Monday Morning (PST) Center Back: Match Day 13

What a weird mid-week for the Bundesliga.

Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund both had the opportunity to cement themselves as group winners in Champions League play. Instead, both were blanked by their group’s second-place side. The BVB had already clinched their passage into the knockout stage, but allowed Arsenal to hang a 2:0 on them Wednesday in London. Leverkusen is also through, but saw their lead in the group cut to a point after their 0:1 loss at home to AS Monaco.

These results followed a pair of Tuesday shockers for German sides in the competition. A ten-man Bayern side fell behind on a penalty that also saw Mehdi Benatia leave the pitch in the 20th minute with a red card. The Bavarians came back with a pair of goals, but then blew the lead in the last five minutes (plus injury time) with Sergio Aguero completing a hat trick to put the first blemish on Bayern’s record this season. Bayern had already clinched their group before the match.

Meanwhile, Gelsenkirchen’s local Bundesliga side was taking an entirely different shot from an English club, dropping an 0:5 affair to Chelsea before the Schalke faithful, dropping the Royal Blues into third in the group and in need of help from Chelsea in the last match day of the league to have even a shot at getting back to second place.

Over in the Europa League, Borussia Mönchengladbach retained their hold on first in the group as the only German side to win even a point in Europe during the week, but the 2:2 in Villareal left the door open for the Spanish side to supercede die Fohlen as group winners and puts their chance of any advancement whatsoever in danger when they host FC Zurich in the group finale.

Finally, Wolfsburg, which appears to be headed to Champions League next year, did an impression of three of their Bundesliga brethren currently in that competition, getting blanked at home by Everton 0:2. The Wolves will now need to hold LOSC Lille at bay to retain second place and advancement.

Why am I recounting the European results? Mainly because I still can’t believe how it all shook out after German sides had been so dominant in the competitions to date.

But also because the mid-week power outages sets up a weird contrast to the weekend.

Schützenfest 2014 . . . just not by Bayern

The Bundesliga, itself, was a goal-fest, particularly Friday and Saturday, with just a single 0:1 result amid 1:4, 4:1, 5:1, 3:1, 4:0, and a 4:3. If you don’t already know (I’m sure you do), how many of those results would you guess belonged to Bayern’s trip to Berlin, if looking just at the scores and not identifying home and away sides?

My guess is the only one you’d rule out for Bayern is the 4:3, but that you’d have landed on 0:1 next to last, which, of course, was the result in Olympiastadion, where Bayern is hoping to play two more matches by season’s end, with both Champions League and DFB Pokal finales both being held there.

You could maybe point out the exertion needed to almost pull off a victory over one of England’s top sides in 70 minutes-plus of ten-man football, but you can also bet that neither Pep nor any of his players will. The talk after the match was about a disappointing effort in the second half as Hertha BSC actually started to carry some of the offensive play after an overwhelmingly one-sided first half.

Even so, while hardly anyone among the Bavarians is going to be pleased with how things looked or the score line, “it is sufficient,” as goal-scorer Arjen Robben said.

The Zombie-like story line of the “Bayern Jäger”

Bayern’s victory put them ten points clear of second-place VfL Wolfsburg, who apparently cannot say often enough that they’re not remotely interested in the idea of hunting down Bayern. Coach Dieter Hecking may frame it as “we just want to win matches” and let the unspoken subtext be, “and if we do that and somehow Bayern loses a few, so be it.”

But Hecking knows as well as anyone that’s not likely to happen. I suppose that the editor who wrote the headline following Wolfsburg’s 1:0 win over Europa League cohort Mönchengladbach also knows it’s a dead story, but . . . then why slap a headline on the match report declaring the result allowed the Wolves to stay on Bayerns trail?

I need to stop taking their bait.

Wolfsburg is trending toward a clear-cut number two this season. Even with a long way to go, the five-point lead they have on even fourth place seems to at least put the Wolves as a strong favorite for an automatic trip to Champions League group stages next season, especially with FC Augsburg the club currently sitting fourth.

