As Joshua Kimmich roared his approval on the final whistle, hearts may well have sunk among newly assembled enthusiasts around the world and, likewise, in the Bundesliga’s marketing department. Bayern Munich’s Tuesday teatime win at Borussia Dortmund may have been narrow but it was also as significant as football can be in today’s strange world.
Moving the defending champions seven points clear of their closest irritants with six games to go, there is really no way of looking at the aftermath that suggests the contest is still alive.
Just as the Bundesliga opens itself up to the world any pretence of a title race is unsustainable. “From today,” lamented Dortmund’s outstanding defender Mats Hummels, “I think all the other teams are out of it.”
Kimmich, who scored the only goal, appeared to take no little delight in pointing out how “mentally tough” it would be for BVB to find their way back if, indeed, they were ever really in the title race in the first place.
Yet the efforts of both teams made this an occasion to savour and it was a more than worthy battle. The tension that one mistake could be crucial swelled the spectacle rather than constricted it. It was, certainly in the first half, thrilling fare and a rare occasion on which the football was so involving the emptiness of the stadium sank to the back of the mind.
The match signalled its intentions early on, with Erling Haaland threading the ball through a retreating Manuel Neuer’s legs after he had rushed out to stop Thorgan Hazard. Jérôme Boateng mopped up the danger in front of the goalline, his first decisive action in a game that saw him – like Hummels – roll back the years towards his majestic best of Brazil 2014.
Borussia Dortmund 0-1 Bayern, Bayer Leverkusen 1-4 Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt 3-3 Freiburg, Werder Bremen 0-0 Borussia Mönchengladbach, RB Leipzig 2-2 Hertha Berlin, Hoffenheim 3-1 Cologne, Fortuna Dusseldorf 2-1 Schalke, Augsburg 0-0 Paderborn, Union Berlin 1-1 Mainz
Finding the fire within may be a cliche but both teams did and Bayern increasingly so as the game unfolded. “Maybe with the ball it was not our best,” Thomas Müller told the Bundesliga’s world feed broadcast. “But with the heart,” he continued, beating the left side of his chest, “and that’s the most important thing.”
In close games at the top we often hear of Bayern-Dusel - the mythical “luck” particular to the Rekordmeister that means sometime, somehow, they always get it done. There was none of that, even if other VAR officials would have suggested a look when the grounded Boateng’s upper arm deflected Haaland’s second-half shot wide.
It was more than desire alone. Bayern’s ability “to bring the skills of a league leader into the game”, as Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Christof Kneer put it, was the fine margin that won the game – part mentality, part sheer quality.
Kimmich will take deserved credit for his goal, less a bolt than a looped vapour trail from the blue. Hansi Flick grinned that he was “satisfied with him in every training session and every game,” though player and manager hinted the latter had the idea to try a lob, pointing out Roman Bürki’s habitual position off his line. It underlined Flick’s starring role in shaping and enabling Kimmich in recent months.
Kimmich’s goal underlined what was lacking in Dortmund. It would be churlish to skim too much credit from the midfielder’s visionary moment but, having got a hand to it, Bürki must have felt great disappointment in not being able to save. The Swiss goalkeeper should not be hung out to dry but it was perhaps him, and Dortmund under Lucien Favre, in microcosm. Very good (and Bürki has been one of his team’s outstanding players in the past two years) but not quite elite.
Much of the focus on Favre after the match was on him casting doubt on his future. A reporter asked if he was capable of taking the team on to the next level and Favre enigmatically replied he would explain his views further “in a few weeks”.
What was perhaps more noteworthy was the arm around the shoulder he offered his team, arguing “we played well, better than against Wolfsburg or Schalke”. That may well have been true but it felt like settling for what was not quite good enough.
On Wednesday morning, Kicker’s survey for the day asked if Favre should remain at BVB beyond the season’s end. That seems harsh and Lothar Matthäus’s post-match suggestion that Niko Kovac would fit well as a replacement feels like a change for the sake of it. The leaden displays of Emre Can and Jadon Sancho, two usually sure-fire gamechangers whose second-half introductions instead caused Dortmund’s tempo to plunge, underlined how fitness problems tied the manager’s hands when it came to the crunch. A change would not, however, be out of kilter with the prevailing breeze of a season in which Favre has already survived hairy moments.
That scent of nearly but not quite has always clung to Favre’s Bundesliga career. Judging him, or anyone, against this magnificent Bayern is not entirely even-handed. For even in smothering hopes of a thrilling run-in, the champions have already offered plenty to savour.
Talking points to follow after Wednesday’s matches.
Favre – who pugnaciously clarified his words on Wednesday, telling Sky “I will fulfil this contract,” which runs to June 2021 – will be grateful for the small mercy of RB Leipzig dropping more home points, which means BVB retain second place. Julian Nagelsmann called the damage “self-inflicted” in the 2-2 draw with Hertha, but that overlooks how much the Berliners have grown in just three games under Bruno Labbadia. “We wanted to win and the opportunities were there,” said Labbadia, and they were after Krzysztof Piatek’s penalty salvaged a draw following Rune Jarstein’s horror slip from Patrik Schick’s tame shot for the hosts.
It’s Leverkusen who slip out of the incredibly tight top four race for now after a scarcely-believable 4-1 slump at home to Wolfsburg – which could have been way worse but for Lukas Hradecky’s performance between the sticks. Die Werkself’s tepid display was “unacceptable” according to the Finnish goalkeeper, and Borussia Mönchengladbach retook fourth despite only drawing at lowly Werder Bremen. Leverkusen have a quick chance to recover – they’re at Freiburg on Friday night.
It goes from bad to worse for David Wagner and Schalke, who extended their winless run to ten. They slumped to defeat at Fortuna Düsseldorf after taking the lead via Weston McKennie’s header - Uwe Rösler’s team scored twice in five minutes from set-pieces to reignite their survival hopes. Wagner’s decision to hook Rabbi Matondo for defender Jean-Clair Todibo in the closing stages, pushing centre-back Salif Sané up front, is garnering significant criticism for the under-fire coach.