ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae says there are significant question marks hovering over both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the title race after ignominious DFB-Pokal exits in midweek.
The Pokal in Germany is not, as with cup competitions in many other countries, a trifling inconvenience. Invariably the latter stages feature full-strength sides in front of packed houses. The quest for the Pott really matters, and when both Bayern and Dortmund crash out at the quarterfinal stage within 24 hours of each other, it only leads to added scrutiny and criticism of the two biggest clubs in the Bundesrepublik.
What Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat at home against a well-drilled and defensively obdurate SC Freiburg demonstrated was that Thomas Tuchel’s mere presence in the technical area can’t cover up some of the cracks that have been growing larger at Bayern for many months.
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We used to often describe the club — in the days of Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben — as the Starensemble. They were all bona-fide stars but worked together to make each other better rather than alone. While there’s no shortage of football celebrity power in the current Bayern ranks, the suspicion is the sum of the whole is poorer than the individual parts.
Bayern remain the best team in Germany and one of the most competent in Europe, but as CEO Oliver Kahn noted following the decision to let Julian Nagelsmann go, as well as hitting highs, the current crop of players are capable of displaying “incomprehensible weaknesses.”
Tuesday was a test against a competent team that sat extremely deep for the entire second half, clotting the middle and almost challenging Bayern to go the extra mile out wide. It was going to take something special to unlock Freiburg, and Bayern couldn’t find that inspirational pass, move or moment. Joshua Kimmich later complained of a lack of on-pitch passion.
Bayern were instead plodding and passive and their passion seemed to be reserved for the decision by referee Harm Osmers to award a handball penalty against Jamal Musiala deep in stoppage time. Under the current interpretation guidance, Musiala’s extra-high arm position made it a spot kick all day, every day, but some of the players reacted as though it was the injustice of the year.
For the third time in three years, Bayern have made a premature exit from a cup competition they are proudly the record winners of. In Gladbach last season and Kiel the year before, Bayern succumbed to the opposition in a one-off game. This time it happened in front of their own public.
Ultimately any top team can suffer a bad day against more-limited opponents, but it has happened to Bayern too often for their liking this season, against FC Augsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen in the league and now against Freiburg in the Pokal. The Rekordmeister are therefore compelled to focus on protecting and increasing the two-point lead they’ve established at the top of the Bundesliga while trying to overcome the might of Manchester City in the Champions League.
If Bayern fans are suffering after an unexpected reverse, just imagine being a Borussia Dortmund follower this week. It’s hard to imagine a more chastening few days in what we might call “die Woche der Wahrheit” (“the week of truth”) for Edin Terzic and his players.
As it turned out, Wednesday at RB Leipzig was more painful than Saturday in Munich. At least in the Bavarian capital, BVB started with a purpose and arguably edged the first few minutes before Gregor Kobel, who has given us cause to marvel over his presence between the posts, produced a Patzer (howler) that unfortunately for him will be shown over and over again in the build-up to future Bayern-Dortmund confrontations.
After Kobel’s flub in trying to play a pass from the back and the subsequent opening goal for Bayern, BVB were stripped of all confidence with Marco Reus and Julian Brandt unable to influence the game in a positive direction for the Schwarzgelben.
The Leipzig experience was worse in that they faced a tempest from the outset. Dortmund’s former coach Marco Rose had his charges aggressively press a skittish BVB deep inside their own half, and Terzic’s team didn’t look as though they had a coherent plan to stop it.
After 14 attempts to one in favour of Leipzig in the first 45 minutes, it was remarkable that Dortmund were only a goal behind. The second half was more even until Willi Orban settled it at the end with Kobel chasing back having gone up for a last-ditch corner.
Despite a wretched week, Dortmund are still in the Titelrennen (title race) and they should take strength from Freiburg, who face Bayern again on Saturday. One of the fascinations and many positives of the Bundesliga is that the biggest clubs have their regular share of playing in the traditional kickoff time slot of 3:30 p.m. local.
So, while Bayern try to exact revenge on Freiburg in the Breisgau region, Dortmund have a tough nut to crack at the Signal Iduna Park in Union Berlin, who let’s not forget are only two points behind BVB and a mere four off the overall pace set by Bayern. They beat the Schwarzgelben in October when — as on Saturday — a Kobel blunder with the ball at his feet dominated the headlines.
The fixture list perhaps favours Bayern, but only slightly. Dortmund’s hardest-looking matches are the next two at home with Eintracht Frankfurt, midweek conquerors of Union in the Pokal, travelling to the Ruhrpott in little more than weeks.
On the evidence of the past few days, both Bayern and Dortmund have mistakes in them. The team that can keeps errors to a minimum will win the Meisterschale. The tension goes on.