Bundesliga title No. 30 took a giant step closer to the Sabenerstrasse, Bayern Munich’s spiritual home, and where the “Meisterschale” has enjoyed summering for the past eight years. Tuesday’s 1-0 road win over Borussia Dortmund offered a neat summary of why it’s Groundhog Day in Germany, no matter how annoying this is to all the neutrals who wanted to see a genuine title race go down to the wire, instead of seeing Bayern seven points clear with six games to go.
How did Bayern do it? They shuffled formations and approaches in time with the needs of the game. They exploited the fact that with no Yellow Wall looming above them, they could let their pedigree, experience and sense of manifest destiny loom over Dortmund instead. And they did it with the sort of cool, concentrated calm that champions so often display.
In fact, you could take Joshua Kimmich’s goal as the epitome of all that. He’s a right-back turned defensive midfielder turned playmaker on the day that Thiago Alcantara, arguably Bayern’s most gifted and most intuitive passer, was unavailable. He does what is needed, adapting to the situation. He’s unflappable and unfazed, playing with the simple, multi-faceted efficacy of the guy he replaced in the lineup (and in Bavarian hearts, Philipp Lahm) but, at the same time, he’s a Rottweiler: metaphorically (he’s ferocious out of possession) and literally (he’s from the Swabian city of Rottweil in southwestern Germany).
Kimmich’s goal, late in the first half, was a direct result of his calculated intensity — it was his challenge that allowed Bayern to get the ball back in the final third — and nonchalant, entitled quality. Watch his delicious chip over Roman Burki once more and you’ll notice he never looks up to see where the keeper is. Whether it’s bat-like radar, intuition or Bayern voodoo, we’ll never know.
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Before that, there had been chances on both sides. Bayern boss Hansi Flick unleashed Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry on the wings in an attempt to pin back Dortmund’s twin roadrunners, Achraf Hakimi on the right and Raphael Guerreiro on the left, while Thomas Muller and Leon Goretzka clogged up the middle. Coupled with the fact that Julian Brandt, so impressive in previous outings, was having a quiet night, Dortmund lacked sufficient quality in the final third, and that basically neutralised any plans Lucien Favre might have had to play through Bayern’s press.
The end result was that the home team was forced to stick to the visitors’ script: Bayern in possession, Borussia on the break. Sure enough, Dortmund did pop up on the counterattack, as Erling Haaland revved the engine just short of beast mode and roared into the final third. But Alphonso Davies’ ridiculously quick recoveries and Jerome Boateng’s alertness on the goal line snuffed out both chances. Bayern, of course, also had their chances, with Burki parrying Coman’s rocket and Lukasz Piszczek hooking away Gnabry’s strike on the goal line at the other end.
The old truism about conceding goals before half-time being the football equivalent of a boot to the family jewels certainly rang true when looking at Favre’s face on the sideline. Kimmich’s strike was the first league goal Dortmund had given up since Feb. 8, which was six games and one pandemic ago.
Favre rolled the dice at half-time, sending on Jadon Sancho and Emre Can for Brandt and Thomas Delaney. Both, you’d assume, would ordinarily start for this Dortmund team, but both were coming off injury. Neither man moved the needle in the second half.
Maybe the missing cacophony of the crowd might have changed things just before the hour mark when Haaland’s shot was clearly deflected by the elbow of a prone Boateng. Watching on TV, you were ready for the familiar scenes to unfold: a gasp of rage and indication from the crowd, Dortmund’s players realize something untoward had happened, a throng of pleading players surrounding referee Tobias Stieler and the familiar graphic telling you that a VAR check was underway.
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Instead, we got close to nothing.
No noise from the crowd — unless you chose the fake background option, in which case what you heard was artificial — no protests from the players, just the urgency to get on with the game as they quickly took the ensuing corner kick. It’s debatable whether another look from the referee would have resulted in a penalty to Dortmund. But it was such a non-event in terms of reactions in the stadium that you wonder whether the VAR simply opted not to open that can of worms … or even communicate with the referee.
Haaland, limping and battered, made way for Gio Reyna with 20 minutes to go. It wasn’t the big Norwegian’s night, mainly because of the discipline and timeliness of Boateng and David Alaba at the back. As the clock wound down, Dortmund’s attacks grew more frenetic and less precise, which only suited Bayern, who deflected them with ease and sangfroid, like Mr. Miyagi on John Kreese. In fact, late in the game, Robert Lewandowski — the goal machine who had sacrificed himself for most of the game tying up Dortmund’s back three — saw his shot smack off Burki’s post. All it did was prolong the illusion and the agony.
“Today was a big step and one we wanted to take,” Muller said afterwards. “Both teams, I think, felt the pressure and we both worked hard. We pressed a lot in this game, and it worked well for us, giving us an important win.”
Soon, Bayern fans will be figuring out their “magic number,” the points they need to guarantee an eighth straight league title. Seven points at this stage (with six games left) is an abyss, and you’re not sure, looking at the schedule, where they might drop points further. Possibly when they travel to face wunderkind Kai Havertz and Bayer Leverkusen on June 6, or maybe at home against ever unpredictable Borussia Moenchengladbach? (Is it really home when nobody is there?) After all, both teams beat them earlier this year.
But then what?
The reality is that this Bayern team is unbeaten since early December and has won 17 of its past 18 games in all competitions. Dortmund had scored in 38 consecutive home games, but were shut out comfortably by Bayern on Tuesday night. Nobody else is going to take this title from Bayern. and it would take an almighty collapse for them to throw it away.
As for Dortmund, they can second-guess Favre’s choices (Can and Sancho starting on the bench, Brandt’s substitution), they can lament Burki’s positioning, they can curse Davies’ power-up pace and Kimmich’s sorcery, they can rail at VAR … but it won’t change the fact that the title is staying in Munich. Obviously, it likes it there.