League drama thriving just below Bayern Munich’s lofty perch

Chase for remaining Champions League places breathes life into Bundesliga's league-within-a-league

Bayer Leverkusen, in black, pictured during their Uefa Champions League first-leg round of 16 match against Paris Saint-Germain on February 18, 2014, have lost five straight games in all competitions and eight of their last 10 Bundesliga matches. Sascha Schuermann / AFP
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At the beginning of the Bundesliga season, German football puffed out its chest with a barely precedented sense of self-satisfaction.

Two of its clubs had provided a thrilling Uefa Champions League final, a first clean sweep of the top medals for Germany in the European Cup.

But behind the bombast was also some anxiety about the competitiveness of the league. Might there, it was asked, lurk a danger that with clubs as mighty as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the kind of unhealthy elitism experienced by Spain’s top division might occur?

The fear was that Bayern and Dortmund, who have won two each of the past four titles, might turn into equivalents of Barcelona and Real Madrid, a permanent duopoly at the summit, isolated several storeys above the rest.

Nothing like that has taken place. As German observers sigh: “Our problem is not a Spanish situation, it’s the Scottish scenario.”

Bayern, like Celtic, are so far ahead of their domestic peers, the destiny of the Bundesliga Shield was a given before Christmas. Now, they even look at the dysfunctional Greek league and see a tighter title-race there: Olympiakos, 19 points clear, lost for the first time last weekend. Bayern have yet to lose a Bundesliga fixture.

They take a 20-point lead today to fifth-placed Wolfsburg, who were the last club other than Bayern or Dortmund to win the title, back in 2009. Bayern have dropped a mere four in their first 23 outings and their tendency is to rout, not just beat, the teams who fill the slots immediately below them. Last weekend, fourth-placed Schalke were beaten 5-1. Second-placed Dortmund’s last visit to the Allianz Arena ended in a 3-0 defeat.

Third-placed Bayer Leverkusen, who are the last German club to have held Bayern to a draw, back in early October, visit Munich next weekend and must be dreading it. Like Schalke, Leverkusen have just had a first-leg pummelling in the Champions League knockouts. Schalke lost 6-1 at home to Madrid, Leverkusen 4-0 at home to Paris Saint Germain.

Those two results left German football feeling alarmed. It would be too simplistic to relate the destruction in Europe of the third and fourth-best Bundesliga teams to the unbalanced German hierarchy, but they cannot help but wonder if their inevitable condition of domestic also-rans breeds an inferiority complex.

Leverkusen’s head coach Sami Hyypia, whose team have lost eight of their past 10 league matches, clings to the hope that today’s match against Hannover might break that dismal run, because the next two – away at PSG and then at Bayern – probably will not.

“When I look at the schedule, I have to think Hannover is a game we might get something from,” Hyypia said. “The main thing at the moment for us is to regain self-belief.”

That is a quality in short supply, likewise, at Wolfsburg, whose last outing was a 6-2 loss at Hoffenheim. Wolfsburg have no European distraction to concern them, but their ambitions of taking part in the Champions League next season – the top four German finishers receive entry – lurch between looking tantalisingly close and feeling frustratingly far away. They trail Schalke, who host free-scoring Hoffenheim today, by two points. But, as their director of football, Klaus Allofs, said, they would not expect to make ground up today.

“Bayern are in such a strong place at the moment, this is a dangerous fixture for us,” he said.

Suspense may be absent in the title race, but in the joust for the last two Champions League slots, the denouement is riveting.

Augsburg, down in ninth, are six points away from Schalke. But Wolfsburg, Schalke and Leverkusen will be concerned at the run of form shown by the relative minnows from Mainz, sixth, in recent weeks. Since losing 3-0 to Wolfsburg a month ago, Mainz have accumulated useful points in the Bundesliga’s league-within-a-league, winning at Leverkusen and drawing with Schalke.

Meanwhile, up at the top, the two classiest teams in the Bundesliga were in practice on Friday at very close to full-strength: the two classiest XIs being Bayern’s starting team and their so-called backups.

Their squad is so formidable – and even more so now that Franck Ribery is back from injury and Bastian Schweinsteiger is recovering his match fitness after a long lay-off – that several players who were in international action, as stars for major countries in midweek, will feel their customary anxiety at not getting enough playing time against Wolfsburg today and then Arsenal, in the Champions League on Tuesday.

“In some ways we have been lucky this season because of injuries. It has given others a chance to get more playing time,” said Thomas Muller, the Germany and Bayern attacking midfielder.

One consolation: once they tie up the league with five or six games to spare, Bayern’s squad men will have more chances to build up their missing minutes.

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