Bayer 04 Leverkusen 1- 1 Bayern Munich
A very tactical game was played out on Saturday teatime between the winter champions, and the now-nigh-on-certain champions. Bayern held their full-backs deep, and Rib-Rob sought to get & go from more uncustomary defensive areas of the channels. Olic peeled everywhere, and dragged men to enable space for these carries. His strike partner Gomez couldn’t shake off Reinartz however, and was entirely nullified. Nevertheless, consequent tracking-back actually rendered Bayern more effective. As van Bommel and Schweinsteiger indulged in copious amounts of exaggerated Melina with their defensive colleagues, Bayern’s tight-unit were able to retain the ball amidst the high-octane pressing game Heynckes’s side played. With the combatant Vidal and Bender stationed in the centre, a tired, Manchester-conquering van Gaal XI (1 change) were unable to exert themselves as an attacking force. But they weren’t really arsed; a point from this, their final tricky trip, would suffice.
That centre-midfield pairing highlights just how reliant on their widemen Bayer are. The Chilean might be quick to spread/launch, and Bender may be a nice pass-and-move facilitator: but neither possess the vision or unpredictability of Kroos (going back to Bayern when his loan deal ends), and Barnetta (a good World Cup with Switzerland may get a *bigger* club reaching for the chequebook). Neither mesmerised for the entirety of this encounter (Kroos was anonymous for the opening quarter, but his eventual contribution was vindicated with a post-colliding free-kick allowing Vidal to scoop home the equalizer), but in parts they showed their abundance of quality.
The same dilemma could also be attributed to Bayern’s midfield. Alas (for everyone else), van Bommel and Schweinsteiger boast a grace and class that other deep-lying midfield-pairings don’t. Bayern’s electric wingers were quiet by their standards, but occasionally helped by Castro’s constant slide-lunges. One to halt a box-reached Robben counter was lucky to meet the ball; another allowed Ribery to poke through his legs and run at the centre-backs (aided by Badstuber being granted a rare overlap). Yet the semi-Spaniard’s daftest attempt at a humble tackle came when he managed to keep both feet on the ground. This time, chalk-carrying-in Ribery dropped a shoulder versus the temporarily auxiliary-central defender. Castro, duped, replied via an immature trip. Robben pass-dispatched the penalty kick for a short-lived lead. Bayer dominated the closing stages against their tired visitors, but nearly contrived to lose in injury-time – Sarpei was lucky to avoid conceding a spot-shot after a blatant, panicky tug on Müller’s jersey.
VfL Bochum 1 – 2 Hamburger SV
A harsh result on the hosts, for whom the unselfish Joël Epalle and explosive Zlatko Dedič shone. January acquisition Miloš Marić wasn’t bad either (everywhere on or off the ball in midfield; before letting Jarolim slowly ease into control), but his sleepy marking allowed Tesche to head in an early-ish opener against the run of play. Bochum sought to maintain up-tempo pressure on and off the ball, although this often led to panic, and they invariably suffered from a distinct lack of shape. Headless chicken syndrome has a habit of plaguing those high-octane sides that do it out of desperation for points.
Not so fresh from reaching a European semi-final, Hamburg were lucky to survive this game. A mixture of the home side’s shoddy finishing (countered by Labbadia’s lot decisively burying, albeit with a winner that owed more to cog-like build-up. Johansson turned the eventual square into his own net), poor decision-making, and weak delivery enabled the visitors to conclude round 30 with a victory. Special positive-attack mentions go out to Hamburg right-back Guy Demel (who sauntered and shimmied at ease against nigh-on 3rd centre-back Bönig, and the roaming, nominal AML, Holtby), his opposite right-side guarder Marc Pfertzel, and Mr Dedič – a man determined to touch the ball at every possible second, the Slovenian was on a mission to score a 40-yard thunderbolt!
The round commenced with the epitome of a mid-table clash. Dante polished off a comprehensive victory for the hosts after some shoddy set-piece marking by Altintop: equally useless at dispatching the rare chances his side carved. Frankfurt’s negative, stodgy 4-4-1-1 system contrasted with the fluid and multi-idea set-up envisaged by Frontzeck. Interchanging forwards used hoofs to give-&-go, or feed some Matmour jinxing. Likewise, Gladbach were equally content to let their full-backs carry the ball at pace from Bailly rolls, and build on the floor via some hungry-bobbers. Bobadilla, Bradley and Reus were too energetic and canny to ever let the visitors settle and surge. That trio linked up for the early opener; Bradley heading a through-ball over a haphazard backline for Bobadilla to cushion above Nikolov’s star-jump. Reus ensured that Chris didn’t heroically clear. Despite Teber’s best efforts at instigating patterns and forward-passes, Frankfurt were content with their slo..ooooo..w passes along the defence. The ball rarely ventured into the final-third, and again, inconsistency hampers winning that elusive spot in Europe.
