Unusual circumstances, familiar result: The Bundesliga title will, surely, for an eighth season in a row, go to Bayern Munich.
For the fourth year running in a late-season game, Bayern beat Borussia Dortmund. It might not have been a thrashing as it had been on those previous three occasions but Joshua Kimmich’s first-half chip on Tuesday was enough. A 1-0 win leaves Bayern seven points clear at the top of the table with six games remaining, a 30th title in its history all but a certainty.
After the excitement that football was being played again, this was the first game that really felt like it mattered. Would it have been different in front of the Yellow Wall and a packed house at the Signal Iduna Park? Perhaps, but that is not the environment and climate in which we are all operating. Home-field advantage has been oddly insignificant since the winter break in Germany, but there may be significance in the fact that the first two rounds of fixtures after lockdown brought just three home victories.
But then again, Bayern is remorseless, not the sort of side to be thrown off course by an atmosphere. As it began with understandable caution, given its advantage in the table, Dortmund created a couple of openings behind the back four, and it might have created a couple more if not for Alphonso Davies’s remarkable pace.
In the opening 30 seconds, Jerome Boateng cleared off the line from Erling Haaland, just as it seemed like the Norwegian might capitalize on an aggressive charge off his line by Manuel Neuer. This fixture in recent years has followed a script, and, sure enough, the longer the half went on, the more Bayern began to assume its familiar superiority.
Lukasz Piszczek cleared off the line from Serge Gnabry, and Leon Goretzka, having found space on the right side of the box, had an effort beaten away by Roman Burki. And then, three minutes before halftime, Kimmich struck with a brilliantly disguised chip.
Dortmund manager Lucien Favre, perhaps, will feel his side missed opportunities to clear the ball, and he'll rue Burki’s slightly sluggish footwork and his inability to push the ball away having got a decent hand to the effort, but in conception and execution, Kimmich’s strike was magnificent.
The sense was of Bayern having the advantage in midfield, where Dortmund started without its preferred pairing of Emre Can and Axel Witsel. Can, just returning from injury, was introduced at halftime for Thomas Delaney, and Witsel was introduced late on, but if anything Bayern looked even more impressive after the break. There was greater bite, greater snap to its tackling and Dortmund was forced back. Only a fine low save from Burki denied Goretzka Bayern's second soon after the break.
Neither Dortmund wingback, Achraf Hakimi nor Raphael Guerreiro, was able to play the attacking role he usually does, and that restricted Thorgan Hazard and Julian Brandt, with the latter replaced at halftime by Jadon Sancho. And that, in turn, left Haaland isolated. The forward did not have his best game, there were a couple of times when his touch was heavy and, when he did get a meaningful chance just before the hour mark, his shot was deflected wide by the arm of Boateng.
After slipping, the center back had managed to thrust himself in the way of the strike from a prone position and wasn’t far from Haaland, so perhaps a penalty would have been too harsh a call, but that there was no pause for the referee to check the video seemed odd. Within another 10 minutes, Haaland limped off with what appeared to be a knee injury.
There was a late flurry as Dortmund sought to keep the title race live, and a swerving shot from Mahmoud Dahoud forced Neuer into a careful save. Inevitably, as Dortmund risked more and more, spaces were left open, and Robert Lewandowski struck the post with his bid to score an insurance goal. In the end, Bayern was comfortable enough.
The result will raise questions about Favre’s future. He has been backed in the transfer market, and, while Bayern’s squad is deeper and its resources far greater, the worry is that Dortmund may in the end may not even be as close this season as it was last, when it missed out on the title by two points. There is a sense of something building–Favre can point to the fact that a much-improved defense has conceded only two in its last seven games–but that may not be enough. Favre’s reputation for attractive ineffectiveness goes before him.
Bayern has no such concerns. All it may regret is that with the world desperate for meaningful football to watch, it has effectively ended the title race with a month of the season still to go.