December 14, 2017

Monday Morning (PST) Center Back: Match Day 12

“Again, knock it off with this (CENSORED!). I can’t take it any more.”

Agreed, Herr Hecking!

It’s now a seven-point gap at the top between eventual 2014-15 champion FC Bayern München and second-place (and purported “Bayern Hunter”) VfL Wolfsburg. A few Bayern draws in the midst of Wolfsburg’s hot run had narrowed the gap to four points, allowing hopeful journalists to begin beating the drums that maybe, just maybe, there was to be a title race in the Bundesliga for the first time in a few years.

Hecking never really took the bait, even before his club sleepwalked through the early stages of their Saturday visit to Gelsenkirchen and fell behind 3:0 within a half-hour of kickoff at Schalke 04. Even after his charges somewhat came to life to get within a goal and narrowly missing the equalizer, Hecking didn’t truly have his side as title contenders.

To his credit, he wasn’t even angry when he was asked in the mixed zone about the result’s impact on his club’s status as the Bayern Jäger. He clearly had been annoyed by the topic, but more because he never wanted to play into the plot so many had hoped to generate.

“You clearly want it, yeah? And we say that we are maintaining our course: we want to win matches. Today we lost one,” redirected Hecking. “It’s that simple.”

It is that simple.

It was simple before the international break.

It continued to be simple even with the injury to Philipp Lahm (and what a luxury to be able to cover an injury to that level player, huh?)

And the return of Bastian Schweinsteiger doesn’t really make it more complicated, does it?

The Rekordmeister is simply too good right now for anyone to take them down. The roster is incredibly deep, and Pep has them ticking along quite nicely, even if some do not really care for the style of play. Their meticulous possession game does seem to allow a skilled, deep-sitting team the opportunity to keep a match close . . . maybe . . . if things go their way, I suppose . . . but let me point out something that seems to get a little bit lost in the wash.

Bayern has conceded three goals! Yes! Three!

Twelve matches played and three goals allowed. That’s bonkers. The only thing more mysterious there is how they don’t have 36 points from it. Rest assured that those three draws Bayern has on their account were not matches in which they were somehow fortunate to get the point.

Yet, that’s where the critics will scoff at their Spanish coach’s system, and they should feel welcome to it. If you’ve not noticed, Guardiola doesn’t really worry about such things.

At some early point in Saturday’s match in München against Hoffenheim, it could be said that the guests had more dangerous chances than the home side. But, eventually, then you had to count Hoffenheim’s chances against Bayern’s goals, which would have been tighter than the 4:0 final, but would not have really altered the result.

And THAT is where we are with this Bundesliga season. Even when it might look close, if viewed from a certain perspective, the reality is starkly different.

To that end . . .

Those who were not quite up to speed on “the title race has been decided,” could not help but point out how the results for clubs closest to the table toppers all fell in favor of Bayern. I try to imagine the likelihood anyone at Bayern checked the results and though, “Wow! Things are really falling into place for us,” but cannot. When you’re that gigantic, you don’t worry about what the little people do in their spare time.

THE OTHERS . . .

But let’s pretend things were slightly different . . . or that we’re on some alternate plane, perhaps . . . and pretend that it was Guardiola and not Lucien Favre noting that “the others DO exist.”

Man, it really WAS a spectacular weekend for Bayern!

As noted, second-place Wolfsburg dropped all three points. And, because Bayern won, that means that fifth-place (entering the match day) Hoffeheim suffered a six-point swing in the pursuit of the Bundesliga title nobody is legitimately chasing.

But third-place Borussia Mönchengladbach suffered a shock 1:3 upset at the hands of an Eintracht Frankfurt side which had gone into the international break being outscored 13:5 during a four-match losing streak, the last two matches of which saw Thomas Schaaf’s side blanked completely.

It was the first time die Fohlen had lost at home in eight months and the first time in more than six years they’d lost a match in which they’d held a halftime lead!

Not quite one month ago, Mönchengladbach was the club in second place being lauded as a potential challenger to Bayern’s primacy. They’ve now lost two consecutive and are looking behind them at five clubs within three points of them, including Bayer Leverkusen, which lags behind in fourth only on goal differential after their 1:3 sacking of previous fourth-place holder Hannover 96.

I’ve made no bones about labeling Hannover’s rise into a Champions League spot happening in a completely unsustainable way. Their nine goals is second-fewest in the league, and that’s only because Hamburger SV is so terrible. Hannover also carried a minus-two goal differential into fourth place, making them the only club in the table’s top ten to have surrendered more goals than they’d scored.

You can, and probably should, credit Tayfun Korkut for installing a system that has allowed his side to succeed where it counts, which is in the standings, but you also can’t watch them play without suspecting they’re capable of getting throttled the way they were by Bayer, which arrived in Hannover without a Bundesliga goal scored in November.

Yet, they’ve managed to win six matches.

I’m still done trying to figure them out. I still see a relegation candidate on the pitch, but the results point out how little I understand about the game and league I love. And, because I like a side that scraps for everything it gets, I have nothing but respect for Korkut and his gang.

