After 20 goals in only eight days, there is renewed hope this will not be a trophyless season for the Bavarians after all
There were many interesting storylines in the Bundesliga this weekend. The best one? Take your pick from more worrying incidents of hooliganism, an outrage by homophobic dyslexics, Frank Arnesen's increasingly successful "transition" job at Hamburger SV, Sebastian Kehl's daredevil utterance of the forbidden "T" word at Dortmund, the great resilience of Augsburg and Freiburg at the bottom, huge wins for Gladbach, Schalke and Hannover, and Patrick "the new Poldi" Helmes's renaissance at Wolfsburg.
This column settled the matter with much careful consideration and a knockout mini-tournament of rock-paper-scissors, with its left hand facing off against the right, in a completely unbiased fashion. Bayern Munich's remarkable 6-0 win over Hertha on Saturday night (after the 7-0 win over Basel on Tuesday) emerged the winner of this exercise – somewhat unfortunately, perhaps. But fair is fair. The topic will also come as a welcome surprise to those who have quite rightly complained about too many "Bayern in crisis" pieces this season.
It really was a remarkable match in the Olympiastadion, marred only by a new Handshakegate on the sidelines. Arjen Robben – substituted after scoring a hat-trick (2-0, 3-0, 6-0) and gifting Mario Gomez a penalty (4-0) – and the manager, Jupp Heynckes, made a point of not seeking out each other's digits on the touchline. The non-handshake was so perfectly executed that it was impossible to make out the villain of the piece. Maybe they had both stayed up all night to think about how they'd pull it off? Maybe not. Heynckes, it was soon revealed, didn't want to touch Robben for fear of infecting the Dutchman with the flu virus that had laid the 66-year-old up in the days preceding the game. A wise precaution, considering Robben's chronic frailty and his reputation as a linke Bazille (literal translation: lefty Bacillus) in the dressing room.
Robben's team-mate Franck Ribéry is obviously made of sterner stuff, however. The Frenchman was unafraid of Heynckes's pathogens and embraced the manager for a lovingly long tête-à-tête three minutes later, when he too was taken off. The medical officer of the British Olympic Association would have been incensed by such carelessness. In the interest of Ribéry's participation in Wednesday night's DFB Cup semi-final away to Gladbach, one must hope that the 28-year-old will have been plied with plenty of mouthwash and anti-bacterial soap in the dressing room. His irrepressible form over the last few games has been a key factor in the change of Bavarian fortunes.
Hertha, to be fair, made all too easy for them. HRH Otto, who recently confessed to finding his players' names difficult to pronounce, also seems to have little idea about who these players actually are. In his wisdom, he used the playmaker Raffael as a striker, the striker Adrián Ramos on the left and the midfielder Fanol Perdedaj as a right-back, against Ribéry. "I warned my men about Robben and Ribéry," Rehhagel said later with a headmasterly air. Unfortunately, that warning had come without the bleedingly obvious instruction to double up on the wingers on the flanks. Perdedaj, or "Paradise" as Rehhagel calls him, suffered his own personal inferno on the right. Christian Lell, initially deployed as a central midfielder – stop laughing, you cruel people – relieved the hapless youngster when the game was already decided, but then Rehhagel changed it again and put the equally inexperienced Alfredo Morales on the Frenchman. The 21-year-old duly fouled his opponent twice in the box for two more penalties.
"The end is nigh," wrote the Berlin-based broadsheet Tagesspiegel in view of that horror show. Rehhagel came close to saying that this Hertha were too bad to be saved, even by him ("They're more or less at the same level as two years ago when they went down"), before reeling off some regulation statements about there being still "mathematical possibilities" at the wrong end of the table. Hertha are 17th. In fan forums, they are debating whether the sporting director, Michael Preetz, should be sacked immediately or made to suffer the ignominy of relegation first.
His counterpart at Bayern, Christian Nerlinger, can breathe a little easier, though. The 38-year-old had come under huge criticism internally after giving up on Bayern's title chances in the wake of the 2-0 defeat at Leverkusen. That is simply not the done thing; not until someone else is raising the trophy aloft, in any case. Bayern are still five points off Dortmund for all their goals – 20 in eight days – but there is renewed hope that this won't be a trophyless season after all.
As strange as it sounds, there were also plenty of signs that Bayern still don't fully function as a team – there were lots of mistakes at the back, for one – but the team's main weakness, its over-reliance on individual bouts of magic, is less of a problem when Robben and Ribéry pull this many rabbits out of their hats. Even them sharing the stage with strange hybrid creatures who are gods one moment, donkeys the next (yes, that's you, Thomas Müller and Gomez) doesn't significantly reduce the wow factor.
Another, more mundane reason was hinted at by Toni Kroos. "We are scoring the goals now," said the midfielder. That helps, obviously, but what he really meant was that Bayern are a completely different proposition if and when they score the first goal in a game. Once space opens up, they're unstoppable. If it doesn't, however, they struggle and show nervousness at the back. A very un-Bayern-like Bayern, in other words: maddeningly inconsistent, tactically suspect, mentally fragile and thrillingly brilliant in the final third.
