It was Der Klassiker in name, but not quite always in nature. When Bayern Munich meet Borussia Dortmund it always means something, but there were hints throughout on Saturday evening’s three-quarter-throttle effort of bests being saved for more significant challenges to come. There was “even time for kisses,” as Süddeutsche Zeitung put it, referring to Carlo Ancelotti’s peck on the cheek for Franck Ribéry on the touchline as the Frenchman was replaced deep into the second half.
It is safe to assume that if there was some sort of acquiesce of non-aggression before a week which will go a long way towards defining the success of both clubs’ seasons, then neither Ribéry nor Arjen Robben got the memo. The ‘Robbery’ pairing partied like it was 2013 against Thomas Tuchel’s injury-laden side, demolishing the Bundesliga’s next best with a greedy relish.
If there could be some neutral sympathy for Dortmund before their midweek meeting with Monaco – and for Tuchel, who argued that “we needed our complete line-up to survive and to grow into this game, and it was just too hard” – there was no doubting the chasm between the sides. Perhaps Real Madrid, who arrive in Bavaria for the first leg of their own mouthwatering Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday, can provide more of a challenge. “We are ready for Real,” said Ancelotti in the post-match press conference, with trademark conciseness.
This, it seems, is the spell in which the synergy between Ancelotti, the unflappable pragmatist and Bayern, the club where nobody is ever satisfied, is becoming complete. Interestingly, it looks like it’s coming together more on the coach’s terms than anybody else’s. Last season, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge had made big strides towards his aim of bringing down the average age of his squad, with the emotional issue of moving on Bastian Schweinsteiger dealt with, and the new pair of Kingsley Coman and (particularly) Douglas Costa prominent. It looked like a next generation of Bayern had arrived almost without a hiccup.
That has – perhaps predictably – stalled under Ancelotti. Two of Saturday’s starters will retire at the end of the season. Even more significantly for the medium-term, his pair of attacking wide men have a combined age of 67, ever so slightly accentuated by the celebration of Ribéry’s 34th birthday on the eve of the match. Costa, meanwhile, has been stymied by minor injuries. Coman, who turned big matches last season, has looked frustrated for much of this campaign. Both Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness have said the club will “probably” take up his purchase option when his loan expires at the season’s end. Probably, not definitely. While it looked as if the changing of the guard had started on the Bayern flanks, the worm has turned.
Ribéry and Robben underlined that throughout a relentless dual performance on Saturday. It was Ribéry who got things underway, rattling a right-footer past a flat-footed Roman Bürki in the fourth minute. Robben, meanwhile, simply tortured Dortmund’s prone back three – which his rampaging runs forced into becoming a back five on several occasions – who survived worse damage in the first half via a combination of luck and a couple of smart stops from Bürki.
Four minutes into the second half and the Dutchman finally got his way. You’ve seen the goal, even if you haven’t seen it. Robben waltzed in from the right flank, all on the left foot, around a trio of panicked lunges, before curling the ball around the goalkeeper into the far corner. There may have been no doubting who was the best player on the pitch, but Robben was happy to share the limelight after the game.
“With Franck, we bring a lot of intensity and desire,” he said. “For the coach, after a performance like that, it’s going to be difficult to leave us on the bench.” Gauntlet laid down, you might say, though it is unlikely Ancelotti needed to be told after this performance. His concerns will centre around the fitness of Robert Lewandowski – who scored twice but was relegated to second fiddle by the wing duo’s brilliance – after he fell heavily on his right shoulder in winning the penalty from which he scored the fourth and final goal, and Mats Hummels, who was forced to cut training short on Sunday.
Robben’s words, though, acknowledged that he and Ribéry see themselves as a pair, and believe that they work best as such. They certainly did four years ago when Bayern last brought home the Champions League, sealing it together as they combined for a sublime winner, finished by Robben, to break Dortmund’s resistance in a thrilling Wembley final. Throughout that campaign, they were relentless, running themselves into the ground for the cause from one end of the flank to the other. On Saturday, they were at it again. Ribéry made 39 sprints – three more than Dortmund’s rising 18-year-old star Christian Pulisic.
