The continent’s most engaging league lived up to its reputation this weekend. Goals that range from the ridiculous to the sublime continue to fly in past some of the world’s best net-tenders – there’ve only been 3 stalemates in the last 65 matches, the latter 9 giving us 32 strikes. Compound that with soap opera-esque drama (late winners, surprise point-takers), and more fluctuation in the standings than a Diversity dance routine. The title race may only involve 2 sides, but with just 3 fixtures each to fulfill, 4 sides have a chance at nabbing Germany’s final Champions League ticket. At the bottom, 5 sides remain relegation-threatened – 4 of whom are separated by just a solitary point! Kaiserslautern, St. Pauli, and Augsburg are primed to replace the lousiest 60% of that quintet. As ever, the round was stretched from Friday-Sunday, and preceded European semi-finals for southerners Bayern Munich, and northerners Hamburg.
FC Köln 2 – 0 Bochum
Round 31 began with a set of hosts confirming upper-tier status for 2010/11, and their beleaguered North Rhine-Westphalian sibling praying next week’s match with Stuttgart bears some fruit. This encounter could be interpreted as a Shakespearian play; The Tale of Two Right-Midfielders! Bochum’s former Parma starlet, Zlatko Dedič, eroded memories of last week’s explosiveness by frequently conceding possession. Such on-ball action was rare for the guests in territory of worth, but they were too reliant on piano-carrying quarterback Miloš Marić anyway. His neat, albeit deep bridges were never complemented by penetrative darts or final-third number-floods.
On the other hand, Köln were far more fluid in the danger zones. Playing Podolski off the selfless Milivoje Novakovič, Zvonimir Soldo and Heiko Herrlich engaged in some kind of 4-4-1-1 orgy-cum-duel. The face-off was settled by a blossoming, Manchester United-owned left-footed right-winger named Tošić – Zoran, to his mother. His sheer presence meant that Bochum played two left-backs on that flank. Alas, in a bid to keep the formation tight, the rest of the team dropped and lingered too deep. Feeding off through-balls from Yalcin and Podolski respectively, the on-loan Serb twice arrowed through the ‘D’ to calmly increase Koln’s meagre ‘Goals For’ column from 29 to 31.
Schalke 04 3 – 1 Mönchengladbach
Ivan Rakitić. A forename and a surname may not constitute a sentence, but his moniker offers a succinct match summary such was the clinicality of his finishing. Nevertheless, I’ll pursue some gap-filling and invite Die Fohlen’s centre-halfs, former Grasshopper of the non-insect kind Raúl Marcelo Bobadilla, Mario Gavranović, and Kevin Kurányi to join the Croatian on stage. Each weekend, Felix Magath introduces a different, exciting and young talent from the bench. This week it was the turn of the Swiss, U21 international, Gavranović. Round 30 had seen Hao Junmin plucked from the sub-seats. Eschewing your generic Mars, Kit-Kat and Snickers bars, this inevitable child-in-a-chocolate-shop analogy sees last year’s title-winning coach opt to pick his candy bar/player replacements straight outta left-wing: think Flyte, Munchies, or other oft-neglected cocoa treats such as Picnic bars!
The former AC Lugano talent was introduced late in the game to run riot on the counter-attack: assisting the more elderly Kurányi who likewise dictated matters in and around the final third. Prior to this, Dante and Roel Brouwers displayed great positional and upper-body strengths to nullify the man every Die Mannschaft supporter hopes Jogi Löw selects this summer. Alas, despite Bobadilla’s great goal (the Argentine showed hunger and guile to outleap the double air-attack threat of Rafinha and Höwedes, before rounding a surging Neuer and composedly finishing), Gladbach’s centre-backs began to lose control much in the way their side lost a grip on the spiralling scoreline.
Rakitić’s thunderbolt and coolly converted penalty kick, plus Farfan’s fox-in-the-box prod saw Schalke briefly head the standings! Alas, a certain game in Bavaria kicked off later in the day. Meanwhile Mönchengladbach may have sod-all to play for, but they displayed here that an attacking-edge remains sharp; their players seek goal-bonuses that can be squandered on the upcoming summer holidays!
