European football correspondent Ian Hawkey takes the temperature of the German football league at the season’s half-way mark:
Perhaps Pep Guardiola, the coach who has overseen two of the earliest wrappings-up of a title in Bundesliga history, has at last given Germany’s top flight one of the few things he has been unable to achieve while at Bayern Munich: Suspense.
Well, it’s a straw for the rest to clutch at.
Maybe, just maybe, the knowledge Guardiola will be leaving in May might now mean his players ease up, turn complacent.
OK, so that’s unlikely, given Guardiola’s greedy, perfectionist intensity, but Bayern’s announcement last weekend that the gifted Spaniard’s spell with them would last just three years and end in June, and that Carlo Ancelotti would take over next summer, has put a new perspective on the season at its halfway stage.
Have Bayern reached their ceiling? Has Guardiola taken them as high as he can?
Ancelotti, assessing his new job and planning for the succession, will watch the next six months with interest, and certainly more interest than he apparently used to.
He told Gazzetta dello Sport back in October: “I don’t enjoy watching Bayern that much, because there’s too little real competition.
“They can win the Bundesliga with their hands in their pockets.”
Half-time reports from Europe’s other top leagues:
Since he said that, Bayern have actually lost a league match to Borussia Monchengladbach, though it was their only defeat in the first 17 games of their title defence.
They break for winter with an eight-point lead over Borussia Dortmund, whose new era after the departure of Jurgen Klopp has, apart from the 5-1 thrashing by Bayern, nonetheless been invigorating.
Dortmund, under Thomas Tuchel, have even outscored Bayern, although only by one goal.
That will grate on Guardiola, who will want to ensure he leaves with the champions-elect as Germany’s highest scorers, too.
He has already left a fine legacy by moulding a side who most of time are far more thrilling to watch than a group of men with their hands in their pockets, as the 2015 additions of Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman to the squad have added panache to Bayern’s football.
The wingers have helped Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern centre-forward, too.
He is grateful for the service he receives from wide positions.
The Pole has 15 goals in the Bundesliga, which ordinarily he might imagine would put him top of the list of league marksmen.
But this has not been an ordinary four months for Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng, as the quicksilver Gabonese has 18 goals.
Both he and Lewandowski will lately have been looking anxiously in their rear-view mirrors at Leverkusen’s Javier Hernandez, on a run of 10 goals from his last eight league matches.
If the apparent unassailability of Bayern is not entirely healthy for the league, there has been some enterprise, some upward mobility elsewhere.
Hertha Berlin spend the winter break in third place. They narrowly avoided relegation back in May.
The form team over the last five weeks have been Augsburg, run on a shoestring and looking forward to a new year in which they will be involved in the knockout stages of European competition. They meet Klopp’s Liverpool in the last 32 of the Europa League.
Augsburg will resume their league campaign sandwiched, just below mid-table between Ingolstadt and Darmstadt, both promoted last summer and pluckily coping with the elevated level of competition.
A couple of relatively recent champions in Stuttgart (Bundesliga winners in 2007) and Werder Bremen (2004) are struggling beneath them.
The next four weeks will not feel very relaxing for these fallen giants.
Surprise of the Season (Darmstadt): Back in the top flight after 33 years away, and after back-to-back promotions, Darmstadt have held their own, and after 10 matches had a tidy record of as many wins as losses. Form has dipped in the last month or so, but they have shown they have the wherewithal to survive.
Player of the Season (Douglas Costa): Bayern signed the Brazilian from Shakhtar Donetsk in the summer and immediately saw that, even in a squad of many distinguished wingers, they had somebody special, an entertainer and an effective supplier of passes. Franck Ribery, if he ever recovers full fitness, will have a battle to regain his first-team place on a regular basis.
Flop of the Season (Borussia Monchengladbach in the Uefa Champions League): The club had waited 37 years to return to Europe's senior competition. A tough group welcomed them back, and after conceding three penalties in their first match, they could not claw their way even into the Europa League.
Stat of the Season (Five goals in nine minutes): Robert Lewandowski came on as a half-time substitute for Bayern against Wolfsburg. The champions were struggling. Bang. The Pole had his first goal on 51 minutes, then the fastest hat-trick in Bundesliga history on 55, and his fifth goal with an hour on the clock.
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