Bundesliga MatchDay 18 — What Did We Learn?

Winter break ended this past weekend and the Bundesliga’s second half started with a flourish, as Borussia Dortmund widened its Bundesliga league to 12 points with their convincing 3-1 win Friday against Bayer Leverkusen at the BayArena.  On Saturday, VfB Stuttgart downed Mainz 05 while fellow relegation zone partner Borussia Monchengladbach dropped 1. FC Nurnberg by the same 1-0 score, while Werder Bremen got a last-minute goal to defeat Hoffenheim 2-1.  Hamburg SC was able to get on top of FC Schalke 1-0, also, while VfL Wolfsburg-Bayern Munich split the points 1-1, as did St. Pauli and FC Freiburg 2-2.  On Sunday, Hannover 96 climbed into 2nd place again with a stout 3-0 win over Eintracht Frankfut, while 1.FC Kaiserslautern and FC Koln drew 1-1.  What can we take from this weekend’s action?

No One will Catch Borussia Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund’s 12 point lead over Hannover 96 means that Hannover would have to basically be four victories better than Borussia Dortmund in each club’s sixteen remaining matches.  Does that seem possible?  Any other competitor within striking distance, that being Mainz 05, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich would have to be even more impressive.  And even if someone could miraculously get level with them in points, Dortmund have accumulated an insurmountable goal differential of +36, a whopping 25 goal differential better than the Bundesliga’s second best. Bayern Munich, with a +11, has built.

If Borussia Dortmund were going to crack, MatchDay 18 would have seemed to be the day, with the Yellow-Blacks missing Shinji Kagawa and starting without an ailing Lucas Barrios, playing on the road to one of the two teams to beat them in the Hinrunde and Klopp’s side perhaps having lost momentum by losing their first half finale against Eintracht Frankfurt.   Leverkusen has done well in Europe, looked healthy, did well in winter break training matches and were prepared.  But it all didn’t matter.   Leverkusen played solidly, and kept Dortmund off the scoreboard for more than 50 minutes, but Dortmund’s three goals in eight minutes early in the second half showed their class and determination.

It’s a shame that Dortmund were eliminated in European and DFB Pokal Cup competition, because a club this good deserves as much glory as possible.  But maybe those would have been bridges too far for such a young side.  With only the Bundesliga title to focus on, it would be a complete shock for Borussia Dortmund not to be crowned champions this spring.

Mirko Slomka May be Bundesliga Coach of the Year

Mirko Slomka

Hannover 96 proved with their 3-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt Sunday that they are no fluke.  Second place !!!  Mirko Slomka has already won more games (eleven) this year in just over half a season than Hannover could win in the entire 2009-2010 and 2008-2009 seasons (nine and ten wins respectively).  The 43 year-old former Schalke head man has done more with less than anyone else in the Bundesliga this season, including shutting down a decent Frankfurt side  Sunday with a 21 year-old goalkeeper, Ron-Robert Zieler, making his Bundesliga debut in the Hannover goal.  Can anyone honestly assess Hannover’s roster and state that they have the second best talent in the league?  Of course not.

What Hannover does have, and what Slomka has instilled, is a team of good players playing as a team.  They haven’t achieved the panache or dominance of Dortmund, but they match up with the league leaders in terms of team unity.  Right now probably few Bundesliga fans see Hannover as finishing in a Champions League spot, but given their performance, the question should be why not.  Obviously Jurgen Klopp at Dortmund, Mainz’ Thomas Tuchel and even Robin Dutt at Freiburg and Marco Kurz at Kaiserslautern will deservedly receive credit for the way they have led their teams, but nobody has done more with less than Slomka.

Van Gaal is Correct in Starting Thomas Kraft

Thomas Kraft

Bayern Munich head man Louis van Gaal marches to his own beat.  Whether you are a fan of his coaching decisions or not, one cannot say that van Gaal is timid in making decisions.  With Bayern Munich climbing the table after a tough season’s start, van Gaal ended an upbeat winter break training camp in Qatar by making the controversial decision to name young Thomas Kraft as his number one goalkeeper ahead of quality veteran Hans-Jorg Butt.  Kraft had never started a Bundesliga match before this weekend.

