This time, almeno, there were grounds for debate. Der Klassiker has become the showpiece that retains attention but equally fuels the barbs of the critics, a symptom of Bayern Munich’s indefatigable dominance to pessimists and Bundesliga detractors. Questa volta, the fixture’s usual chaotic energy synced with genuine jeopardy.
Even if the current run was extended to Borussia Dortmund beating Bayern just once in their last 10 Bundesliga meetings (with six straight wins for the champions), Saturday’s latest edition oscillated wildly. Maybe slightly too much so for BVB tastes – do they occasionally, secretly yearn for a professionally seen-out 1-0 win like November 2016’s vintage, scraped and scrapped for with an early Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang goal and 33% possession? – and certainly too much so for Bayern’s. Paradoxically when one acknowledges another almost-but-not-quite moment, maybe Dortmund will even take almost as much satisfaction from the game as the victors after prolonged analysis and once the dust has settled.
It will take time for that dust to settle, anche se. In time BVB can retain a glow of pride that it was close enough to make it worth getting mad at the officiating, but that’s what they did, and the anger has still not yet subsided. It was led by Marco Rose, whose frustration was such that he ended up being sent off for a second booking after Robert Lewandowski’s winner from the penalty spot, despite the apparent inevitability of it – the Polish phenomenon’s second goal of the game was his 26th in 25 games against his old club since leaving in 2014, and he was always destined to take any suppressed ire from the Ballon d’Or farrago out on them.
Whereas the nature of Mats Hummels’ handball which led to Lewandowski’s opportunity for the winner was worthy of referee Felix Zwayer’s examination – and it was hard to argue too vehemently with the call – it was the neglect to do likewise with an apparent earlier hand by Alphonso Davies and especially for a Lucas Hernández push on Marco Reus that brought the home side to boiling point. “Overall, it was a very good game between two very strong teams,” sporting director Michael Zorc told Kicker on Sunday. "Sfortunatamente, the referee was not of the same level.”
His midfielder Jude Bellingham, speaking directly after the game, put forth his complaints in rather more explicit terms, speaking to Norwegian channel Viaplay’s Jan Aage Fjortoft. “You give a referee that’s match-fixed before the biggest game in Germany – what do you expect?” asked the young Englishman. Zwayer was banned for six months after being embroiled in a match-fixing scandal in 2005.
Though Zorc stood firm in defence of Bellingham (“you can argue whether he should say that, but maybe you have to have some understanding for an 18-year-old in a highly emotional situation”), the DFB seem unlikely to be lenient. The governing body has asked Bellingham for an explanation and, according to Bild, Marco Haase, a referee observer for the DFB, is already filing a libel complaint on their behalf, and a ban and fine could follow.
Zwayer has always denied being in on Robert Hoyzer’s fix of Wuppertal’s game with Werder Bremen B in 2004, though a DFB investigation found the junior Zwayer to have accepted a €300 payment from Hoyzer – and the DFB’s subsequent ban of Zwayer was not public knowledge until a report by Die Zeit 10 anni dopo (Bellingham’s awareness of the story seems to have come from recently retired referee Manuel Gräfe’s criticism of the authorities’ decision to allow Zwayer to continue his officiating career and, according to Bild, Gräfe is equally the subject of Haase’s libel action). Presumably all this being dragged up again is the last thing they want. Given that they can’t allow an environment in which players openly question the honesty of match officials, it is a more than tricky disciplinary line to tread.
In the game, Bellingham had again underlined his value to and leadership of Dortmund, creating goals at the beginning of each half; Julian Brandt’s marvellously-taken opener, and Erling Haaland’s precise finish to bring the scores level at the beginning of the second half. There were chances and there were moments, such as Bellingham’s late header over, the opportunities in stoppage time for Donyell Malen and crucially, Raphaël Guerreiro’s botched clearance that paved the way for Kingsley Coman to give Bayern the lead when we looked to be heading into half-time all square.
They were all reminders of Dortmund’s potential and their limits. Rose’s team are built to attack, but not to defend, frequently leaving themselves threadbare and ponderous in central areas. Hummels did not have a good day, even outside the penalty, and he appears to be having less and less of them. It is increasingly harder to draw focus from the failings of BVB’s experienced players. Even without Joshua Kimmich, Bayern were (and are) set fair to exploit them via Leon Goretzka and Thomas Müller, in brilliant and contrasting ways. This is before we even get to Lewandowski, who deserved to savour a big moment after the dignity he showed throughout the Paris dog and pony show earlier in the week.
Yet with a global audience yearning for a title race, most of it was viewed through a prism of what could have been for Dortmund. What if Guerreiro had more minutes in his legs of late, and what if the management team had felt comfortable leaving the recently-returned Haaland on for the final stages (with the delay after Brandt’s head injury, the last few minutes that the Norwegian missed turned into 18 minuti)?
These felt more like reasons than excuses, and BVB’s season is by no means a write-off. Despite their deeply disappointing Champions League exit, they have the Europa League to legitimately pursue and the DFB Pokal to defend. That, per adesso, until they can gradually evolve, is what they appear limited to.
A plus for Dortmund is the failings of their real rivals – and RB Leipzig parted ways with Jesse Marsch after what CEO Oliver Mintzlaff described as a “catastrophic performance” in Friday’s defeat at Union, though the isolating coach was physically absent. The club’s statement said the decision was “the result of an in-depth analysis and intensive discussions” after the game, and there is no argument that domestic and continental performances have fallen way short of the mark. Ultimately Marsch has carried the can for expectations – fuelled by signings including André Silva, who he has struggled to integrate – outstripping the reality of losing their central defence (Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté), not to mention a coach adapting to the sharp end of the Bundesliga. Assistant Achim Beierlorzer will fill in on an interim basis.
After a summer in which seven of the top eight changed coach it feels like we could be on the brink of another (mid-season) merry-go-round, with Leipzig and Wolfsburg having already ditched their new men and Adi Hütter’s Borussia Mönchengladbach humiliated 6-0 at home by Freiburg in Sunday’s late game. “It is absurd that I have to talk about it,” said Max Eberl of Hütter’s position, but the result and performance – they trailed 3-0 dopo 12 minutes – were alarming, hot on the heels of a derby hammering at Köln.
Speaking of hammerings, at least Leverkusen are looking good. Patrik Schick scored four as Die Werkself dismantled Greuther Fürth 7-1 – the bottom side still have just a single point.