that German scouts were “flocking” to a game between Arsenal and Chelsea’s under-18s, clearly looking for the next Jadon Sancho. However, there are no guarantees of success with these potential English exports. Reiss Nelson could be to be a cautionary tale. On loan at Hoffenheim from Arsenal, he took to the Bundesliga with ease in his early weeks with six goals and an assist, but things have been harder going for him since, until the point that he was left out for the win against Nürnberg on Sunday for “disciplinary reasons,” or as an “educational measure” to use Julian Nagelsmann’s words. There is indication he may not play again before the end of his loan although whatever digressions committed haven’t been reported. If nothing else, this is a sign for patience – for clubs and players alike. Even Sancho didn’t hit the ground running, after all.
3 | The weather was bad across Germany over the weekend. Players had to deal with rain, hail and thunder, whilst a 2. Bundesliga game in Fürth was even called due to the threat of hurricane-force winds. The game most significantly impacted came in Hannover, where the hosts came from 2-0 down to level things up before losing to Kai Havertz’s header in a game played throughout in heavy snow. Their two goals came in the second half but they could have instigated their comeback sooner. By now the chances are you have seen the moment Genki Haraguchi thought he’d scored when he slotted past an onrushing Lukáš Hrádecký. The covering defender, Jonathan Tah, had given up the chase, but the ball stopped dead inches before the line, caught in the snow, sparing Leverkusen and leaving the Japanese winger waiting for his first Hannover goal.
4 | Weather wasn’t the problem in the eagerly-anticipated second meeting of the season between Hamburg and St. Pauli in the 2. Bundesliga on Sunday. The game had to be stopped on five occasions after flares were set off at both ends of the stadium, and Felix Brych even took the players off at one stage. This has triggered the usual hysteria in the German press, although even St. Pauli have said that “lines were crossed” by their own supporters. Sadly the game itself wasn’t much of a contest, as Hamburg’s individual quality came to the fore to seal a 4-0 win, Pierre-Michel Lasogga scoring twice.
By James Rees.