Bundesliga focus - Race enters final lap
With ten games to go in the race for the Bundesliga title, the contenders appear to have been narrowed down.
It is inevitable that Bayern Munich remain many people's favourites for major honours come May. Their outstanding run that now stretches to fifteen unbeaten games in the league has propelled them to the summit after a start that offered encouragement to their rivals. That last week's 1-0 win over Hamburg was the first time their two star turns, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribbery, have played from the start together for several weeks is seen as further evidence that they have an additional gear for the home straight should they need it. With these two elite-level players supporting one of Mario Gomez or Miroslav Klose leading the line, they strike fear into opposing sides in a way that nobody else in Germany does. One gets the feeling that many facing Bayern are psychologically beaten by them in the tunnel before the game, in much the same way as opponents of a young Mike Tyson could be seen visibly shaking in the opposite corner. If there is one area in which Bayern do look less than stellar, it is in defence. Though the personnel here is almost as strong as at the other end, their commitment to attacking in numbers does leave them vulnerable to a side who can break quickly.
Dortmund showed this in the early stages of their game at Olympiastadion, and while Bayern dominated the first half of last week's contest, Hamburg looked like they had an opportunity to create something when they countered. Their rivals will be hoping that at some point in the next few weeks, they fail to put an opposing side away and get caught by a sucker-punch. They have the firepower to pull away in the next few weeks but must make sure they do the basics to avoid beating themselves. One of the reasons for the widespread touting of Bayern as champions is the presence of Bayer Leverkusen as their nearest challengers. Their failure to win the Bundesliga, whilst making a habit of finishing second in recent years, has earned them the unfortunate nickname of 'Neverkusen'. Their Coach Jupp Heynckes intimated this week that he would regard second place as a good finish, pointing to Bayern's greater playing resources. His comment: "Let us not forget what kind of a team we have got in Leverkusen and what possibilities Bayern have" is probably a mix of reverse psychology on his part to take the pressure off his players, as well as an acknowledgement that their competitors have personnel he would have in his team in an instant. Bayer are more pragmatic and efficient in contrast to the more flamboyant approach that Bayern have the personnel to execute.
Sami Hyppia is enjoying something of an Indian summer and provides leadership as well as aerial dominance at the back. In the opposition penalty area, Stefan Kiessling is a constant menace who has racked up 13 goals so far. He has also struck up a great understanding with Eren Derdiyok, the Swiss striker getting 11 goals himself and displaying a penchant for free-kicks in a recent game at Werder Bremen. More embarrassingly for Bayern, Toni Kroos has impressed from midfield after they let Leverkusen take him on loan. His nine goals from midfield and general sense of endeavour and guile mean he will almost certainly be a Bayern player again next season, but maybe not until he has prevented them from winning a title. Though they have gone unbeaten in the first 24 games of the season, 11 have been drawn and this may prove costly. Seven of their last eight away games have ended in stalemate and this puts them under enormous pressure at the BayArena. With Bayern, Hamburg and Schalke all still to visit them, it is difficult to see them emerging at the summit in May without winning at least two of these key encounters. Having led the Bundesliga for 16 weeks, they are certainly not going to let Bayern have it all their own way.
The outsiders in the race are Schalke 04, who have one major element in their favour. The current holder of the Bundesliga in a Coaching capacity, Felix Magath, moved to them from last year's champions Wolfsburg in the summer. After Magath lost on an emotional visit to his old club, last Friday's 2-1 win over Dortmund in the Rhineland derby was about so much more than bragging rights. Defeat would have virtually ended their challenge, and Schalke have kept obtaining results at the right times to keep the top two honest. The domestic form of enforcing striker Kevin Kuranyi has been as imposing as ever. He provides them with an out-ball, someone who can hold the ball up and bring others into the game. Along with the unpredictable, inconsistent but sometimes unplayable Jefferson Farfan, they have a forward line that is the equal of the side immediately above them. Their major problem has been the lack of a midfield player to contribute further goals. After their first-choice strike pairing, no other Schalke player has scored more than two Bundesliga goals this season. Over-reliance on two players means that if you can mark them out of the game, then you stand a good chance of a positive result. Though Schalke's defensive record is the best in the Bundesliga with only 18 goals conceded, the fact that five sides have scored more than their 36 goals tells its own story. Maybe Ivan Rakatic can score more goals like the great strike that won last Friday's game. One feels this may have to happen if Schalke's challenge is not to fade into a third-placed finish.
The coming weekend's fixtures sees all three of these sides away from home as they look to sustain their bid for silverware. Bayern face a trip to a Cologne side who obtained a draw last time out at the BayArena, but are prone to leaking goals if you can unlock them once. Schalke face a daunting trip to Eintracht Frankfurt, who harbour real European ambitions of their own. Then on Sunday, Leverkusen will look to end their sequence of away draws against the Nurnberg side that ended a 13-game Bayern winning sequence with a 1-1 draw two weeks ago. It still looks a game they can win on paper but that is one of the features of this race that makes it so compelling. One knows there are sure to be more unexpected results in the coming weeks. While the neutral view in Germany is to support 'anyone but Bayern' the English neutral, this writer included, simply hopes the contest goes right down to the wire.