Oh my, the Bundesliga launched the second half of the 2015/2016 season following winterpause at full throttle. While the month-long winter break may seem almost too long a time to bear, absent German fussball, I enjoy the time to re-charge and relax, focus on other interests like American presidential politics (where nonsense trumps reason continually), watching the NBA and deciding if “Exile on Main Street” is truly the Rolling Stones’ greatest LP. (It is).
And, personally, I enjoyed a winterpause break with FC Schalke 04 and Bayer 04 Leverkusen featuring in the Florida Cup in early January, a treat again joyously sampled. (If you love the Bundesliga and live in the Americas, you HAVE to go — too much fun, even if your club isn’t there).
But yes, things got intense here as the buildup for MatchDay 18 arrived. Here’s what those fixtures featured.
Hamburger SV 1- 2 Bayern Munich
We all know now for certain that this is Pep Guardiola’s last season at Bayern and that the Bavarian Champions League title that so far has eluded him is the goal (along with the Pokal and league titles). HSV made things uneasy for the rekordmeisters Friday, not giving an inch, but Bayern are Bayern and were able to come out with all three points. Lewa and Thomas Müller once again proved their value, while HSV looked MUCH better than their season opener at the Allianz. The big negative for Pep and company, though, was the injury loss of central defender extraordinaire Jerome Boateng during the match, who will be sidelined for at least some time. (For more on the match, click here).
Hoffenheim 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen
Hoffenheim aren’t a lot of fun to watch under grizzled Coach Huub Stevens, but his job is to save the club from relegation and he took another step towards that goal Saturday. Hoffe are much more focused defensively under Stevens, though witnessing the club’s attacking is a cheap cure for insomnia. Leverkusen once again were less than they should be, as the individual parts were greater than the sum, with Die Werkself requiring a scrambling Omer Toprak 75th minute goal to even earn a road point. The visitors outshot Hoffenheim 17-5 while amassing 61% of possession, to no real profit.
FC Ingolstadt 1-0 FSV Mainz 05
A Moritz Hartmann penalty kick goal for Ingolstadt was enough to secure all three points against a Mainz team that surprisingly didn’t field Yoshinori Moto in the starting lineup. FCI are boring as hell, but you have to love their determination and strict adherence to defensive positioning. Die Schanzer under the guidance of Ralph Hasenhüttl just make it plain tough to score even one goal in 90 minutes, and that rock-solid defensive fundamentalism results in FCI trailing Champions League contenders like Leverkusen, Schalke and Wolfsburg by five or less points in the table. Amazing. Even an incredible bit of skill by Yunus Malli in the 59th minute did little more than amaze viewers.
And another surprise — FCI actually launched more shots than the more-highly touted if inconsistent Mainz attacking corps of Martin Schmidt, while Mainz won a higher percentage of the tackles made. The Bundesliga always surprises, though.
Hertha Berlin 0-0 FC Augsburg
After tweeting that a draw would probably make both sides happy, a Hertha supporter replied, quite correctly, that Hertha wouldn’t be happy with a draw. Right, but…… nobody really expects the Berliners to be in the CL next year, despite the fine, fine work of Pal Dardai since taking over late last season for BSC. And Augsburg were in much better form at the end of the Hinrunde than when they faced Hertha earlier. The way I see it, a point for Hertha is fine, even if at home, as they build towards a more realistic (but still exciting and fun) Europa League berth. And a point helps FCA, too. Well-played (well not too well played, actually).
1.FC Köln 1-3 VfB Stuttgart
This one had all the appearances of a Billy Goat celebrations before kickoff, with the players wearing the coolly ridiculous Köln Carneval kit, head coach Peter Stöger getting a deserved contract extension during the winter break and the club finishing the first half of the season as a decent middling BuLi club without relegation fears. And when Anthony Modeste put the Billy Goats up 1-0 from the spot before 20 minutes had elapsed, it looked like a great day for Köln’s ardent supporters.
But Jürgen Kramny and VfB stood all that on its head and left with all three points, payback for their opening day loss to Köln. This is a revitalized Swabian side after former youth/reserve squad coachKramny took over — it’s much too soon to tell if the upturn in VfB fortunes is a trend or an illusion, but my, the club is much more fun to watch. Yes, they displayed attacking flair under Alexander Zorninger, but their defensive woes saw the latest Stuttgart coach’s tenure come to an early end, nothing out of character at Stuttgart.
But Daniel Didavi, Timo Werner and captain Christian Gentner scored unanswered goals for the visitors while winning 56% of tackles against a Köln side reputed to be far superior in defending. Inspired work by Kramny, and a huge away win for the Swabians.
Hannover 96 1-2 SV Darmstadt 07
Hannover sported a new coach in veteran Bundesliga man Thomas Schaaf, and had home-field advantage. They took a very early 1-0 lead via another newcomer, Hugo Almeida, who earned a paycheck at Werder Bremen under Schaaf. All looked good for the struggling 96ers.
But once again, there was a MatchDay 19 comeback. Big, lanky Sandro Wagner scored a brace for the Lillies and Darmstadt ran like thieves afterwards, coveting their three stolen road points. Dirk Schuster’s club roster is composed of Bundesliga misfits and players who rose through the ranks with the club as it climbed up the German football hierarchy, but they perform as a well-organized group. Like their 2015/2016 promotion counterparts FC Ingolstadt, the Lillies do just enough and the two clubs, unlike other promoted clubs with little or no first-division pedigree, make actually follow the rare example of FC Augsburg and make it a second-year in Germany’s top flight.
