Matchday 21 both epitomized the excitement of the Bundesliga and the occasional doldrums. Wolfsburg’s encounter with Freiburg on Friday saw an end to end action from kickoff to the final whistle in a match that most expected to be forgettable affair while Saturday saw two late comebacks from Bremen and Hannover. It also included the usual blowout with Hertha suffering their biggest loss of the season to Suttgart and Bayern, Dortmund and Gladbach all kept apace in the title race with important wins. Sunday meanwhile saw an anti climactic stalemate between Nürnberg and Augsburg and Hamburg labored to a narrow win against a spiritless Köln.
Here is our best eleven of this polar weekend:
Bernd Leno – The only Leverkusen player who can keep his head held high after the loss against Dortmund, Leno was the only thing preventing a higher score line. The 19 year old controlled his box well and kept everything, even Kagawa’s match winner which he was millimeters away from saving. The best example of Leno’s fine performance was the world class save against Grosskreutz on 65 minutes, a save that not even most veterans would be able to pull off.
Lukasz Piszczek – The Polish right back had perhaps the most difficult task of the night, dealing with Lars bender on his side of the pitch. Leverkusen’s outstanding player this season was also Dortmund’s biggest obstacle and with the help of Piszczek they cleared it and landed an all important victory that will keep them in atop the standings for another week. Piszczek’s offensive qualities were on full display as he pinned back both Bender and Oczipka for much of the match. He also won many important challenges, keeping out Kiessling and Schürrle. Only Subotic touched the ball more.
Slobodan Rajkovic – Hamburg’s center back had another good performance after last week’s heroic showing against Bayern. While that was only sufficient to earn one point, his performance this week helped Hamburg get back on track and get all three points. Rajkovic won 88% of his tackles and read the game extremely well. In fact, he only lost three of his duels and his confidence throughout the match ensured that Hamburg were going to keep a clean sheet and move into 11th place, their highest placing yet this season.
Jannik Vestergaard – The 19 year old Dane is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dull Hoffenheim season. After working his way into Hoffenheim’s starting line up he has quickly become one of their better players and his best performance may very well have come against Bremen. He put his team ahead early on and was crucial in weathering the Bremen storm in the last half hour of the match.
Patrick Herrmann – Known more for his offensive qualities, and for good reason, Herrmann is not beyond putting in a good shift defensively. Against Schalke he did both. Incredibly enough, Herrmann won 90% of his challenges, impressive for a winger and left Fuchs and Obasi gasping for air most of the time. He set up the first goal and played a big part in Gladbach’s surgical dismantling of Schalke, in perhaps the best 45 minutes of football seen this season.
Petr Jiracek – The Czech midfielder is quickly becoming Wolfsburg’s best piece of business over the winter break. Magath brought in several players but none have integrated as well or have raised their level as effectively as Jiracek. On Friday his brace helped Wolfsburg ward off a dangerous Freiburg side and ultimately lifted Magath’s side 8th place and just four points out of a European spot. His high work rate and selflessness are qualities deeply admired by Magath and his National Team and Champions League experience will go a long way in redeeming Wolfsburg’s poor Hinrunde.
David Alaba – Schweinsteiger’s absence may turn out to be a blessing in disguise if Alaba’s development is anything to go by. The young Austrian deputized for the Bayern midfield maestro marvelously. As he did midweek in the Cup, he orchestrated the game like a veteran, stayed composed throughout and never let the occasion unsettle him. His game intelligence and willingness to work hard make him mature beyond his age and arguably one of the brightest prospects in the Bundesliga at the moment.
Juan Arango – Recently voted Venezuela’s greatest ever player, Arango put in a performance against Schalke worthy of such a title. His assist in Gladbach’s second goal made up one of the better team goals of the year and his free kick to make it 3-0 was quite possibly the best of the season so far. Arango completed 82% of his passes and was the primary orchestrator of Schalke’s demise.
Shinji Kagawa – Quite possibly the best player of the Rückrunde so far. Kagawa finds himself in our TOTW yet again thanks to his outstanding performance in Dortmund’s hard fought match against Leverkusen. One again, the Japanese playmaker was the best man on the pitch. His technical skill decided the match and almost set up Grosskreutz with another were it not for Leno’s fantastic save. Thanks to Kagawa Dortmund remain atop the table and have maintained their impressive unbeaten run even in the absence of Mario Götze.
Martin Harnik - Left out of the cup match midweek, Harnik’s exclusion certainly had a few supporters scratching their heads. After their elimination at the hands of Bayern and a winless record in 2012 Labbadia needed to make some changes. He quickly reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 and started Harnik. Low and behold, Stuttgart had their best performance of the season with the Austrian the star of the show. His brace capped off a spirited performance, bringing his season tally to 10 goals, the best for a midfielder in the league.
Mike Hanke - Who would have predicted Hanke to score one of the most technically impressive goals of the year just a couple of months back? His transformation under Favre has culminated in the best spell of his career. Quite possibly the hardest working striker in the league, Hanke plays a crucial role in Favre’s system. He covers more ground than many midfielders, always presents his teammates with link up options and defends as well as a seasoned center back. He has come a long way since being a reserve player at Hannover.
Coach of the Week
Bruno Labbadia – Labbadia was very much in the firing line in recent weeks with Stuttgart struggling for results and failing to win a single game in 2012. The elimination from the Cup at the hands of Bayern midweek only added fuel to the fire but the former Hamburg and Leverkusen manager corrected his mistakes and got Stuttgart’s most impressive win of the season against Hertha. He courageously dropped fan favorite Cacau and switched formations while also reintroducing Hajnal and Harnik into the line up. The changes proved effective and Stuttgart displayed one of the most dominant performances of the season.
Neven Subotic, Tony Jantschke, Khalid Boulahrouz, Dante, Daniel Caligiuri, Marcel Jansen, Marco Reus, Vedad Ibisevic, Mohamed Zidan
Images courtesy of spox.com