Bayern look destined to win the league title but they still have a compelling rivalry with last season's champions
Excellent news from the European Commission: the Bundesliga is the second-most competitive "elite" league in Europe! In a report published on Monday, the Brussels number-crunchers have discovered that "only 83%" of national championships in Germany have gone to the top three leading clubs since 2000-01. In France, it was only 75%, whereas Spain had a corresponding figure of 100% and Italy, Portugal and England were all tied on 92%.
This study, first of all, proves that the suits in Brussels are by no means always busy drawing up silly regulations about the size of cucumbers and appropriate curves of bananas, as the Daily Mail would have us believe – they work on really important stuff, too. But while few will deny the pressing need for this statistical exercise in the age of austerity, there are one or two valid questions about the methodology involved. Can you be a leading club if you don't win the title for 12 years or is one not conditional on the other? And how the hell did the EU stattos identify the second and third leading clubs in the Bundesliga behind Bayern Munich? Borussia Dortmund have only been serious rivals since 2011. Leverkusen and Bremen both looked like establishing themselves as second (or third) forces at the beginning of the decade but never quite did. Schalke have looked strong contenders for the "third force" spot, too, at times. But they are Schalke. Evaluating their chances of winning the league is simply a ridiculous waste of time, like looking for a good hair day in Rudi Völler's 30-year career or for a full stop in a Matthias Sammer TV interview.
The timing of the findings could perhaps have been a tiny little better, too. Disappointing draws by Leverkusen (0-0 at Greuther Fürth, who are linked with Lothar Matthäus; by Lothar Matthäus, mostly) and Dortmund (1-1 at Borussia Mönchengladbach, courtesy of a bad miss from Sebastian Kehl in injury time) saw Bayern (6-1 destroyers of Werder Bremen) extend their lead to 17 points at the weekend. At this rate, Jupp Heynckes's men could wrap up the league before March is over. Never has Uli Hoeness's age-old dream ("the opposition will need binoculars to see us") been closer to fulfilment. And that's before Robert Lewandowski ("he has made a decision," according to his agent) and Pep "Inspector" Guardiola arrive.
The mere conceding of a goal after 577 clean-sheet minutes was a major news story on Saturday, such has Bayern's dominance been domestically. Kevin De Bruyne became only the eighth Bundesliga player to breach the Reds' defence. "It doesn't hurt too much," said Heynckes, "but we are a little angry." De Bruyne had made it 4-1 on 58 minutes but Bayern's B team (six changes from the 3-1 win at the Emirates) never looked like getting more trouble from 10-men Werder (Sebastian Prödl was sent off just before the interval). If anything, Thomas Schaaf will have been grateful that the hosts were only going through the motions after the break – double figures could have been possible, too.
Heynckes, who celebrated his 1,000th Bundesliga match as player and manager, later hinted at an end to his coaching career after the summer. A record-breaking season will be a fitting send-off for the 67-year-old. But the superlative performances in the league have only raised the stakes higher in the other two competitions. On Wednesday night, Dortmund – unbeaten in six against the Bavarians – will visit the Allianz Arena in the quarter-final of the DFB Cup, safe in the knowledge that a win on their part would instantly spoil the party atmosphere in Munich. "For much of last season we were seen as heroes but the good football was forgotten and we were seen as losers at the end," said Arjen Robben. They will certainly win the league title this year, but failure to advance further in the cup competition would compromise that achievement. Dortmund are aware that Bayern's very strength makes them vulnerable in that respect.
"Bayern have played the perfect season – until now," Jürgen Klopp said pointedly. "But we are ambitious in this competition, too." Rarely has a cup quarter-final caused this much excitement in Germany. Dortmund's edge in the recent head-to-heads and Bayern's ensuing inferiority complex in that respect is the main plot, but there's also the neutrals' yearning for someone to shake Bayern out of their self-satisfied rapture. It's OK to be good, even very good, as Dortmund were the past two seasons, but being too good is more than most can stomach, especially when the team in question wear lederhosen in their down time.
"This is like a Champions League game," said Klopp, "it's a big challenge for us." Dortmund's relatively poor league form will have no impact on the match, he added. "It's enough for us to know that we are one of the few teams on the planet who can beat Bayern. It'll come down to finding better solutions for the problems on the night."
The tables have turned. Last season, the southerners were desperate to beat Dortmund in the cup final to make up for their troubles in the league. The game ended in a 5-2 win for the Black and Yellows. "We deserved to be beaten, but this will be different game," vowed Toni Kroos. "We are a better team, we have improved. We are cleverer now, we know the importance of defending well and of giving up few chances." It's a simple explanation but bears repeating: Bayern, the club that used to rely on individual brilliance, have never been more willing to play the collective game that Dortmund employed so devastatingly. Klopp has been the unwitting midwife of a monster.
It's a fascinating match-up, because Dortmund have changed a bit as well. They haven't been as consistent in the league but in the games against superstar opposition – Real Madrid, Manchester City – Klopp's side have been able to reach a level that was slightly beyond them last season. Marco Reus has made them even better on the break and transition, and Mario Götze has made huge progress to the point that "the German Messi" hype and reality are within touching distance. The possibility of Lewandowski scoring against his future employers is delicious too.
If France is indeed the beacon of league competitiveness according to EC criteria, maybe the Bundesliga will be able to live without it. As long as there's a rivalry that is this compelling.
• Sascha Mölders was the face of this weekend, or to be more precise, the nose. The Augsburg striker suffered a deep, bloody cut after 56 minutes and spent the rest of the relegation six-pointer against Hoffenheim looking like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. He scored the decisive second goal, too. Afterwards, the 27-year-old said the thought of getting subbed never crossed his mind: "I don't care about looks, I already have four kids." Süddeutsche Zeitung relayed a lovely story from his playing days at Rot-Weiss Essen, when he once went straight from the pitch to the hospital to witness the birth of his daughter, still wearing his dirty shirt. Mölders grew up playing football on red clay in the Ruhr Area, he's the kind of player Augsburg need in their dog fight. For Hoffenheim, by contrast, it's looking increasingly gloomy.
• Thorsten Fink's men once again showed that they will never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. A win against Hannover, who'd crashed out of the Europe League less than 48 hours before against Anzhi, would have taken Hamburg close to fourth spot. But Fink's fears about his team being overconfident were justified. Awful defending, four goalkeeping mistakes from René Adler and lacklustre attempts in attack made for a crushing defeat. Hannover's joy was only slightly dampened by an unusual injury to Szabolcs Huszti: the Hungarian put so much effort into converting his penalty that he injured his hamstring in the process.
Results: SC Freiburg 0-0 Eintracht Frankfurt, Stuttgart 1-1 Nürnberg, Schalke 2-1 Düsseldorf, Augsburg 2-1 Hoffenheim, Mainz 1-1 Wolfsburg, Hannover 96 5-1 Hamburger SV, Bayern Munich 6-1 Werder Bremen, Gladbach 1-1 Dortmund, Fürth 0-0 Leverkusen