Hannover 96 4 – 2 FC Schalke 04
Quite feasibly the oddest result in Europe this weekend. Sure, Hannover 96 were as cack at the back as ever – but the visitors usurped them in the calamity stakes! 3 of the goals Gelsenkirchen’s supposed finest let in were a result of Neuer leaving his line to bail-out an astonishingly high and non-alert back-4. The highness isn’t uncommon, but the scale to which they pushed it in this encounter was ridiculous. The pacy Neuer generally departs his line to mop up; technically, he is deployed as a ‘keeper-cum-sweeper. Yet the quadrant directly in front of him is usually positioned so as to make him favourite in the pace-race versus the onrushing forward.
Not that Neuer escapes without some of the blame. The first goal was a result of his ropey angle-covering – the perceptive Schmiedebach’s square bobbling in off the unfortunate Westermann, with Neuer arrogantly trying to anticipate a play that was two steps from fruition. Schmiedebach then accompanied Élson on the dink-over through-ball stage; the young German and on-loan Brazilian revelled in feeding the final-third-omnipotent Ya Konan. In spite of displaying his usual paucity of touch, the Ivorian netted a timely brace with World Cup squad selection looming.
Schalke did actually restore parity after the interval – a period in which they quite often go for and get the jugular. The strong and aware Kuranyi laid the ball on for Edu Gonçalves to calmly pass in, before Ivan Rakitić wellied home a dot-shot. At this point, you could make a case for Schalke being in the ascendancy. They toyed with the home side on the flanks, Farfan out left (cutting back on his right-foot at will), and the blossoming, lively, goal-line squaring Hao Junmin from the right.
But in the 81st minute, Hanno Balitsch re-steered the match in Hannover’s favour, and the title-race in Bayern Munich’s (who met Leverkusen well aware of this result). Again, Schalke’s defence was culpable – although ironically this time they weren’t too high, but rather too deep. A pull-back was driven to the ‘D’ from a goal-line headed right-midfield run, and Schalke were flatly stationed on 6-yard-box guard-duty. Balitsch had time to trap, before half-volleying beyond Neuer. Ya Konan’s second arrived in injury time, and sealed a victory that has major repercussions at both ends of the table.
Hertha Berlin 0 – 1 VfB Stuttgart
Ciprian Marica and Cacau have stolen the headlines recently with their grandiose performances. Their all-round play and goal-netting exploits have had fans of Christian Gross’s side singing “Stuttgart für immer” with more consistency than ever. The pair were at it again on the weekend, combining to make light of a long trip to Berlin. The Romanian was a right little trequartista, and his diagonal darts allowed him to carry and carve from all over the attacking-midfield regions. Composure from an overly right-footed Hilbert, and less perceptive positional play from Steve von Bergen would have rendered the margin more comfortable than that of a solitary strike. And that strike came courtesy of Cacau – squeezing and veering in from the left-wing, the German international evaded the attentions of several to fire in a left-footed drive which comically bobbled off the aforementioned Swiss centre-back, and over the despairing, strong-performing Jaroslav Drobný. In injury time, Adrián Ramos might have rescued his side – forced to play to the backdrop of a shorn crowd after the trouble post-Nuremberg loss – a point. Space, time, several yards from goal in a central position, body positioned at a favourable angle… it would’ve been remiss of him not to cushion the header at old fogie Lehmann.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim 0 – 2 1. FC Köln
Another Hoffenheim game that left all scratching a collective head – how did they not win!? The answer is more simple than has been the case in bygone rounds – tepid finishes (Ibišević, Salihović, Obasi), and “oh what’s the bleedin’ point?!” tracking/covering of midfield danger-surges (Beck/Gulde). But I hope such criticism doesn’t dilute the brilliant contributions of Milivoje Novakovič and Adam Matuszczyk – the pair of whom helped Die Geißböcke avenge the 4-0 hammering they received in the reverse fixture. The former’s unselfish and tireless front-line running allowed him to engineer space and lays for his colleagues. The Pole made good use of this twice; classily-buried place-shots on either foot from beyond the ‘D’ indicating the talent bristling in this young man’s shoes, and the Köln ranks.