Is Van Gaal mad?  Certainly Kraft has shown potential in two Champions League starts, but that is the limit of the 22 year-old top flight experience.  Bayern Munich are in fifth place, alive in Champions League play and the Pokal Cup and need a top three Bundesliga finish to qualify for Champions League next season.  To rely on an inexperienced goalkeeper with so much at stake and Bayern Munich apparently ready to sign Schalke and Germany’s number one goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, in the summer transfer window, has van Gaal’s ego gotten the better of him?

Perhaps, but van Gaal’s take on the decision to start Kraft over Butt is two-fold.  First, he feels that even with the lack of experience, Kraft is the better goalkeeper currently and Kraft did play well Saturday against Wolfsburg.  Secondly, van Gaal believes in his own ability to develop young players, and was instrumental in getting Edwin van der Saar and Victor Valdes their starts, so he does have a track record of identifying young goalkeeping talents and the courage to let them play.

It’s a calculated risk.  I imagine Kraft will cost Bayern Munich a few points just because of his inexperience, yet even very talented, experienced goalkeepers make mistakes, as on Saturday when Wolfsburg’s Diego Benaglio gifted Bayern Munich their only goal on a poorly taken clearance.   By playing Kraft, van Gaal seizes the opportunity to deepen Bayern Munich’s talent pool by giving Kraft experience and seeing if he is indeed as capable as everyone expects him to be.  This has been a star-crossed season for the Bavarians, as injuries have kept Die Bayern from reaching the potential of their talented roster.  If Kraft can perform well-enough to help Bayern Munch claim a Champions League spot for next year, and perhaps gain some glory in this year’s European competition and/or the Pokal Cup, van Gaal will look like a genius.  The purchase of Neuer will then be unnecessary and Bayern Munich can use the money to pick up a central defender or winger.

Against Wolfsburg, Kraft’s performance was worthy of a Bayern Munich number one keeper.  It was not his fault that Bayern Munich failed to get three points in one of the strangest games of the season.

We’re in for a Wild Ride

Although Borussia Dortmund look like they will walk away with the Bundesliga title, spots 2-18 are unsettled.  This weekend top-half of the table teams Mainz 05, Bayer Leverkusen and Entracht Frankfurt lost, while bottom of the table teams Borussia Monchengladbach, VfB Stuttgart, FC Koln, St. Pauli, Wolfsburg and Werder Bremen all picked up needed points.

Only nine points separate cellar-dwellars Borussia Monchengladbach, with 13, from the four teams, Kaisersalutern, Schalke, Nurnberg and Werder Bremen, with 22 points clustered near the tenth spot in the table.  Can Borussia Monchengladbach, who have failed to win a home game this year, defy historical precedent and avoid relegation despite accumulating so few points in the Hinrunde?  No team in Bundesliga history has climbed to safety from their winter break deficit.  Can VfB Stuttgart attain some of the form they’ve shown in Europe and ascend the table?  Will St. Pauli’s lack of scoring punch doom them to one season in the top flight?

At the upper end of the table, behind Dortmund, many questions remain, too.  Can Slomka continue his miracle work?  Can Thomas Tuchel rekindle the early season Mainz magic?  Are Bayer Leverkusen contenders or pretenders for Champions League play?  Can Bayern Munich reach Champions League and can Schalke regain the consistency they finally found late in the Hinrunde after showing little against Hamburg this weekend?

This weekend’s results demonstrated the parity that. with the exception of Borussia Dortmund, has been a hallmark of the current Bundesliga season.  It’s possible, if not probable, that the Bundesliga will send an entirely new slate of teams to European competition next year.   We’re in for a wild ride the next sixteen matchdays….enjoy.

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Gerry Wittmann

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