There were two Munich players who could admit pleasure on the day, despite the first disappointment for FC Bayern Munich in 2011. “I’m feeling like the happiest man in the Bundesliga”, said Arjen Robben at the Volkswagen Arena in Wolfsburg. “I am very happy with my performance”, said a radiant Thomas Kraft. Robben, the World Cup silver medallist from the Netherlands, had got his life back on track by playing his first match since the World Cup final in Johannesburg after a seemingly eternal injury break. And Kraft was rightly proud of his debut in the Bundesliga. He replaced Joerg Butt as the regular goalkeeper of FC Bayern and is already being dubbed by some experts as “Kahn II”. However, the 22-year-old curtailed his personal satisfaction on the Saturday when the Bundesliga ended its short hibernation.
After half a year out through injury, Arjen Robben (in the background with Marcel Schaefer) made his comeback with FC Bayern in Wolfsburg. (Photo: Firo/Augenklick)
“I would rather have gained three points”, Kraft added. For the Bavarians suffered a disappointing start to the second leg of the Bundesliga. Their plans to chase for the title failed completely with a 1-1 (1-0) draw with VfL Wolfsburg.
The faces of club chiefs Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge told it all. The gap between Bayern and leaders Borussia Dortmund had increased to 16 points. The confident prognosis prepared during the 26-day winter break had not been realised. “I am a winner”, coach Louis van Gaal had disclosed. “If any team can still do it, then it’s FC Bayern”, said Philipp Lahm. There were few who doubted the Bavarians could catch first-leg top team Dortmund. But after the end of the 18th round a different opinion prevailed, not just in Munich but almost everywhere in Germany. And not only the Bavarians showed consternation.
“… and who will come second?” read the headline in the football magazine “kicker”. Dortmund had produced an impressive performance in the top clash away against Bayer Leverkusen, winning 3-1 in their opening second leg match. All competitors were thoroughly impressed. When the nine games on Sunday concluded, Dortmund had extended their advantage. Second-placed Hanover were 12 points behind, Mainz and Leverkusen 13. Munich trailed further by dropping two more points. Sixteen points can only be made up with six wins, while Dortmund lose all at the same time – something nobody dares to believe possible.
Lahm and Schweinsteiger slip up, Ribery injured
Bayern started strongly and took an early lead with a curious goal by Thomas Mueller, but the first disappointment soon followed. Lahm hit the post from the penalty spot (21st), followed by a scene which initially signalled disaster. Ribery once again suffered an injury, Robben replaced him. The Frenchman, who had announced optimistically he was back to form for the second leg, was led off the pitch supported by two helpers. First analysis suggested a major knee injury, but the following day he was given the all-clear. A pulled muscle would mean a short break.
Shortly before half-time, Kraft excelled by saving a penalty from Grafite. Wolfsburg upped the pace and took control during the second half of the intensively played game. Sascha Riether netted the equaliser four minutes from time after a mistake by Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bavarians had lost two points; and the general conclusion was that the champions could write off a successful title defence.
“All great winter-break promises have been unmasked as speech bubbles; the chance for Bayern to retain the championship is just theoretic. The others always score the last goal. Where are the blasted lucky Bavarians?” wrote the “Sueddeutsche Zeitung”, mourning Munich’s old habit of deciding tough, close matches in the dying minutes, and generally fighting off all opposition. “Dortmund is far away. You have to accept and respect that; you can only congratulate them”, said Robben after his forced break of 237 days. Van Gaal sent on a new player in the second half, Brazilian Luiz Gustavo who had arrived from Hoffenheim for 17 million Euros during the winter break.
New duel against Inter in the Champions League
The team now hope to meet the goal set by the club’s leadership: finish runners-up and thus qualify for the Champions League. They must also concentrate on two further competitions. They will meet Alemannia Aachen away in the quarter-final of the DFB Cup on Wednesday, January 26. The second-division club have eliminated the Bavarians twice in the Cup competition in the past, and have defeated Mainz and Frankfurt in the current battle. Bayern face an even bigger task in the Champions League, for in the round of 16 they will again meet Inter Milan in a repeat of the 2010 final. The first leg at San Siro has been scheduled for Wednesday, February 23, the second match at Allianz Arena on Tuesday, March 15.
The Italian champions and Cup winners are also not faring too well this season. Though they won the World Club title in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year, local rivals AC Milan top the standings in Serie A. Shortly before the end of last year Inter sacked Spanish coach Rafael Benitez, who had come from Liverpool FC. Brazilian Leonardo is their new coach. But unlike Bayern Munich, Inter still have a good chance to retain their title. If they win the matches postponed due to the World Club Championship, they could still pressurise AC Milan.