No disrespect, Herr Weinzierl, but we all know you and the FCA are not finishing fourth, even as much as we all would adore the story line.

It’s almost shocking that the zombies haven’t also been suddenly spotted in Leverkusen. Die Werkself are on a two-match winning streak after blowing out local rival 1. FC Köln 5:1 Saturday, following their 1:3 visit to then-fourth Hannover the week prior. Bayer now heads to Bayern with the chance to announce themselves as the REAL “Bayern Hunters.” After all, if they somehow manage victory Saturday night they would then close the gap to first place to seven points, which apparently is close enough to be said to be “in the hunt,” but would also give them the win over Bayern that Wolfsburg did not manage in their first attempt.

If nothing else, it should provide a thrilling match, not least because Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt said after his team’s big win that he could never play in the defensive style Köln did in that match, because he only has fun when his team “wants to play football.” Clearly, the words were a shot at former Austrian Bundesliga rival Peter Stöger, but puts him in a position where it would be difficult to lay deep and hope for a chance on the counter the way almost everyone has against Bayern.

Of course, you can’t put much past a guy willing to take such a public shot at a peer, so he may try it anyhow, but Leverkusen is not without the talent to give the Bavarians a match.

I’m just not sure that same level of ability lies with the man in charge (yep, cheap shot from a Köln fan; I admit it and will not take it back!)

Yet again . . . Wow!

That’s the response so many of us have every week when seeing results of Borussia Dortmund matches. Because of who they’ve been in the recent past, as well as in Champions League, the wide assumption has been that they’ll eventually come unstuck and simply play more effectively both in front of keeper Roman Weidenfeller and in finishing chances on the other end.

Any chance the team would somehow rally around the loss of Marco Reus to trigger a return to their expected form is growing increasingly unlikely.

Sunday’s 2:0 loss at Eintracht Frankfurt has to be a new low for Jürgen Klopp in a season that has been full of them. The mid-week loss at Arsenal was a blow, but in a match that seemed fairly even between the two clubs, it was Eintracht Frankfurt that looked to have that extra touch of class when it counted, while the Dortmunders looked completely like a team already well-acquainted with poor play.

Don’t believe me? Watch Matthias Ginter’s assist on Haris Severovic’s 2:0.

And now, unlike earlier in the season when Dortmund escaped last-place in the table the day after dropping into it, the BVB gets to spend the entire week between matches as the league doormat . . . and it’s December.

The winter break can not come quickly enough for Klopp and crew, but they’ll still have to weather visits from two strong sides in Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg and hope to squeeze something out of trips to Hertha Berlin and Werder Bremen, or it’s going to be among the grimmest holidays seen in Dortmund in quite some time.

Schadenfreude in neighboring Gelsenkirchen?

Don’t believe for a moment that Schalke fans are not relishing every aching minute of Dortmund’s struggles.

But their 4:1 blow-out of FSV Mainz probably helped everyone also shake off some of their own doubts surrounding their own club to make everything just a little bit sweeter.

In the mind of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, it’s a simple matter of Schalke having “more will” and “more playing forward,” but you have to say that the Hunter scoring three goals is not as simple, even if he made it appear so Saturday.

The early stages of the Roberto DiMatteo era were marred by a three-match stretch in which Schalke managed just one goal, which delivered an unsatisfying 1:0 over Augsburg for the club’s only points in that stretch. Now, Schalke has scored seven goals against Wolfsburg and Mainz for all six points from their last two and are in a European spot for the first time all season.

Last year, Schalke took advantage of their Dortmund’s post-winter swoon to get within a point of their dreaded rivals in second place, but could never overtake them, eventually drifting back into a solid third-place finish. Now, instead of trailing them by seven points after thirteen matches, the Royal Blues have a nine-point edge on the Schwarz-Gelben. While the main prize will be another slot in Champions League groups, don’t believe for a second they won’t relish also finishing ahead of their neighbors for the first time since 2010.

