Red cards, a penalty and Oscar-winning playacting, in Jupp Heynckes's eyes, blew open the Bundesliga title race
And then there was … a title race. One week after Bayern Munich's we-would-score-20-if-we-could-be-bothered 4-0 destruction of Hertha BSC, when they were amassing more clean sheets than the White Company, when the whole league – Werder Bremen possibly excepted – seemed happy to award Jupp Heynckes's team the Schale (championship bowl) immediately, just to make the humiliation and the Bayern love-in stop, the table toppers look eminently beatable again and are a mere three points clear of a resurgent Dortmund. They're only a couple of dodgy draws against Nürnberg and Augsburg away from a fully fledged crisis, just in time for the showdown with last season's champions on 19 November. That's how they roll in Bavaria.
The well-known coping mechanisms kicked in straight after the final whistle at the AWD-Arena on Sunday night. There was the deflective lipstick on a Spanferkel stuff from Heynckes, who professed himself "happier" with his team "than after some 7-0 or 5-0 win". And there were the usual recriminations. The Hannover captain, Sergio Pinto, was the chief culprit, according to the Bayern bosses, for allegedly making a meal of a Rafinha challenge in the 26th minute. "It's a disgrace how this player is hamming it up for years," thundered the president Uli Hoeness, his face red with anger. "He rolled over four times. I would like to know how he sleeps tonight. He pretends to be injured and two minutes later he's back on his feet and running about like a weasel. It's not the first time. This Pinto is an actor. He should be in Hollywood, at the Oscar awards, not on the pitch."
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge also knew on whom the 2-1 defeat should be pinned. "One should not confuse victim and perpetrator here," said the Bayern chief executive. "Pinto is clearly the perpetrator, because he started this whole mess. It's indecent. I would go quickly to church for a confession tonight if I were him. There can only be one verdict for [Jérôme] Boateng: not guilty!"
Freedom for the AWD-Arena One is unlikely to become a popular rallying cry, however, because Bayern's willful confusion of Sergio Pinto with his (slightly prettier) namesake Freida was but a lame attempt to muddy the Leine waters. Pinto may have overreacted to Rafinha's high studs but he did not a) personally cause the ensuing melee, known officially as Rudelbildung (herd formation) in wonderfully bureaucratic German referee jargon or b) start the handbags that led to Boateng pushing over Christian Schulz at point blank range (from the fourth official) and the subsequent red card for the Bayern centre-back in the 28th minute. Bayern will not appeal against his two-match suspension.
A run of 770 minutes without conceding a domestic goal had already come to an end by that stage, thanks to an incredibly clumsy challenge by Philipp Lahm on the 96 full-back Steven Cherundolo in the box. Mohammed Abdellaoue scored from the spot. The visitors heaped further self-inflicted misery on themselves when Mario Gomez continued to squander fine chances and Luiz Gustavo stuck out a leg to deflect Christian Pander's tame long-range effort beyond Manuel Neuer on 50minutes. A red for Cherundolo evened things up with one hour to go but Bayern managed only an 83rd-minute consolation, courtesy of the substitute David Alaba. Cue red and white finger pointing. "A lot of things went against us," said Heynckes, "but I have to praise my team. We played intelligently and with discipline. If we equalise, we probably go on to win it. Yellow cards for Boateng and Schulz would have been appropriate." "I only reacted to the push of Schulz, it was never a red card," pleaded the Germany international, a view the 96 coach Mirko Slomka seemed to tacitly endorse. "I told the fourth official to play on, the situation was far too messy to make any [grave] decisions," said the 43-year-old.
Bayern were a long way short of Heynckes's generous appraisal but they did play all right in spells. Worryingly, however, Thomas Müller was once again off the pace, as was Gomez, and Heynckes again waited too long to make any substitutions – an oversight that cost Bayern in the 1-1 Cahmpions League draw at Napoli, too. There was a staidness to their game, even if the busy Toni Kroos tried his best to inject some creativity.