Bayern Munich 7 – 0 Hannover 96
Mirko Slomka sent out his Hannover side in the most cynical kind of 4-5-soooooooo isolated 1 imaginable. Their gameplan was exemplified when Hanno Balitsch reprimanded his DM colleague Manuel Schmiedebach for tempestuously leaving the quagmired-5 to hassle the man stroking that thing you play the sport with. That’s it… the ball! Whenever Bayern – determined to kill the tie dead as early as possible with Lyon looming – made it into the final-third, van Bommel and the centre-backs had wasted territory by dinking over needlessly hurried through-balls. van Gaal’s men continued to negate the ball’s way through the bodies from deep, as whenever they carried it nearer Fromlowitz’s goal, the likes of Schulz and Cherundolo bulldozed into no-nonsense tackles. Elsewhere, Olić and Müller weren’t operating on the same wavelength, and Ribery and Robben’s cut-ins were corked.
Inevitably, Bayern grew restless, and Hannover (who in their last two outings had beaten Schalke and held Hamburg) began to creep upfield. They craftily tried working the ball down the right (rolled goal-kicks to Schulz at LB, a curled low-ish hoof down the line for LM Djakpa to dummy and Pinto to diagonally-dart on to), but Lahm persistently read and intercepted. So, 96 began probing other areas. After Pinto won, and then shaved the post with a centrally-aligned 40-yard free-kick, they picked on stifled, ball-delegating left-back Diego Contento. Ya Konan, Balitsch, and Cherundolo worked a superb triangle to set the latter for a pull-back from the goal-line. Alas, Bayern expended enough energy to flood back and congregate Butt’s box.
And then they scored (Olić). And then they scored again (Robben). And then again (Müller). Unsatisfied, they enacted this precise pattern in the second-half, but in a mere 13-minute spell rather than the opening stanza’s 21′-44′ gap. Finally, in stoppage time, Robben made sure he left with the match-ball. 17th placed Hannover now have the worst goal difference in the league, and may rue this surrender given that the drop is likely to be decided beyond mere league points. Olympique Lyonnais famously played out a 5-5 draw with Olympique de Marseille earlier on in the season. Hold on to your hats folks – Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League semi-final might just be well, volcanic!
A game more sweet n’ sour than a Chinese dish for the Maroh family. Nuremberg’s Dominic Maroh opened Freiburg’s account by bizarrely turning an innocuous free-kick into his own net – before the defender’ shaky positioning allowed on-fire Papiss Cissé to net the hosts’ second. The sugar? A late consolation that means although the sides are level on points, Nuremberg boast a goal difference that’s better by 5. Freiburg looked very cohesive and fluid, and seem to be backing up comments I made in round 29:
“[A] cosmopolitan squad comprising 17 different nationalities seems to be bonding and blending at just the right time. Robin Dutt’s vision of incorporating more youthful players into the system seems to be paying off. Freiburg attacked with gusto, as well as showing discipline to enact some training ground moves. Sure, Bochum are no great shakes, and Philipp Heerwagen flapped like a flag in the wind – but Freiburg are the league’s lowest scorers, and they needed a game like this as momentum in gelling as a better-drilled attacking unit.”
Wolfsburg 2 – 4 Werder Bremen
Normally, two clever Misimović through-balls (helped along by two batches of suspect Naldo positioning) for assured Džeko and Grafite finishes at the Volkswagen Arena equates to an easy win for Wolfsburg. Not this time however! A scruffy, jerky Torsten Frings burst-through/bury-in the box, and an equally laborious penalty kick complemented Pizarro and Almeida’s ruthless finishes and super-assistant Ozil’s inbuilt-radar of a left-foot. This foursome drove Bremen up to third place in the division, albeit temporarily (or maybe not…).
On another day, Fabian Johnson would not have been playing at right-back. Given that it was Johnson’s bundle on Marin that gave away a spot-shot, and his shoddy marking which led to Pizarro scoring, this supposed other day would probably have resulted in Wolfsburg’s aforementioned front-trio steering Lorenz-Günter Köstner’s ship to victory.
Stuttgart 2 – 1 Leverkusen
It feels bizarre to posit the notion that Leverkusen were once credible league-winners. Although Barnetta’s early red card didn’t help matters, 3 months ago they’d have drawn this game. Before Barnetta’s exit, Kießling had put the visitors 1-0 ahead on the back of an excellent little-toed glance-one-way-pass-the-other (GAWPTO) through-ball by Reinartz. Correspondingly, Stuttgart looked suspect: Lehmann was characteristically erratic, and the primary centre-back (Delpierre) and centre-forward (Cacau) were on yellow cards.