Slight Correction to the Norm

While the anticipated return of Dortmund to form continues to elude, the tradition of promoted sides being fairly ripe pickings for established sides finally emerged as a legit item.

In addition to Köln getting blasted by Leverkusen for a second-consecutive loss, SC Paderborn got to see Werder Bremen work out a bit of their frustration from last weekend’s loss to Hamburger SV in a hard-fought Nothern Derby and suffered a 4:0 thumping for their visit.

It was the second four-goal loss of the campaign for the East-Westfaleners, who now have just one point from their last three matches. Gone are the days of the surprise ending of a match day in first place and lingering around the top-third of the table, and back is the reality of needing more points soon to avoid slipping into the relegation fight everyone assumed Paderborn would lose from the beginning.

Both Köln and Paderborn have shows some Bundesliga qualities thus far in the season, but the recent run for both was an ice-cold wake-up to the realities of the rigors of Germany’s top division.

Hoffenheim helped deliver similar message with a 4:3 victory over Hannover. The Red Shirts had ridden defensive organization to reach as high as fourth in the table despite a negative goal-differential and the league’s second-lowest goal production. Tayfun Korkut has seen his club yield seven goals the last two matches, with Lower Saxony neighbor Wolfsburg coming to town for match day 14.

Saturday night’s result was also a bit of a continuation of Hoffenheim’s slide into their 2013-14 form, which was marked by a propensity for surrendering and scoring many goals. Markus Gisdol is unlikely to have been pleased to allow a low-flying side like Hannover to score three times, but would doubtlessly have been less pleased had the club’s three-match losing streak not come to an end.

But maybe you shouldn’t be in such a hurry to get into your offense with a two-goal lead just five minutes from time . . .

And a slight over-correction coming from Mainz.

The FSV did seem to be playing a bit over their head  early by being undefeated in their first seven. Their quick exists from Europa League and the DFB Pokal had seemed to signal that maybe the transition from Thomas Tuchel to Kaspar Hjulmund wouldn’t be entirely smooth.

Yet, I don’t think anyone would have expected Mainz to have a nine-match stretch with just one victory. Two points from their last five matches necessarily has the club looking below them, rather than above, for their current competition for table positioning as well as in their upcoming schedule, with three matches against clubs currently behind them in the standings. Mainz would do well to make some hay against Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Köln, rather than let the winter break stop their fall.

Hupp! Huub! And that Viktor fella!

When you have a coaching change in the middle of the season, what you hope to at least get is a slight bump in performance under the new man.

Though Huub is no complete stranger – or maybe even because of his brief tenure at the end of last season – Stuttgart did respond in their new leader’s debut, hammering SC Freiburg to the tune of a 1:4 away victory and lifting the VfB out of last place, where it had spend the prior two match days.

Stuttgart fans will hope their new Stevens-led side will see a bit of what Werder fans have gotten under Viktor Skripnik. Though Werder dropped a 2:0 decision to hapless Hamburg last weekend, the new coach’s other three matches have all been victories, which account for all three victories Bremen has had all season.

The early returns on these two new coaches would signal that there is new life in the relegation fight from two sides which earlier looked like favorites for the drop. Without question, the play of both on the weekend will send alarm bells throughout the bottom half of the table, which features a span of just five points from last place to tenth.

The HSV is still awful

Augsburg wins 3:1 after sleepwalking through the first half, seeming to easily step on the gas and return from the 0:1 halftime deficit through simple determination.

Bright side: Hamburg did score another goal to get their total on the season to seven. Plus, Dortmund is below them, so they’re not even in last place.

But I’d bet you can count even most of the Hamburg squad among those of us who do not expect that to last.

Finally, this . . .

Nothing to say other than, “watch and enjoy.”

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.

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