1. FSV Mainz 05 1 – 0 Borussia Dortmund
A game of defensive mishaps but just a single goal occurred in one of Deutschland’s most historical cities. Mainz were mostly guilty of swamping Zidan, thus leaving space for opposition ghosters through the box-corners. The likes of Kuba, Valdes and Barrios squandered when given space/time to dispatch. Meanwhile, Subotic was embarrassingly lazy in his distribution, but Bance and André Schürrle (whose wicked cracks from the right-chalk always seem to cannon down off the aluminium’s joiner!) couldn’t add to their side’s tally. The game’s only goal owed everything to Real Madrid-embossed excellence: and yes, I realise that is something of an oxymoron! Ádám Szalai, one of three players to arrive in Bundesliga from El Bernabéu (Ruud van, and Robben the other two – who’da thought ex-Dortmund stalwart Metzelder would still be there!), made mugs of Sven Bender and Mats Hummels with an in-box medley comprising a shoulder-drop, spin, steadying-use of pinball-wing feet, and placed bobble-volley back across goal.
After a languid display resulted in a tame Europa League quarter-final exit, Wolfsburg got stylish when it mattered. Nonetheless, this win a game they could just as easily have lost. Diego Benaglio’s athleticism and determination after a long spell out are to be commended as the visitors resumed the stodginess that blighted them against Fulham. With the likes of Risse, Frantz and Bunjaku hungrily peeling/bobbing/showing/laying all over the final third, Wolfsburg spent the majority of the game arrested in their own box. That attacking triumvirate complemented the silky target-man presence that is Choupo-Moting, and the clever brings upfield by Ottl, and balding, shooting, livewire left-back Javier Pinola.
Whipping out a cliché that actually serves its purpose, this was a game of two halves. Actually, that’s being generous to Josué & co. – a game of one side bossing the first three-quarters, the other side providing the flicks, tricks, finishes, and bolshy bigger-team arrogance in the latter fourth segment. In particular, Gentner blossomed during the post-67.5’ period. Displaying Messi-esque composure on the ball, vision, and a love of having fun, the soon-to-be Schalke man had a crack at being the circus showman – nutmegs, semi-circling drag-backs, and so on. Similarly, Misimovic was at last able to neglect the defensive duties he’d spent the tie enacting. His was the counter-attack that laid on a through-ball for Džeko to caress amidst the attentions of several defenders. This love he showed the ball allowed him to trap, shape, carry, and place a right-footed curl beyond Schäfer. Dejected by this, Makoto Hasebe was soon given room and valuable seconds by Nuremberg to pick out a Grafite leap. The Brazilian made no mistake and headed home with aplomb.
SV Werder Bremen 4 – 0 SC Freiburg
The hosts eventually cruised to victory with Özil on-song. But during a frenetic end-to-end start, the reflexes of Tim Wiese, and profligacy of Makiadi and Idrissou prevented Bremen from falling behind. They soon settled and opened the scoring – Freiburg displaying the dangers of bringing everyone back for a corner and then not sprint-pressing the clearance. Phillip Bargfrede scooped it back in, Naldo flicked on, and an ex-Chelsea FC, part-time donkey stabbed in.
Pizarro got a brace (some delightful footwork from the Peruvian on the second, although Bastians and Butscher were both lazy and clumsy in their thwarting), Özil danced in, out, in, out, in, out on both feet before dinking over Pouplin; but it was his work in the goal of Aaron Hunt that really caught the eye. Özil carried the ball in from left-wing to the ‘D’, where he was met by the right-wing arriving Hunt. With a metaphorical hi-5 tag, the pair exchanged both ball and carried on their runs to the other’s starting point. Far from running back out to the left flank however, Hunt, span round to place the ball into the bottom right-hand corner. Freiburg won’t have banked on this game to prevent a speedy return to the second tier, but at the same time, conceding 4 goals had to be avoided. The three sides immediately above them have not only amassed more points, but also boast -22 and -21 goal differences – tallies far superior to 17th-placed Freiburg’s league-worst of -28.
STANDINGS WITH JUST 4 ROUNDS TO PLAY!