Robert Lewandowski, a reported Bayern Munich target, was the center of attention during Borussia Dortmund's German Cup quarterfinal match at runaway league leader Bayern Munich.
The Polish striker had a quiet game, however, much like his team: Dortmund was outplayed and outsmarted through large spells Wednesday night. The hosts could have easily won by a bigger margin, but it was fitting that Arjen Robben separated the sides with his beautiful first-half goal. Robben's penalty miss against Dortmund in the 1-0 defeat at the Westfalenstadion sealed Borussia's title win last year and rang in two more soul-destroying defeats in the Cup (Dortmund 5-2 win) and the Champions League (Chelsea win in penalties) finals.
His strike at the Allianz Arena finally avenged those defeats. It brought closure to Bayern. And at the same time, it served as a timely reminder that Robben can still make a difference at the highest levels. The Dutchman only played because Franck Ribéry was suspended. He's cut a miserable, disgruntled figure on the bench over the last few weeks. But this was his night.
"Respect," was the main watch word from both camps before the game, and that mutual admiration (or fear?) was visible on the pitch, too: neither Bayern nor Dortmund pressed as high up the pitch as usual, wary of leaving space behind. Jürgen Klopp even made a tactical switch to a 4-3-3, with Mario Götze and Marco Reus flanking lone striker Lewandowski. Kevin Großkreutz was deployed in a deeper position as a third midfielder.
Leaving Reus and Götze higher up the pitch helped to pin back Bayern's marauding fullbacks, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba. But there was a price to pay: the visitors were less compact in the center of the pitch, allowing Bayern to dictate the game. Klopp's team is best "in transition," when it can win the ball and play it forward quickly. But Bayern's excellence in possession, coupled with a relentlessness when it came to winning back lost balls, forced the champions into a passivity that went much further than Klopp's counter-attacking strategy envisaged.
One key difference to last season, when Jupp Heynckes' men finished runners-up in all competitions, has been their higher work rate without the ball. A mere eight goals conceded in the league are testament to organization and effort, the very things that have been the backbone of Dortmund's tremendous success in the last couple of years.
But this quarterfinal showed that Bayern has learned a second lesson from its last six games without a win against the Black and Yellows: the hosts managed to change their attacking game. They usually play the ball wide early and start their attacks from the flanks. Dortmund, however, was able to negate that threat by constantly doubling up on the wingers. So on Wednesday, Bayern went more direct. A long diagonal ball that almost reached Bastian Schweinsteiger set the pattern early on. Schweinsteiger, outstanding in the first half, Toni Kroos and even Daniel van Buyten, again preferred as center back to Jerôme Boateng, were allowed to pick out runners from deep. Alternatively, the tireless Mario Mandzukic layed balls off for the midfield. The Croat's ability to lead the line has been another key improvement. Mario Gomez doesn't have the same presence.
Soon, Dortmund goalie Roman Weidenfeller found himself one-on-one with Robben, Kroos and Javier Martínez. "Dortmund is missing Mats Hummels at the back," German national team manager Joachim Löw analyzed at halftime. "Neven Subotic and Felipe Santana have problems, there is a lack of coordination."
Löw was right: Bayern's fairly simplistic approach only bore fruit because neither Subotic nor Santana exerted real authority. If Robben was the match winner, Hummels was the unwitting match loser: the 24-year-old had woken up with a bad case of the flu and was unable to play. His assured touch in possession was also missing. Subotic and Santana played many long balls that were easily dealt with by Dante and Daniel van Buyten.
Dortmund managed to come back into the match halfway through the first half, without ever troubling Manuel Neuer unduly. And Robben continued to cause problems. The Dutchman almost ghosted past Subotic, then pounced three minutes later. Ironically, the goal came on the one occasion he left his position on the left wing. Lahm took advantage of a bad mistake from Marcel Schmelzer. The Dortmund left back fouled Bayern's captain in the box, but referee Knut Kircher waved play on to allow Robben his moment of glory. He curled a wonderful shot into the top corner in the 43rd minute.
"I'm 29 years old now, but you dream about such goals," he smiled after the final whistle.
"The first half wasn't good enough," Klopp lamented. "We caused them more problems after the break but didn't have too many clear-cut chances".
Klopp added that he'd noticed a drop in "freshness" from Bayern in the second half, and it was true. Ilkay Gündogan became much more of a factor. Dortmund threatened with a few long-distance shots. Possession was more equally shared. But Lewandowski couldn't get past Dante, and the Reds remained more dangerous. Weidenfeller had to turn in another superb performance to keep a succession of shots and headers at bay.
At the end of 90 "incredibly intense" (Heynckes) minutes, the Bavarians were celebrating more than advancing to the semifinal. A traumatic run of six games without a win against Dortmund had come to an end and what's more, Bayern was able to prove itself the better side in a direct duel.
"The situation in Germany is clear now, we have won back the supremacy," beamed president Uli Hoeness. The 61-year-old had clearly been hurting over the last couple of years.
Bayern, the champion-elect with a 17-point-advantage in the league and favorite to win the double, has reasserted itself as the No. 1 team in the Bundesliga. Lewandowski's possible transfer south in the summer would only serve to increase Bayern's dominance. Klopp, though, wasn't in the mood to contemplate his striker's departure.
"I'm more interested to see what happens with Gomez and Robben if their situation (as non-regulars) doesn't change," said the Dortmund coach acidly.
Asked about Hoeness's "supremacy" quip, Klopp was dismissive.
"I don't think it's a sensation when Bayern is ahead of us," he said. Dortmund can happily live with second spot, safe in the knowledge that it will keep growing stronger as a club. And the season's not yet over, of course: a possible meeting in the Champions League might provide the opportunity to inflict yet more pain on the Bavarians.