I just won’t be surprised if they go on a prolonged losing streak. At least not nearly as surprised as I’ve been by them so far.

Look who’s back!

Kieß! Where you been?!

The first of Leverkusen’s three second-half goals in Hannover ended a personal goal-less streak of 859 minutes for Stefan Kießling.

Plenty of dudes go 859 minutes and more between scores, but not many have Kießling’s pedigree. The lanky forward has been among the top scorers in the league the last few seasons, edging Robert Lewandowski for the Torjägerkanone as the league’s top scorer in 2012-13 with 25 goals.

Speaking of Lewandowski, he finally scored too!

Wait . . . What? He already has six goals this season?

Apparently, if you are tied for second in the league in goals scored, you can do so semi-anonymously when you’re also tied for second on your team. Thomas Müller also has six, and super Mario added his seventh Saturday, which means Lewandowski will continue to be discussed more in terms of how his absence is killing Borussia Dortmund and less in how he’s contributing to a dominant Bayern squad where he’s just one of several who can put the ball in the net.

The weekend also saw Leverkusen captain Simon Rolfes return for the first time since match day 2. The defensive midfielder played just the first half, moving aside for Gonzalo Castro, who had been on the pitch for just a few moments before he’d crossed the ball to Kießling for the match’s first goal.

THAT is leadership, captain!

Oh, and, as Arjen Robben said, “The football god is back, yeah?”

Bastian Schweinsteiger received a hero’s welcome when he substituted on for Mario Götze. The club celebrated Schweini’s first Bundesliga appearance as a world champion by scoring two goals in five minutes, one of which was assisted by a well-timed pass from Germany’s new captain. It was a great, goose-pimple-inspiring scene, the sort of which seems to really happen only in football.

Seeing red over officiating

Marvin Bakalorz was incredulous that he was being yellow-carded for his foul on Marco Reus near midfield, even though he clearly planted his boot directly on Reus’ right ankle, causing it to flex in a fairly gruesome way, particularly in slow-motion replays.

Everyone else was mystified at how it was not a straight red.

I’d bet that even Bakalorz would have to admit that the foul was red-worthy. Referee Wolfgang Stark didn’t see it for what it was on the pitch, but had to admit after reviewing the video that he erred by not sending Paderborn’s midfielder to the showers just four minutes after the former Dortmund prospect had provided the pass to put Lukas Rupp in a position to deke center back Matthias Ginter to the turf and dribble into open space for a free shot past Roman Weidenfeller for the 1:2 Anschlusstreffer (it’s a gorgeous word you need to add to your vocabulary with regard to following Bundesliga, so look it up!).

In case you’d forgotten, the last time Stark officiated a Dortmund match was in December of 2012. In he erroneously gave Marcel Schmelzer a red card for hand play while deflecting a shot in front of an otherwise wide-open Dortmund goal. Diego converted to bring the match level at one goal apiece, but Dortmund was unable to overcome their short-handedness, ultimately falling 2:3.

In other words, there is history between the BVB and Stark.

Whether Stark sends Bakalorz off at that moment or not, Reus would still have been left lying injured on the pitch with an injury that will have him unavailable into the new year.

Now, would a man-advantage have prevented the full comeback by SC Paderborn to the 2:2 final?

We’ll never know for sure. Despite the 0:2 halftime lead, it should also be pointed out that Dortmund had again let many big chances pass without converting. The opportunity to put this match well out of reach was there for Jürgen Klopp’s crew, but it never came.

Or . . . should a Champions League group winner be blowing a two-goal lead in a 15,000 seat stadium?

Either way, you don’t leave anything to chance, and sometimes chance comes in the form of injuries and officiating decisions.

This is true, too, of what happened in Stuttgart Sunday.

While the result was deserved, the only goal in Augsburg’s 0:1 road win at league doormat Stuttgart came as a result of a highly questionable penalty award. Raul Bobadilla, during one of many Augsburg rushes deep into Stuttgart territory, attempted a cross from just outside the penalty area. Adam Hlousek, who had been running with Bobadilla, attempted to pull his trailing right arm away from the ball’s path, but it was instead struck and sent flying into the air with a bit more pace that it might otherwise have. It admittedly looked awful, but even a slight consideration would have informed that Hlousek’s arm had been moving away from the ball with intent to not impede it. By law, that’s not a penalty.

That’s just not how Thorsten Kinhöfer’s crew saw it.

Paul Verhaegh delivered the lead from the spot, finally breaking through for Augsburg, which had been enjoying a man-advantage since Daniel Schwaab was given two yellows in a six-minute span and sent off in the 27th minute.

It was a spirited effort to keep the match scoreless, especially from keeper Sven Ulreich, who had earlier lost the starting job to Thorsten Kirschbaum, but played nobly in his replacement’s stead, as Kirschbaum suffered a concussion during training late in the week.

It was not, however, spirited enough to maintain the spirits or interest of coach Armin Veh, who resigned Monday.

It’s not Michael Jackson, but this is all Thriller!

Everybody loves the goals that come late in a match to alter how the points are divvied.