Nerlinger sounded like a first-generation Sony Discman on a mogul slope afterwards, telling everyone again and again and again that there was great "togetherness" and "team spirit". Robben waiving his penalty duties for Gomez's benefit, Nerlinger insisted, was symbolic of that dressing room love-in. It felt so overegged that Süddeutsche Zeitung could not help but take a cynical view: "The whole structure of the team must have been in pretty bad shape before they managed to turn it around against Hoffenheim."
So they're happy when they play well and win, and they win and play well if they're happy. Can a silly tautology really explain this side's mystery? Maybe Uli Hoeness was right and all that this team needed was another Ottmar Hitzfeld, a manager who excels at relationship counselling at the expense of more nuanced work on the training pitch. That shouldn't be sufficient in the modern game. But puzzlingly enough, it could be.
• Dortmund played with a little less tempo than usual but Shinji Kagawa's header was enough to beat their bogey side Werder 1-0 at the Westfalenstadion. The win extended Borussia's unbeaten run to 20 games and impressed captain Sebastian Kehl so much that he momentarily forgot to toe the party line. "We are dominant table-toppers and there are eight games to go," he said, "I'd sound ridiculous if I said that we had no ambitions to win the title." Remarkable stuff, that, especially in the light of the CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke's mid-week insistence that he'd be "happy with second place, too". "Sir" Erich Ribbeck said the same once, 20 years ago, shortly before he was fired as Bayern's manager by the way.
• Dortmund look far too settled to throw it away now. Off the pitch, though, it was a less successful weekend. One of Robert Lewandowski's agents continued to unnerve the board with unrealistic demands in the current contract negotiations. And there was also the pretty horrible matter of two homophobic banners in the south stand that seemed to target a Werder fan group. The fact that in one banner the tricky German word "Lieber" had been misspelt as "Liber" suggested a colossal failure on behalf of the security staff, incidentally: how did a drunken bunch of chimpanzee toddlers get into the ground? The majority of the supporters, to be fair, were unhappy with the banner and forced its authors to take it down after a minute or so. The club promised "to punish the perpetrators and expect a public apology" in statement on Monday.
• Physical attacks on Mainz supporters by Kaiserslautern hooligans on Saturday night were even more disgraceful. A group of 05 fans were reportedly ambushed and beaten with wrenches and other tools; a few victims are said to have suffered grave injuries. The latest bout of hooliganism follows spates of attacks in the second division and a high-profile attack on a Gladbach fan bus by Köln supporters a few weeks ago. About a 100 Köln fans were also stopped from travelling to Hannover on Sunday, where they had allegedly made an appointment to meet with like-minded Hannover fans. In the light of the sporting outcome – 4-1 to 96 – their failure to make the bout was perhaps for their own good. The Bundesliga, though, need to realise that they have a serious problem on their hands.
• "He kicked me with his knee where it hurts most," the Augsburg defender Matthias Ostrzolek complained. Luckily for the Mainz striker Mohamed Zidan, TV footage of the alleged low blow were inconclusive. Augsburg's cojones were in plain sight in another sense, however, as Jos Luhukay's men romped to a 2-1 win that lifts them out of the relegation zone.
• Robin Dutt had an interesting take on Bayer 04's 2-1 home defeat by Mönchengladbach. "Great game, great mentality, chapeau for my team," said the Leverkusen coach, in what could only have been a cutting edge, viral ad for powerful pharmaceuticals of the club's parent company. Dutt's men are now 10 points behind fourth-placed Schalke. The manager had told reporters that he wouldn't answer questions about the after-effects of the 7-1 mauling by Barcelona or on the prospects of Michael Ballack but really should have enjoyed talking about these lofty subjects while they still present themselves.
• Lucien Favre, on the other hand, can very much plan for a charmed life in the Champions League next season. Wednesday's cup appointment with Bayern holds out the possibility of more triumphant sprints down the pitch ("I'm still fit!") even if the sporting director, Max Eberl, thinks that the numbers suggest otherwise. "Beating Bayern three times a season is statistically almost impossible," he said. It might be, but so is the continuation of the Bavarian's free-scoring run. With Favre in charge, the Foals have never conceded more than three goals in a game.
• Hamburg slumped to a 3-1 home defeat to Freiburg and can now smell the fetid breath of the relegation ghost. "There is no debate about the manager," insisted the chairman of the board, Carl-Edgar Jarchow. Said manager, Thorsten Fink, is hardly to blame for being put in charge of the Chelsea reserves. The sporting director, Frank Arnesen, who has miraculously escaped wider censure for his Cobham-centric transfer policy so far, wants everyone at the club "to be honest with each other. If we all do that, we'll have a good attitude." Yes, that might work in theory, but would surely run counter to Fink's attempts to build up some confidence in the squad. The likes of Michael Mancienne and Slobodan Rajkovic should under no circumstances be told the truth about themselves. Arnesen, to his credit, has somewhat belatedly recognised just how painful his vision for the northerners could be in the end. "All players' and coaching staff contracts are valid in the 2. Bundesliga," he confirmed on Monday. Is his one, too, you wonder.
Results: Hoffenheim 1-2 Stuttgart, Hertha 0-6 Bayern, Dortmund 1-0 Bremen, Leverkusen 1-2 Gladbach, Hamburg 1-3 Freiburg, Augsburg 2-1 Mainz, Nürnberg 1-3 Wolfsburg, Kaiserslautern 1-4 Schalke, Hannover 4-1 Köln.