By Kevin Hatchard.
In the long-distance race that is the Bundesliga season, Bayern Munich’s 1-0 win at old foes Borussia Dortmund was the moment when the leaders made their final kick for home.
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Having stuttered before the international break with a 2-0 home defeat against Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayern came back strongly in “Der Klassiker”, and their 10-point lead over Wolfsburg seems impregnable with just seven games left.
In recent seasons, clashes between these two leviathans of German football have been high-pressure games for huge stakes. They’ve contested a Champions League final, and numerous title deciders, and German Cup finals. Although the prizes on offer weren’t quite as grand this time, the game was still important for both sides.
Dortmund have slowly but surely rebuilt their season after a nightmarish first half to the campaign, a “Hinrunde” which saw them collect a feeble 15 points from 17 games, leaving them in the drop zone over the winter break. A run of seven Bundesliga games unbeaten after Christmas repaired some of the damage, and although a top-four spot is the stuff of unrealistic fancy, a Europa League place is up for grabs.
After two weeks of hand-wringing and intense analysis following that Gladbach defeat, Bayern wanted to show they had merely suffered a blip against an excellent side; and that defeat to Lucien Favre’s men wasn’t the start of a deeper malaise. They went into Der Klassiker with key players absent – Arjen Robben, David Alaba and Franck Ribery are all on the treatment table.
Bayern coach Pep Guardiola responded to those absences by dipping into his tactical bag of tricks. A 3-5-2 formation was employed – Juan Bernat and Rafinha were tasked with scurrying down the flanks, the midfield trio of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso formed a unit brimming with experience and know-how, while the in-form duo of Thomas Muller and former Dortmund darling Robert Lewandowski spearheaded the attack.
As the yellow-and-black clad hordes produced a wall of noise, Dortmund flew at the champions in the first few minutes. The intense high press that has served BVB coach Jurgen Klopp so well looked effective, as Bayern were hassled into errors. That initial surge quickly died, as Guardiola’s five-man defence closed off space. Although Bayern’s passing was far from crisp in the opening quarter of the game, the Bavarians slowly closed their fingers around the throat of Dortmund’s midfield.
BVB’s midfield maestro Ilkay Gundogan wasn’t able to dictate the pattern of the match, while his partner-in-crime Sven Bender was furiously fighting fires. The attacking jewels in Dortmund’s crown – Marco Reus and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – were marooned on Bayern’s desert island, praying for some kind of lifeline.
At the other end, Lewandowski was imperious, holding the ball up with strength and skill. On 36 minutes, Dortmund skipper Mats Hummels tried to nick the ball from his former team-mate. As if he had run for an open door that had suddenly slammed in his face, Hummels bounced off Lewandowski’s and went to ground. The Polish striker turned and slipped a cute pass into the path of Muller. Many strikers might have stopped to admire their work, but Lewandowski kept running.
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Muller’s low shot was blocked by onrushing Dortmund keeper Roman Weidenfeller, but the ball ballooned into the air, and he reacted quickest to nod it home. As Muller screamed joyously in his face, Lewandowski refused to celebrate, mindful of the fans who once idolised him.
Dortmund found no response, reduced to hit-and-hope football. Bayern’s rock-solid centre-backs, led by the immaculate Jerome Boateng, held BVB at bay like a school bully taunting the smallest kid in class as he swings his feeble fists.
One chance fell to Reus, but as opportunity knocked, he refused it with a wild shot that hit the side-netting. Dortmund huffed and puffed, and there was something sad about the futile way in which they clumsily and repeatedly knocked the ball long to the ineffective Adrian Ramos. While Guardiola excelled in the dugout, Klopp froze, unable to find the solution.
As time ticked away, one final chance presented itself to BVB. A free-kick 25 yards out, in the perfect position for the right-footed Reus. The Signal Iduna Park crowd collectively held its breath, as he sent the ball over the wall towards the bottom corner. Having had virtually nothing to do, Manuel Neuer threw out his right hand, and made a magnificent save. Not only did he stop the ball crossing the line, he kept it close enough to deny BVB a chance on the rebound. After a catastrophic error against Gladbach, Manuel got his groove back.
The final whistle went, and Bayern celebrated as if they had won the title. In truth, this probably was the result that secured yet another championship, and Bayern can take heart from the display ahead of their Champions League challenge.
Dortmund were left to reflect on a heavyweight contest they lost without landing a glove on their opponents, and Klopp will field further questions about his tactics. His star has fallen; and he now faces his biggest challenge since taking the helm. Can Klopp’s Dortmund ever mount a serious title challenge again?
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