Bayern Again Below Best But Casting Familiar Bundesliga Shadow

Sports

The main issues arising after Bayern’s win over Leipzig were about possible incomings and outgoings, rather than the match

Bayern Munich players celebrate after their win over Leipzig. Photograph: Matthias Schräder/AP

The fare at the Allianz Arena was befitting the time of year, with the excitement around the occasion perhaps more gratifying than the content itself. “We’ve played much better this season and not won,” said Joshua Kimmich, “but in our situation, I would much rather take this.”

A Bayern Munich midweek meeting with RB Leipzig almost has the feeling of a typical seasonal treat, with the lords of the manor and the upstarts meeting in this slot for the second time in three years – and as with that 3-0 win for the champions two years ago, this had its moments of raw thrill to satisfy. It ticked the right boxes for Bayern, pugnaciously ploughing to a win over one of the better opponents they’ll face domestically and, with Borussia Dortmund surprisingly falling to their first reverse of the season the night before at Fortuna Düsseldorf, closing the gap to the leaders to six points.

Few were fooled by the sparky ending to the match, comprising of Franck Ribéry’s winner – smartly finished after a scruffy passage of play in the Leipzig box – and red cards for a substitute from each side, Renato Sanches and Stefan Ilsanker. It was certainly instructive that the main threads of conversation after the game were about potential incomings and outgoings at Bayern, rather than the match itself.

Following the afternoon claims from Spain, and more specifically Marca, that a deal was agreed to meet the €80m buyout clause of Atlético Madrid’s Lucas Hernández in the winter window, sporting director Hasan Salihamidžić did little to dampen the speculation of something imminent, praising the World Cup-winning defender despite Karl-Heinz Rummenigge’s parallel denial that any agreement was over the line as stands.

The current occupant of the left-sided centre-back spot Mats Hummels, rarely one to shy away from exchanging with the media, again left pretty swiftly without comment after the game, fuelling talk of an uneasy relationship with Niko Kovač, though both Rummenigge and Salihamidžić ruled out him leaving in January. Given Hummels started with Jérôme Boateng carrying a muscle injury, the idea of shearing a squad already on the thin side wouldn’t make great sense.

Elsewhere, as Salihamidžić spoke of his pleasure that “all good players [in Germany] want to come to Bayern,” Leipzig’s Timo Werner took flirting to another level, maybe with his guard down after a night of industrious but hardly fruitful running. It was “almost blatant”, as Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Martin Schneider put it. “If you play at RB Leipzig and want to stay in Germany,” Werner told Sky, “there’s really only one club to switch to. I’ve had two-and-a-half very nice years here.”

Leipzig’s Stefan Ilsanker is shown a red card by referee Marco Fritz. Photograph: Andreas Gebert/Reuters

The expectation would be that, if he were to come, Werner would move in summer rather than next month, with the Germany forward’s current contract running out in 2020. Whatever happens in the next six weeks, the sense of a momentum shift is important, for the current players as much as anyone. The idea of Bayern paying nearly double their current transfer record for a defender before their much-trumpeted summer 2019 splurge would be as big as statements get.

On the pitch, that need for spark is clear. This is definitely Kovač’s team now, as the increasing stability and their considerable industry makes clear. Bayern are moving on, with no Ribéry or (injured) Arjen Robben in the starting line-up here. Ribéry’s first-half entrance was forced after the in-form Serge Gnabry pulled up with a thigh injury.

The lack of creativity was clear, with Sanches being brought on for Kingsley Coman to provide a bit of drive in the second half, which he did semi-successfully. The same could have been said of Leipzig, shorn of their own conductor of the orchestra in Emil Forsberg. Chances were few and far between, and the feeling that Leipzig were strangely disinclined to counter-attack, their default in a situation that demanded it, was hard to shake.

Both sides, it appeared, lacked the bravery to take the bull squarely by the horns. Bayern’s success in edging it leaves them with the chance to finish off the year in style – and on nights like this, their aura can feel like the only thing that matters. Dortmund’s own nerve is about to be seriously tested.

Talking points
• How poetic that Kovač returns to Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday for Bayern’s last game of 2018, with the vibe around the fixture markedly different from the one after his previous return, when the champions roasted Eintracht 5-0 in the Super Cup. Adi Hütter’s side remain in the top five after coming from behind twice at Mainz on Wednesday, thanks to a brace from the red-hot Luka Jović, now the Bundesliga’s joint leading scorer with Paco Alcácer.

• After Dortmund’s limp loss, second-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach – like Bayern – moved within six points of the top before Friday night’s trip to the leaders, via a 2-0 win over Nürnberg. Thorgan Hazard recovered from floating an attempted Panenka penalty over the top by giving his side the lead. That was his ninth goal of the season and Alessane Pléa’s strike took him to the same total, and the pair will face a BVB team short of options at the back with no Abdou Diallo, Manuel Akanji or Dan-Axel Zagadou. Dortmund have rarely looked as toothless this term as they did at an excellent Fortuna who countered them with great skill, led by Dodi Lukebakio, who scored the opener.

Fortuna Düsseldorf celebrate their 2-1 win. Photograph: Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images

• Friday’s match will also be live on free-to-air ZDF, an early Christmas present for German fans. With the closure of the mines Bottrop and Ibbenbüren, bringing an end to the coal industry in the Ruhr, Dortmund will wear special shirts in tribute to the miners, as Schalke did in Tuesday’s game with Leverkusen.

• Leverkusen won that battle of the underachievers, with Lucas Alario’s striker proving the winner, but coach Heiko Herrlich’s position looks fragile even if Die Werkself close out the year by beating Hertha on Saturday. “Heiko knows that we’ll sit down after the last game [before the winter break] and draw our conclusions,” Völler told Sky in a bizarre, evasive interview. The contrast with the words of Schalke sporting director Christian Heidel on his man Domenico Tedesco – “I would have a hard time questioning a coach we celebrated four months ago” – couldn’t have been starker.

• Wolfsburg moved into the top six with a fourth win in five, 2-0 over Stuttgart. The visitors’ skipper Christian Gentner, who won the title in Lower Saxony in 2009, played despite the sudden death of his father at the Mercedes-Benz Arena after Saturday’s win over Hertha.

• As in Munich, post-match chatter at the Weserstadion was more intriguing than the match itself, which was a pleasant enough 1-1 draw between Werder Bremen and Hoffenheim. Another drone was found lurking over the visitors’ final training session, now the subject of a police investigation.

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