IN BRITAIN, we used to think we were the only football community that truly cared about domestic cup competitions. Other countries were blasé about their FA Cup, it was considered to be a sideshow to the league. In recent years, the media, fans and some clubs have forced us to admit that the FA Cup has lost some cachet, that it is not the primary target for the really top clubs.
It could be that in England we thought too much of the FA Cup in the first place, although there is no doubt that it was the only football match that got treated as if it was part of “the social calendar”. It might (just might) have been that our continental cousins had a better perspective all along.
However, the DFB Pokal final in Berlin looked like a grand occasion for everyone. In typical German fashion, beer flowed, beer gardens were full and there was a sense of carnival. Make no mistake, this was an important match, for FC Bayern, for RB Leipzig and for the fans. Almost 75,000 people packed into the Berlin Olympic Stadium and the noise and the vibe were impressive.
Bayern won 3-0, underlining their “bad” season – a double for Niko Kovač in his first year as coach. For weeks, there has been speculation about his future, even though there was a sense of the inevitable about Bayern’s eventual success. Bayern is an intensely political organisation and sometimes you wonder just what it would take to please the people in the executive suite.
After two trophies in a week, chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge finally revealed his hand: “Of course, Niko remains coach, that has never been the subject of discussion. We have never questioned that. It is about winning prizes, that counts at Bayern Munich. And the coach plays a central role in this.”
Read into that what you will, but if Bayern had failed to win the Bundesliga and/or the DFB Pokal, then surely Kovač would have been shown the door. What has he done wrong? Admittedly, the UEFA Champions League was disappointing, with Bayern losing to Liverpool in the round of 16, but domestically, he managed the clean sweep. Today, though, success is not measured by local bragging rights alone. For clubs like Bayern, European pre-eminence is required and the club hasn’t seen that since 2013.
At home it has been tougher than usual. Since 2012-13 when Bayern began their total domination of German football, nobody has stretched them as much as Borussia Dortmund in 2018-19 – a two point margin in the league. In the previous six campaigns, the gap between Bayern and their nearest rivals was 100 points, an average of more than 16 points per season. The fact they had to fight for their title clearly made the Bayern upper deck feel a little uncomfortable. No wonder their club anthem proclaims they are “forever number one…better than the rest…champions of the world.”
There was an immediate admission that the success of 2018-19 was more satisfying because they have had to graft for the silverware. Absolutely. As we have often said, monopolies are boring in football and nobody remembers a winner that has galloped past the line three months before the end of the season. Part of football’s appeal is the tussle, the combat and the division of the spoils. People will talk of Bayern’s persistence in overcoming the challenge of Dortmund’s young team long after the 25-point margin of 2012-13.
RB Leipzig have, for the past few years, threatened to join Bayern in the pursuit of honours. They’re still in development mode and, as they found in 2016-17 when they raced to the top after promotion to the Bundesliga, Bayern’s durability is built on experience, savvy and, of course, wealth. Leipzig may have felt they would never have a better chance of beating Bayern, but they were lured into a trap by the trophy collectors of Bavaria.
Leipzig started well, their pace and audacity causing problems for Bayern’s defence. They had chances, but Manuel Neuer had an outstanding evening and Joshua Kimmich produced a couple of interceptions that denied Leipzig the chance to open the scoring. The longer Leipzig continued to press without taking the lead the more you feared for them – Bayern, after all, cut their teeth on strategic victories in finals, often soaking up the energy of their opponents before striking, cobra-like, and going for the kill.
And so it proved, in the 28thminute when Robert Lewandowski, snake-like in his instinct, headed Bayern into the lead. There was no looking back for the league champions as Leipzig were never as convincing from that moment on.
The difference between the two teams was demonstrated early in the second period when Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg sped into space and was approaching a one-on-one with Neuer. Forsberg’s touch betrayed him and Neuer knew enough to stop the talented 27 year-old Swede. If that had been Lewandowski at the opposite end, Bayern would have extended their lead.
Bayern did finally add further goals, a delightful two-footed movement from Kingsley Coman – one of the players Bayern will be basing their future – and Lewandowski’s late dash and delicate chip that cemented his man-of-the-match award.
Another double for Bayern, their 12th in total, but their 10thsince 2000, a statistic which really does confirm the club’s status as Germany’s overwhelming modern day power. However, Bayern may be in transition. The old guard are gradually disappearing – Lahm has long gone, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry bowed out in Berlin and others, such as Neuer, Hummels and Lewandowski, above 30.
Germany’s problem is that no other club over the past seven years has been able to consistently mount a challenge to Bayern’s power base – the nearest club has been Borussia Dortmund and their resurgence this season was encouraging and created a more competitive Bundesliga. In 2017-18, Bayern were champions by 21 points, this year it was two. While Bayern had a total of 78 ( down 6 on 2017-18), Dortmund, as runners-up, accumulated 76 (13 more than Schalke run-up in 2017-18). The top six club, with the exception of Bayern, all scored higher than in 2017-18. It could be the Bundesliga is becoming a little more competitive – certainly, 2018-19 was more interesting than the past half dozen seasons.
The only way we will truly find out is post-summer when Bayern regroup and some teams have lost their best players to overseas clubs (or indeed Bayern which has often been the case). The latest transfer window just became more interesting in Germany.