They did what they always do, and it was rarely in doubt. Schalke resisted as best they could, had their moments and were several steps forward from the meek strugglers who have filled the royal blue shirts for a large part of this season. Bayern Munich, however, were always going to get it done, and not just because this was their 10th successive win against the Gelsenkirchen club. Even if the late goals by Thomas Müller and David Alaba added a slightly unfair sheen to the scoreline for the champions, their total superiority couldn’t have been clearer.
“We were good,” mulled Christian Gross, “but not good enough yet.” The Schalke coach was speaking for his team, but he could really have been speaking for the Bundesliga, minus Bayern. Hansi Flick’s side picking up their expected three points was the second to last game of the weekend, but it felt like the denouement had come a day earlier on the Saturday; the denouement of the title race itself, perhaps.
It was the weekend, as Bild memorably described it in its Monday edition, of Die Meister-Hosenscheisser (the champion pants-shitting). Defeats for RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund paved the way for Bayern to move seven points clear at the top. What will hurt the hopefuls – and it is hard to avoid the sense that a post-mortem of sorts is already beginning – is that Flick has been nursing his side through this campaign with a combination of pragmatism, patience and understanding. They have not only offered opportunities to the opposition. Some of them have been taken. Despite Manuel Neuer playing his best in several years, their defence has been leaky. Bayern are not invulnerable.
Accordingly, the exasperation of Julian Nagelsmann after Leipzig’s Saturday afternoon defeat against a struggling Mainz was clear. The coach wasn’t pleased with the referee Christian Dingert or with a deteriorating pitch but most of all, he was befuddled by his players; the switching off from set pieces that allowed Moussa Niakhaté an unlikely brace, his players’ lack of their customary zip and that his changes did little to affect a match that was slipping away.
Having dominated Dortmund during the Englische Woche, Leverkusen were in the same boat, unable to build on the midweek result and looking thoroughly uninspired against bogey team Wolfsburg, who have now won at BayArena three times in a row. Possibly worse than the backwards step after being so impressive four days earlier was the loss of Julian Baumgartlinger, one of Die Werkself’s rare piano carriers, with a serious knee injury.
The squad is already stretched and Bayern, of course, have greater depth to compensate for their own weariness. “We had no strength or freshness at the end,” said Peter Bosz. Dortmund’s weariness, meanwhile, came from a sense of déjà vu as they slipped to seventh following defeat at Borussia Mönchengladbach. “They were the same mistakes we always make,” said Marco Reus, whose mood had already been clear as he flung his boots to the floor from the bench after being substituted.
The “simple and stupid goals” that Edin Terzic bemoaned included three conceded from set pieces and despite dazzling combinations between Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho in the first half, yielding two goals, BVB’s defensive caprices hobbled their efforts. “We urgently need points now,” said the sporting director Michael Zorc, with a Champions League place even under threat (though Terzic’s short-term future is safe).
One consolation for neutrals, at least, could be that the race for Champions League places is open, with four points separating third from eighth. It’s not much of a consolation, though, and after years pre-Flick in which below-optimum Bayern teams under Carlo Ancelotti and Niko Kovac were let off the hook, the Bundesliga’s detractors will chide that Bavaria’s finest are getting an easy ride all over again. Realistically, it was always going to be harder for the mere mortals to cope with the current schedule. Terzic, for example, has had no real time to pull his squad out of the Lucien Favre zone, with the winter break pulped. For now, though, the title race fading away is hard to swallow. Saturday night’s Top-Spiel gives at least one of these teams a chance to respond, with Leverkusen visiting Leipzig.
“We can’t talk about the games Bayern might lose,” Nagelsmann said on Saturday. “It’s about winning the games yourself.” Already his team and their peers have left themselves no room for error.
This won’t be the news to buoy the spirits of neutrals but this was also the week in which Bayern publicly acknowledged their interest in Dayot Upamecano, with a clause in the Leipzig defender’s contract which will activate this summer making him available for €45m. Kicker’s Karlheinz Wild reports that the French defender has already spoken with Flick.
The only fly in the ointment for Gladbach, meanwhile, is the continuing saga of Breel Embolo, who returned to the group against Dortmund and played the last 20 minutes. The club have publicly backed him as he denies going to a party in Essen – the investigation of which continues to be a police matter – though internal punishment for an unauthorised sortie of any nature may well follow when sporting director Max Eberl returns from sabbatical at the end of the month.
Hertha’s latest home humiliation, a 4-1 defeat by Werder Bremen, ended with the not-at-all-surprising removal of coach Bruno Labbadia and long-serving general manager Michael Preetz on Sunday. The first phase of Lars Windhorst’s generous investment in the club is a failure thus far, with Hertha going from the promise of being “the Manchester City of the Bundesliga” to “a pile of broken glass”, in the words of Bild’s Walter M Straten. The former coach Pal Dardai, a reliable club man, is set to step up from the under-16s, assisted by Andreas Neuendorf (the under-23s coach and another fan favourite) to steer a talented but increasingly unruly team away from choppy waters. The club’s chief executive, Carsten Schmidt, fully in at the deep end after his recent arrival, “apologised to Bruno on behalf of the club” after Labbadia was confronted with a Bild headline of his imminent sacking in a live post-match interview with Sky.
Things are not happy behind the scenes at Stuttgart either, who suffered a second successive away defeat, this time in Freiburg, with the power struggle at board level being blamed by many for the dip in form. The chief executive, Thomas Hitzlsperger, who has incurred the wrath of many fans for his criticisms of the president Claus Vogt, gave a video statement on Sunday morning to try to heal the wounds, apologising for his “overreaction” in his criticisms of Vogt but defending his role in the investigation of the leak of members’ data. He has not yet withdrawn his pledge to oppose Vogt in the club’s presidential elections.
A good weekend for Florian Niederlechner, Augsburg’s main man who finally broke his goalscoring duck for the season after nearly 1,000 barren Bundesliga minutes, combining well with Ande Hahn and hitting not one but two to beat Union.