Friday 19 April 2019

Bayern regain old swagger before Kovac begins rebuild

Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac. Photo: Getty Images
Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac. Photo: Getty Images

Ed Malyon

Curiously for a match of such clarity - a thumping victory that was beyond doubt before half-time and never looked close - Bayern Munich's 5-0 win over Borussia Dortmund has served only to further muddy the waters atop Germany's first division and confuse the picture for both clubs looking ahead.

On the face of it, Bayern's demolition job on their title rivals was the turning point in the race to be Deutschemeister.

That still may prove to be the case but, even in leapfrogging Dortmund to go top for the first time this year, the country's biggest club can hardly claim the job is done with just a single point for a cushion.

Both sides have six games remaining now but a glance at their respective fixture lists shows Dortmund with an easier run-in, their local derby with Schalke representing the most obvious landmine.

The Gelsenkirchen club are on something of a slide lately, though, while Bayern's fixture list sees them finish the season against RB Leipzig (third) and Eintracht Frankfurt (fourth).

With that pair chasing a transformative place in the Champions League, it will not be a relaxing end to the season for Bayern, whose lead is slim and over whom question marks remain, however dominant this victory over Dortmund.

It isn't just the title race that has become somewhat more unclear. Perceptions of both of these teams change significantly and yet they don't.

Dortmund's success has been based on an energetic, youthful team that, in December, held for a couple of minutes a double-digit points lead over this sluggish, ageing Bayern outfit.

On Saturday it was Bayern's guile and experience - personified by the wiles of Robert Lewandowski, who continues to enjoy arguably the best season of his career at 30 - that ransacked Dortmund's young backline and forced Lucien Favre to withdraw promising centre-back Dan-Axel Zagadou for his own protection at half-time.

It was crushing to even watch, like the new kid at school having his pants pulled down by the playground bully.

Doom

Lewandowski rarely fits the profile of a bully but Zagadou certainly had that look in his eyes where you just want the ground beneath your feet to open up and suck you into its merciful doom. At least that way they can't see your tears.

If Dortmund's kindergarteners can bounce back immediately from what will amount to as much a mental pummelling as a footballing one, the outlook is good. If not, there may be a re-assessment of the readiness of some of this squad.

On the other side of the rivalry, perhaps a victory of such swagger and dominance means some of the questions around Bayern will disappear but the circus that surrounds 'FC Hollywood' rarely affords periods of calm introspection. Indeed, the pessimists and cynics around Munich whispered pre-match that a defeat might be the best thing for the club long-term, prompting them to replace out-of-his-depth first-year head coach Niko Kovac.

The Croat has been criticised for being too defensive but it has actually been his side's frailties at the back that have cost them at times this season.

Meanwhile, they have scored more goals than last season and added five more to that total in their defenestration of BVB.

Kovac has not been helped by the way Frankfurt, with whom he over-achieved in order to earn the Bayern job last summer, have continued to impress this season.

Eintracht's recruitment and squad appear to be better than first thought, and that contributed further to the feeling that a bad result on Saturday would have been an almost fatal blow to his reign.

Instead he will be handed a new-look, refreshed squad to take into next season with a large-scale summer rebuild incoming at the Allianz Arena.

That is still likely to go ahead even if Bayern hold off the challenge of Favre's side and win yet another title. Lucas Hernandez was confirmed as a signing last week and the likes of Benjamin Pavard, Luka Jovic and Callum Hudson-Odoi remain key targets where work is being done already.

Bayern look set to get younger in key positions. Departures of several older stars - including Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Rafinha - have been confirmed, while other players who haven't featured in Kovac's plans will also be sold. On the evidence of Saturday's Klassiker, however, the rumoured sale of Thiago Alcantara should be cancelled immediately and a new contract prepared to keep the Spanish playmaker in Munich for the rest of his career.

As huge as the gap looked between Germany's two biggest clubs as Lewandowski swept home Bayern's fifth in the dying minutes, the reality is that these two continue in a highly competitive tangle.

The uncertainty over Kovac's future may have been somewhat allayed but little else is sure in the Bundesliga.

Der Klassiker may have felt like a turning point but there will be at least one more fork in the road. (© Independent News Service)

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