German football heroically defied the big freeze, while snood-infested, big-girl's-blouse-kind-of-leagues packed it in
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge summed up Matchday 17 perfectly, even two weeks before it actually happened. "We in the Bundesliga are a little gaga," said the Bayern CEO. "We play in winter instead of the nicest months in the summer." Things might well be different in 2011 – if a certain Sepp B from Zurich gets his way – but in the meantime, German football heroically defied the big freeze, while air traffic, planes and snood-infested, big-girl's-blouse-kind-of-leagues packed it in.
The perseverance was rewarded with an avalanche of 36 goals. Eight of them came in what will go down as one of the most bizarre, capricious games since Super Pii Pii Brothers saw the light of day: Bayern's 5-3 win in Stuttgart. Somebody high-ranking in the DFL (German Football League) office in Frankfurt must have sent a memo that millions of extra international viewers who had hoped to see Chelsea v Man Utd would be watching but both teams slightly misunderstood the directive: instead of emulating high-class Premier League-type fare, they dished up Sunday pub football at its entertainingly worst. Or best, if you're that way inclined.
"I'm not quite sure what kind of sport that was at times," harrumphed TV pundit Franz Beckenbauer after the final whistle. Der Kaiser was so bemused that he got the result wrong, too. "Never mind 5-2, it could have been seven or eight or for Bayern," he said. Yes, it could have been. But why? The visitors were in fact pretty sluggish on a pitch that compared unfavourably with Clitterhouse Playing Fields in Barnet after three weeks of rain. A most un-dynamic duo in central midfield, Mark van Bommel and Andreas Ottl (in place of the injured Toni Kroos and ill Bastian Schweinsteiger) further ensured that the pace never exceeded 3mph. New VfB Stuttgart coach Bruno Labbadia, however, had the interesting idea of giving 20-year-old Emin Bicakcic his Bundesliga debut. After a decent start, the right-back lost the ball to Thomas Müller who found Mario Gomez with a deft pass. The former Stuttgart striker finished well to give the champions a flattering lead. Then Bicakcic ("it was my mistake to play him, he couldn't cope with the pressure," said Labbadia afterwards) and the rest of the Swabian back-line fell apart. Müller and Franck Ribéry scored easy goals before the break.
It was game over, or should have been. No one had told substitute Martin Harnik, though. The Austrian striker took advantage of typical Bavarian defensive rubbishness to pull one back, then Gomez completed a hat-trick with two scrappy, opportunistic strikes. The travelling supporters were sarcastically singing "Bruno Labbadia, oh oh oh oh oh" to the classic 80s Italian disco tune of "Vamos a la Playa". Life really was a beach for Munich, perhaps too much so: Anatoly Tymoschuk, Breno and keeper Hans-Jörg Butt conspired to produce a bout of "poolside football" (SKY Germany pundit Werner Schneyder) to concede two more. But that was it. The final 20 minutes of the game just petered out like a Peter Andre ballad.
It was only Bayern's second away win of the season and not quite enough to re-ignite talk of catching up league leaders Dortmund (11 points ahead after their surprising 1-0 loss to Frankfurt) just yet. "They're too far gone, but four points behind the second [Leverkusen], we can do that," said Louis van Gaal. A poor performance from left-back Diego Contento, a talented young man with no sense of positioning, will redouble their efforts to sign Leighton Baines. Sporting director Christian Nerlinger saw the Everton left-back's performance v Chelsea but should perhaps also look at the DVD from his first (and only) England cap v Egypt before signing the cheque.
Unusually for Bayern, who prefer doing business in the summer, there could be more changes. Captain Van Bommel might well jump ship to secure his last big contract, either at Wolfsburg or in the Premier League. (Roberto Mancini might start preparing his "he's not that kind of player" speech now). Asked what Bayern had offered him in terms of a new deal – the current contract expires in June – the Dutchman replied "nothing". "We'll see what happens," he added. "Things can move quickly in football." The club are certainly keen to see the back of the 33-year-old and have reportedly lined up Hoffenheim's more cultured mifielder Luiz Gustavo, despite Stefan Effenberg's insistence that "Bayern need a scumbag".
Stuttgart, down in 17th place, have much bigger worries. "It will be a relegation battle all the way," said Labbadia. "Unlike other teams in the bottom half, we have the disadvantage of not being used to that kind of pressure." They're also in danger of losing the support of their fans for good. The Ultras in the Untertürkheimer Kurve literally turned their backs on the players after their final whistle, and a few hundred especially irate fans were protesting outside the VIP entrance for a good hour longer, shouting "out with the board!" President Erwin Staudt appealed for unity with a megaphone from a balcony, but his message wasn't heard.
Unfortunately, the Swabians will have to face Bayern and quite possibly a lot more gaga-ness in the Mercedes-Benz-Arena again this Wednesday, when they meet again the German Cup. After the winter break, they'll be looking for one of their traditional, strong second-half-of-the-season runs. Albeit with a manager who's only ever done well in the first half of Bundesliga seasons (at Hamburg and Leverkusen) before.
• Edin Dzeko's injury-time strike rescued a point for VfL Wolfsburg against Hoffenheim and made sure that Steve McClaren could see out the year on a Bundesliga bench. His side played a terrible first half, were 2-0 down and had the crowd on their backs before a loud half-time speech from the Englishman and a strict prohibition of short passes got them going again. Wolfsburg were fortunate to come away with a point but after six draws in a row, patience with the manager has all but run out. A few angry, cruel supporters were already seen waving umbrellas in the direction of McClaren in the stands.
• "Ground, pitch, ball and opponent weren't our friends today," said Jürgen Klopp after his side's second defeat of the season in Frankfurt, where the unavoidable Theofanis Gekas scored in the last minute. Dortmund looked knackered and mentally exhausted after crashing out of the Europa League in midweek, 14 fantastic wins in 17 games have left little in the tank. "We have played a sensational first half of the season," said the manager, who's still reluctant to talk about winning the championship. Their 14 January restart away to second-placed Leverkusen, who could only draw 2-2 with Freiburg, could go a long away towards banishing all thoughts of an equally spectacular collapse. Or not.
• Dortmund's local rivals Schalke were almost as happy to finish the year in 10th position, which just goes to show that in the Bundesliga it's where you from, not where you at. The Royal Blues will still spend the winter being subjected to Felix Magath's pre-modern fitness methods but are at least able to look towards Europe and a date with Valencia. The Schalke coach has even hinted at reinstating the short Christmas time off for the players. "We aren't brutes here, apart from one," Magath joked. The chief culprit for all this merriment was Raúl who managed a hat-trick against Köln. The Spaniard told reporters that his kids loved the snow in Germany and that all the team was now playing mucho mejor. We don't know if it'll really be better, but it'll definitely be more come January. Happy holidays.
Results: Gladbach 1–2 Hamburg, Bremen 1–2 Kaiserslautern, Schalke 3–0 Köln, Nürnberg 3–1 Hannover, Frankfurt 1–0 Dortmund, Wolfsburg 2–2 Hoffenheim, St Pauli 2–4 Mainz, Leverkusen 2–2 Freiburg, Stuttgart 3–5 Bayern.