Borussia Mönchengladbach 1-3 Borussia Dortmund
The Borussen derby was a much-anticipated showdown in the late Saturday lineup of MatchDay 18 fixtures. Both clubs have bounced back under new coaches — BMG under Andre Schubert after losing their first five league matches under Lucien Favre, and BvB under the tutelage of Thomas Tuchel, regaining their elite status after a stumbling final season under the charismatic Jurgen Klopp.
Like the season opener, though, the match was basically all Dortmund, much to the displeasure of die Fohlen fans at Borussia Park. The visitors had it going from the get-go, appearing more in-step and faster than Gladbach. Although prolific BvB goalscorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a striker’s frustrating day, Marco Reus got the first goal before half, while the resurrected Henrikh Mkhitaryan gave Tuchel and company a 2-0 lead on the other side of intermission. Raffael gave the home crowd hope with his strike just before the hour, but Schubert’s team couldn’t really build on that, and Ilkay Gundogan, who had a helluva game, iced things for Dortmund in the 75th minute, and that was that.
Eintracht Frankfurt 3-2 VfL Wolfsburg
This was a matchday in which, for the most part, the last shall be first. Visiting Wolfsburg looked much the better side during the first half and seemed unfortunate to only have a 25th minute goal from Dante to show for it. Armin Veh’s side, meanwhile, thought the season began NEXT week.
But oh how that changed. Finnish goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, of Slovakian heritage, continued to make big plays in the second half while Alex Meier came alive. Veh brought in new hire Marco Fabian, and although the Mexican import did little of great note until the very end, his presence did energize Die Adler. Meier scored three times, a Fußballgott in his full glory, the winning tally coming following a Fabian run parallel to the goalline from the left, when a shot by the former Chivas man rebounded and Meier pounced like only a gott is able to do.
Dieter Hecking’s club had shown the moxie to level after Meier’s first two goals had given Frankfurt the lead, but continue to suffer all sorts of problems away from the Volkswagen Arena. Honestly, I hoped that the introduction of Fabian, and BuLi veteran Szabolcs Huszti during the winter transfer winter would pep up a rather dullish Eintracht side, and at least for one day, that happened, and once again, the Bundesliga club with the lesser place in the table upset their upper-berth rivals.
FC Schalke 04 1-3 Werder Bremen
I saw Schalke training in Florida, and they certainly seemed a confident yet relaxed and ‘together’ club under Andre Breitenreiter. And I imagine that they are, but like their counterparts Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, MatchDay 18 brought another disappointing episode in what should be a better season.
Playing in Gelsenkirchen against the fiercely loyal Die Knappen supporters would appear to give S04 a distinct advantage over a club in the relegation zone, and it did, for awhile. Defender Joel Matip, so adept at scoring from set pieces, did so once again to give Schalke the lead only four minutes after kickoff. Schalke was dominant during the first half, although Bremen captain Clemens Fritz nullified that domination by scoring at 43 minutes (BTW Fritz, who hadn’t scored a BuLi goal since 2011, also earned assists on Bremen’s other two goals).
And then it was Claudio Pizarro’s turn after the break. His 53rd minute goal was his third of the season in his return to Werder Bremen, as the venerable one ranks sixth in all-time Bundesliga goals. Bremen had gotten off to a great second half start, feeding off the positive vibes they created late in the first half. despite that by match end, Schalke were dominant statistical winners, creating 13 CKs to the one by Werder Bremen, launching nine crosses to the three from Bremen and even winning 56% of tackles, plus leading in shots launched, completing almost 200 more passes than the visitors and owning 58% of possession. But as Anthony Ujah secured the three points late, it was once again time for a familiar refrain for Schalke fans “It’s just not our day.” Oh how often that song has been sung over the last few years…. way too often. Typical was the day of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. He alone had six shots, and patiently lifted a perfect shot absolutely certain to go into the net, only to see the ball deflect off the crossbar. The Bundesliga can sometimes be very cruel. (For more on the match, click here).
MatchDay 18 Stats
Distance Covered – Hertha’s Vladimir Darida once again, this man is a blue-collar HERO
Shots Taken – Lewa with seven. I heard while in Florida that Lewandowski is a remarkable athlete, much more than most of us realize. I believe that.
Crosses Launched – Young Bayern loanee Kingsley Coman with 7, think FCB want to keep him?
Touches – Another Hertha man, Sebastian Langkamp with 119. Xabi Alonso was third. Langkamp also led the league this weekend in passes completed, with 92.
Tackles – Hannover bruiser Salif Sane led with 23, while new teammate Adam Szalai was third with 19, following Schalke’s Junior Caicara
At the team level, Wolfsburg launched the most crosses (19), while Bayern had 20 shots on goal while completing a league-best 90% of pass attempts amid gathering the weekend’s most touches. Werder Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt were flagged the most often for being offside, which proves absolutely nothing except that perhaps it’s better to NOT err on the side of caution, as both clubs staged come-back wins. BvB did the best job of winning tackles, another surprise perhaps, in that one thinks of offense when pondering all things BvB, while Hoffenheim???? covered the most ground.
And the leading goalscorer, MatchDay 18, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Alex Meier, Fußballgot and fan-favorite, three goals.
Header courtesy of Getty Images.
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