But neither Bayern's excuses nor their internal problems – they were crying out for a game-changer like Arjen Robben – should take away from Hannover's excellent performance. Slomka's team may well be the most tactically astute side in the whole division; fourth place in the table attests to their enduring tenacity and expertise. In essence, their style is still based on razor-sharp counterattacks with precise vertical through balls to the strikers, especially to the lightening fast Abdellaoue. But the addition of the versatile Pander, who did well in a more advanced role, and Jan Schlaudraff's metamorphosis into a Teddy Sheringham character, pulling strings from deep, have enabled a more nuanced approach. They are now blessed with the technique and patience to keep a bit more possession against defensive opponents. And in Pinto, they have not one but three players at the heart of the midfield: he's wind-up merchant, box-to-box tyro and defensive roadblock, all rolled into one.
Slomka's set-up seems to work in the Europa League, too. Last season's fears that fourth-placed finishers 96 could embarrass themselves in the Champions League look unfounded in the light of Dortmund's naivety and Leverkusen's inconsistency. If anything, their often practiced "turn-over" strategy of pressing deep and hitting the front men early might have even worked better at the highest level.
This won't necessarily have to be a theoretical debate by the time May comes around, if they continue to grow as team. Fears that Bayern's bete noire Pinto might be overcome by insomnia or guilt and become a catholic monk seem unfounded in light of his sarcastic reply to his accusers, but there is perhaps a danger that Tinseltown agents could misunderstand matters and start to look for roles for Mediterranean brawler types. "Bayern are right, they're always right," Pinto admitted, with a big grin. "I am an actor."
• "I last saw such a one-sided game on the Playstation," said the Borussia Dortmund defender Neven Subotic, arousing suspicions that he sneakily opts for the two-player-mode even when there's no actual opponent available. All of FC Köln's inherent strengths under coach Stale Solbakken were conspicuous by their absence in the Westfalenstadion, too, as the champions took their Champions League frustrations out on the visitors. Shinji Kagawa started the rout that ended with a Sebastian Kehl header that really needed to go in to ward off a domestic crisis. "I was on the phone to my five-year-old son Luis today," the 31-year-old explained later. "He told me there was no point of me coming home if I didn't score today." Kehl mused that his personal stats (24 goals in 264 Bundesliga games) made that at a very tall order but Kehl Jr would only be appeased by a bulging net. Kehl duly delivered to make it 5-0 for the hosts.
• The referee Markus Wingenbach admitted to getting the crucial penalty call before Zradvko Kuzmanovic's 1-1 equaliser wrong - Philipp Wollscheid handled Harnik's shot completely accidentally. But Wingenbach's Sunday morning regret ("I'd like to change it if I could") was scant consolation for Nürnberg coach Dieter Hecking, whose brave side were thwarted again by Stuttgart six minutes from the end when Maza betrayed his name to rise and nod in thegoal that made it 2-2. Simons and Wollscheid scored for the Franconians, a team with a worrying tendency to pick up fewer points than their efforts and organisation deserve. "If he whistles here, he can whistle all the time, then we can stop playing," said Hecking angrily, before conceding that the draw was probably the right result after all.
• One point on his debut on the HSV bench did little to ease the club's relegation fears – the Northerners are 17th in the table – but Thorsten Fink could at least claim to have seen his team's best performance in this rotten season. Hamburg quickly recovered from the shock of going 1-0 down at home to Wolfsburg inside two minutes, when Mario Mandzukic scored with a header for the decent visitors. "It was a really good game from us," said Mladen Petric, scorer of the well-deserved equaliser in the 56th minute. "We were much more attacking than usual." The former Munich midfielder Fink, purveyor of "a Bavarian blood transfusion", according to Süddeutsche Zeitung, will take a bit longer to cure the Hanseatic patient but at least a modicum of belief seems to have returned. "Everyone saw who dictated the game. If we continue like that, we will get out of the relegation zone," said the 43-year-old, who might be moved to get the Chelsea ex-factor in the squad - three former Blues played on Saturday – a little closer to zero in coming weeks.
Results: Augsburg 1-1 Bremen, Nürnberg 2-2 Stuttgart, Dortmund 5-0 Köln, Hamburger SV 1-1 Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim 1-0 Gladbach, Hertha BSC 0-0 Mainz, Kaiserslautern 1-0 Freiburg, Leverkusen 0-1 Schalke, Hannover 2-1 Bayern.