Unfortunately for Jupp Heynckes, the latterly mentioned striker decided to offer Die Roten’s fans a parting gift – out of contract this summer, he’s made clear his intentions to head for pastures new. Leverkusen opted to play a 4-3-2 with the narrowest possible middle-trio: Hans Sarpei was introduced immediately after the sending-off in place of Castro, killing any hope travelling fans had of seeing courageous full-back bursts. Stuttgart – Gerbhart in particular – seized the initiative and ran riot down the channels. A series of testing pullbacks and crosses put Werkself under the kosh, and Rene Adler was like a one-man rearguard-protector.
Ultimately however, both goals were provided from the left-flank rather than Gebhart’s right. The first came on 29′, when no defenders commandeered a slow-ish Molinaro bobbler across the six-yard-box, and Cacau popped up at the backpost to tuck in. He was at it again on 85′, vanquishing any lingering hopes Leverkusen still had of the title amongst a crowded box.
With focus firmly on the week’s European semi-final tie against Fulham (a side who’ve mustered just 1 shot at goal in their last two domestic outings), Labbadia’s losers were rightly booed off after this lacklustre showing. By losing to Bance’s decisive dispatching of a deadly high-defence-splitter (Schürrle), Hamburg denied themselves a challenge for the 3rd and final Champions League spot – not to mention relinquishing any control over a place in the 2010/11 Europa League! Despite peppering former St Pauli ‘keeper Müller’s goal (the burly #33 displayed outstanding instincts and reflexes), one was always aware that a certain match set to be played at the soon-to-be-named Imtech Arena matters most to those in blue – the 2009/10 Europa League final.
Dortmund 1 – 1 Hoffenheim
Knowing that a win against the division’s penultimately ranked out-of-form side – Leverkusen and Bochum now share the *honour*, but prior to this game Hoffenheim’s attack-heavy system had scored 1 goal in 5 games – would lift them to that much coveted final Champions League qualification spot, 1997s world champions bottled it. How they could have done with a Stéphane Chapuisat here – Großkreutz and Barrios both culpable in Dortmund’s profligacy on the back of some stodgily-carved, but carved nonetheless moves. As often as Dedê did his best Roberto Carlos impression, or as frequently as Kuba exposed the lack of protection Carlos Eduardo offered Andreas Ibertsberger, the Brazilian’s blockbusters and the Pole’s channel-slaloms went unrewarded until a tidy Valdez chest-trap and volley.
Perhaps shaken by game-ending injuries to Nuri Şahin (broken nose), and critically, Mohamed Zidan (ligament damage – 6 months out!!!!), Dortmund sat on their slender lead and allowed Hoffenheim to remember what finding the net’s like. Eduardo square, Ibišević tap-in. It was like the halcyon winter-months of 2008/09 all over again!
This split of the spoils was statistically even – as well as goals scored, the pair shared identical figures in pass completion, shots, and possession. However, watching the match made it obvious as to who was the more desperate. Michael Skibbe’s side played at a high tempo: boasting 45 league points, it was a carefree tempo that came with a metaphorical smug smirk attached. As for Hertha Berlin (indebted to some key Jaroslav Drobný saves), final balls were either daftly delayed, or met by incorrectly-timed bursts. Resultantly, nerves burgeoned. Despite another vintage Raffael showing – plus goals from he and Gojko Kačar – the side who’ve been rock-bottom since September’s round 6 thrashing by Freiburg look set to stay there.
Eintracht stalwart Marco Russ and the Austrian Arshavin, Ümit Korkmaz (a backheader from a Kohler free-kick, and a fed box-ghost respectively) ensured that the hosts twice pegged back the visitors. In claiming that its a 5-way relegation slugfest, I misled y’all in this article’s introduction. With the 3 remaining games pitting Friedhelm’s Funkel’s flops against Bayern, Bayer, and Schalke, the 7/9 points Hertha require are unattainable. I do expect a rumbling of at least one of those sides however; giving their followers a final top-tier smile as they prepare to muster enthusiasm for Berlin derbies against Union, and journeys to Munich and Frankfurt for ties with 1860 and FSV instead. A Nicholas Lyndhurst-inspired reference can be used to wave off Die Alte Dame. Sleep tight, darling.
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