Well, probably not the club that sees the prospects of a three-match day suddenly shift to a split, and probably also not the club that sees the one point they were grasping slip away while they likely were dreaming of snagging two more for themselves.

The rest of us, though, love that stuff, and we got a few such treats over the weekend.

Maher Saglik’s 81st minute header just moments after stepping onto the pitch as a substitute brought the SC Paderborn faithful to their feet in celebration of the 81st minute equalizer leading to a somewhat-surprising comeback draw with their fellow Wesphalians from Dortmund.

While it was not quite as quickly and dramatic as Saglik’s turn as a joker, Artjoms Rudnevs opened the scoring in favor of Hamburger SV in the latest edition of the Northern Derby, benefitting from an Assani Lukimya misplay of a long Ashton Götz throw-in to break the scoreless deadlock in the 84th minute of HSV’s 2:0 victory.

FSV Mainz got the final goal in their very fortunate 2:2 draw in the 88th minute. Shinji Okazaki chased down a ball near the goal line to the right of SC Freiburg keeper Roman Bürki. Okazaki turned and chipped the ball toward the mouth of the goal at a difficult angle. The ball glanced off the crossbar on its downward flight, evading an attempt at a headed clearance by Stefan Mitrovic and landing in front of Stefan Bell who happily converted for his first goal in 51 matches with Mainz’s first team.

And, admittedly, I personally wasn’t pleased with all of them . . .

Marcel Ndjeng scored via a “direct” free kick in the 86th minute in Köln to grab all three points with a 1:2 away victory for the Berliners of Hertha BSC. I put “direct” in quotes because Ndjeng’s attempt deflected of Köln striker Anthony Ujah to leave keeper Timo Horn to watch helplessly as the ball lazily bounded into his goal in the direction opposite his own.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must join the rest of my 1. FC Köln faithful in lamenting the regrettable . . . unnecessary . . . unfortunate . . . unlucky . . . whatever loss we suffered from that.

Well, wait . . . it could be worse!

You have to feel a little bit bad for Assani Lukimya, don’t you?

In addition to having a name that sounds like a horrible disease (at least to English-speakers), the guy seems to find a way to be the goat, even when he’s played a fairly solid match.

Lukimya attempted to disrupt a long HSV throw-in late in the Northern Derby, but instead extended the ball’s travels right into the patch of Artjoms Rudnevs, who was all “hey! look what I found!” and put the home side ahead in the relegation battle.

You maybe could also feel sorry for Hamburg’s offensive woes, too. The HSV collected just their fifth and sixth goals of the season Sunday, which is so pathetic, that even Hannover is looking toward Hamburg and thinking, “Dang, y’all. What’s wrong with you?!”

Want an example of how rickety the offense in Hamburg is? I mean, in addition to the fact that their game-winning goal was assisted by their opponent’s center back?

With Bremen pushing to equalize deep in added time, a counter chance led to a three-on-keeper chance. Pierre-Michel Lasogga drew Raphael Wolf to one side of the goal before sliding the ball over to Tolgay Arslan. Arslan had pretty much the entire goal at which to shoot, but instead plunked the ball off the post. The ball then rolled along the goal line past Wolf, who was trying to recover from defending against a Lasogga shot. Wolf then pounced to stop the ball, but ended up putting it into his own goal in the process.

You may wish to fault Lasogga for not just scoring on his own, being a highly paid goal-scorer and all, except that he was putting an all-time gimme in front of Arslan. He knew his teammate would have an easy goal there. Of course, if Lasogga launches a shot, and Wolf somehow stops it, you’d have to say Lasogga would have been in error.

That is how it looks when you cannot find the goal. Of Hamburg’s last three goals, one was from the penalty spot, one was assisted by an opponent, and one was an own goal from the opposing keeper.

At least they’ve scored those other three in more-deserving fashion . . . I believe.

And, finally, a tip of the cap to oft-injured Dortmund play-maker Marco Reus. A torn ligament in his right ankle is meant to have him out until mid-January. He’d already missed five league matches earlier this year with a similar injury to the left ankle. You never really like to see anyone get injured, but it’s been a tough year thus far for both Reus and his club, which returned to the relegation zone after the weekend, and will eventually have to simply overcome all their injuries at some point to get away from it.

If there is a slight silver lining, it may be that Dortmund had already secured passage into the next round of Champions League play. Maybe missing Reus will get someone else to raise their game in his absence and then bring the side to new heights once he returns.

Or, if things go the way they’ve been going, more dudes will just get injured.

I’m not ignoring you Schalke

That was a big win for you and all, but you’re just somehow getting a bit lost in the wash of all the other stuff I found interesting from the weekend.

Besides, I really thought you were going to blow that lead, so let me just focus on the positives, which primarily is Erik-Maxim Choupo-Moting’s brace, the second goal of which came thanks to a brilliant flick from Kevin-Princ Boateng.

Just LOOK at how Boateng is not at all looking that way when he launches the pass with the outside of his foot.

Then try to ignore the dancing . . . unless that’s your kind of thing.

I’m dancing off, myself, until next week.

PEACE!

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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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