Going into the winter break, the Bundesliga was buzzing with several burning questions, in no particular order:
1.Would Dortmund be able to close the gap on Bayern?
2.What will be the fate of Pep Guardiola?
3.Could Dárdai’s Hertha solidify its grip on 3rd place, or would one of the Leverkusen, Gladbach, Schalke, Wolfsburg quartet seize a potential slip up by the Berliners?
4.At the bottom, who would emerge with a strong finish from 7 team separated by 6 points? Perhaps Europa League survivors, Augsburg? Would the nightmare seasons of Werder, Stuttgart, Hannover and Eintracht continue?
Well, after a weekend full of close games (with a goal difference having been the largest margin of victory in 2 games, and eight games being decided by 1 goal), we have some answers to the aforementioned questions, and have learned the following:
Bayern are 8 points clear and a tier ahead of everyone else. Their 1-0 win over Hannover was really not as close, with the Bavarians outshooting their opponents 20 to 6. Hannover goalie Ron-Robert Zieler made 10 saves, including two surefire goals (stopping Thiago and Müller) inside the first 25 minutes to earn the starting spot in a losing effort.
Dortmund were once again unable to take care of business and will go into die Winterpause 8 points behind FCB, following a dreadful collapse (looking at you, Roman “der Hampelmann” Bürki) against 1.FC Köln. Defender, Sokratis was outstanding in this match, with 11 aerial duels won, 96 touches and a great header to give Borussia the lead and himself a spot on defense in our Team of the Week. His coach Thomas Tuchel has got to be ecstatic over the first half of the season, which saw his team win 12 times, scoring a league leading 47 goals and sitting on 38 points, a stark contrast to the 15 points, 4 games won and 18 goals scored at last season’s midway point.On the other hand, BVB have to be kicking themselves for the mental letdown in the 2nd half, as BVB’s record setting first half seasons from Aubameyang (18 goals) and Mkhitaryan (6 goals, 8 assists) are seemingly going to waste, because of games like Sunday (and the loss to HSV).
We also know that Hertha Berlin have now emerged as the favorites for the bronze medal, with the team finding itself with 32 points after the 2-0 victory over Mainz. It is worth noting, that much like BVB they were fighting relegation this time last year, with only 18 points from 17 games. But, since the takeover in February of 2015, the Hungarian manager, Pál Dárdai has transformed the squad from one that was dead last in possession with 42% to a respectable 49% (7th in the league). He also stabilized the defense, which conceded 35 goals in last season’s first 17 games to 2nd best with 18 goals allowed. One of the standouts was Sebastian Langkamp, who had a team high 112 touches, completing 91% of his touches, as well as 4 interceptions.
The race for the 4th position has been a tight one all year, and it’s another surprise team in Borussia Mönchengladbach that has taken hold of the spot for now. The Foals and Oscar Wendt seemed to have rebounded nicely from their embarrassing loss to Bayer Leverkusen, with the Swedish defender grabbing the vital game winning goal after one of his trademark forward runs that perplexed Bayern a few weeks ago.
The midfield, much like this season is dominated by Bayern, with Arturo Vidal (voted man of the match, and registering 5 tackles), Thiago (a game high 5 key passes ,111 touches and 95.7% pass accuracy) and Kingsley Coman all earning team of the week honors. The young French winger (who turns 20 in June!), Coman was officially credited with 8 dribbles and with 27 times where he had the Hannover defenders on skates – the first statistic is from Whoscored.com, the second is from my uncle’s living room, where he may or may not have lost some money on a two goal Bayern parlay. Regardless, both my uncle and millions of Bundesliga fans were left shaking their heads as to how Juventus loaned him to Bayern for a 2 year 7 million Euro bargain. 4 goals and 6 assists in the UCL and the Bundesliga combined in 1100 minutes (or 12 games) is both outrageous and a testament to the eye of one Pep Guardiola. The Catalan coach, who as we learned will be leaving the club at the end of the season, to be replaced by Carlo Ancelotti, should get all of the credit not just for giving a chance to and developing young players like Coman, but for creating an aesthetically pleasing, ultraefficient juggernaut, that has arguably been one of the 2 best teams (the other one being his former club, FC Barcelona) in the world in his 3 year tenure.
Stuttgart’s Lukas Rupp, despite running a matchday high 13.5 kms narrowly loses out to teammate Daniel Didavi, whose 2 great goals make him a must on this week’s squad. In a huge upset, the last place VFB triumphed 3-1 over the heavily favored VFL (Wolfsburg), despite losing the possession battle 25 to 75%, getting outshot 9 to 17 and playing down to 10 for the last 20 minutes. Perhaps it’s the start of the escape from relegation, you would certainly hope so, if you were a VFB fan.
Schalke 04 ‘s Cameroonian midfielder Eric Choupo Moting‘s game winning goal is good enough for the 5th spot in midfield while Schalke are good for the 6th spot in the table in an under the radar campaign.
We would be remiss if we didn’t talk about Bayer Leverkusen’s recent form. We have lauded and praised Chicharito (he scored a lovely game winner this weekend) enough in last week’s column, but it was his partner in attack, Stefan Kiessling who put in more than a yeoman’s work, with 22 duels won, including 16 in the air. Joining the old warhose is Gladbach’s Lars Stindl whose superb long range goal and a delightful game winning assist to set up Oscar Wendt were instrumental in their 3-2 thriller over Darmstadt.