It wasn’t always thus, with Jupp Heynckes recounting to France Football in 2014 the pair’s “unbelievable” physical confrontation at half-time in the 2012 Champions League semi-final – again, with Real Madrid – which left Robben with a cut cheek and considering his future at the club. Heynckes managed to sort that out – “after the row, I clearly designated who would take the free-kicks,” he said in the same interview – which, if Bayern go on to reclaim the trophy again this year, could end up being his greatest legacy.
What is sure is that with Bayern peaking, Ancelotti’s more laissez-faire approach looks like it just might pay dividends in the European arena. The return of Robbery to their vintage level tells us that even with a 10-point lead, the team’s level of intensity is exactly where it should be right now, which was a concern under Pep Guardiola at the equivalent stage – and suggests that their Italian coach has paced his players’ regime perfectly.
• As for Hoffenheim, they went from heaven to hell – or succumbed to “the Bayern curse,” as Kicker put it – as they went down at Hamburg, joining Dortmund this season in beating the champions and then succumbing to a surprising defeat in their next league game. They certainly seemed to be paying for their efforts on Tuesday, with the red-hot Andrej Kramaric a case in point, netting his eighth goal in eight games in the first half but, like his team-mates, running on fumes by the end of Saturday afternoon at Volksparkstadion. HSV, coached by the former Hoffe boss Markus Gisdol, were insatiable. “Everyone,” as Lewis Holtby told Sky afterwards, “is giving it everything.” They are now unbeaten in their last nine Bundesliga games at home, taking 23 of the 27 points available in that stretch.
• Leipzig took full advantage of Hoffenheim and Dortmund’s slips, and once again have a decent cushion in second place – now seven points after a dramatic last-gasp win over Bayer Leverkusen in what coach Ralph Hasenhüttl described as “pure passion, pure will” in his post-match interview. It was a crazy end to the game in which Leipzig captain Willi Orban was sent off, Emil Forsberg started to make his way off the pitch to be substituted only for Timo Werner to go down and be replaced instead, before the reprieved Forsberg produced one last surge forward to create a 93rd-minute winner for Yussuf Poulsen. It also completed a perfect, three-out-of-three Englische Woche for Die Roten Bullen, and Hasenhüttl enjoyed the riposte to critics who suggested that his team’s high-energy pressing would lead to them running out of steam. “We’ve shown that we can play three games like this in a week,” the coach said, “even with our style.”
• Borussia Mönchengladbach won a Rhine derby classic at Köln – and did out without largely without the talismanic Raffael, who went off early in the second half. His replacement, Ibrahima Traoré, scored within a minute of coming on. After the team’s other icon, Lars Stindl, scored a late winner, Dieter Hecking gave the players two days off. “A derby win has to be fully celebrated,” he reasoned in his post-match press conference. When they get back to work, Hecking’s players will be in the thick of a European chase which currently has five points dividing sixth, occupied by Freiburg, and 11th, where Werder Bremen were denied a fourth straight win at fellow chasers Eintracht Frankfurt on Friday, with Niko Kovac’s hosts coming back from two down. Marco Fabián scored the equaliser from the spot.
• Wolfsburg’s Andries Jonker was frank about where his side went wrong at Schalke. “Firstly, the first 20 minutes were hugely poor,” said the coach. “Secondly, the first three minutes of the second half were hugely poor.” In those two spells, Die Wölfe conceded three times to put them right back in the relegation shake-up (two of them to Guido Burgstaller, who has hit eight since his January arrival in Gelsenkirchen), and resurgent Ingolstadt visit on Saturday afternoon in a match of huge significance. Maik Walpurgis’s team made a meal of beating last-placed Darmstadt, losing at half-time to a side that is yet to take an away point before coming back to win via a sensational Markus Suttner free-kick to move within a point of the relegation play-off position. They will have to do without their key defender Romain Brégerie in Lower Saxony, though, after he was sent off for a late bust-up with Darmstadt’s Emre Çolak, who also received a red card.