FC Bayern closed in on a record-extending twenty-fifth Bundesliga title with a functional and at times scrappy victory against mid-table Hannover at the HDI Arena, coming back from one goal down to register a safe if not exactly spectacular 3-1 victory with a brace from Thomas Müller.
Pep Guardiola made just three changes to eleven that has started against Eintracht Braunschweig in midweek, with Juan Bernat, Holger Badstuber and Thomas Müller coming into the side in place of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribéry and Robert Lewandowski. Consistent with the rotation of both tactical formations and personnel the Bayern coach started out with a three-man Dreierkette of Holber Badstuber, Danté and Jérôme Boateng, with Javi Bernat and Rafinha out wide.
The defensive midfield has been constantly changed since the Winterpause, and the Bayern coach appears to have settled on what looks like a regular rotation. The first three games of the Rückrunde had seen Bastian Schweinsteiger and Xabi Alonso start together, but after that something of a pattern started to emerge.
Schweinsteiger had started against HSV and both players would make the lineup against Shakhtar Donetsk, with Alonso starting against SC Paderborn 07. When Schweinsteiger started without Alonso in Köln and both players made the starting eleven against Braunschweig, I was not that surprised at seeing Alonso’s name in the starting eleven at the HDI Arena alongside David Alaba, with Schweinsteiger on the bench and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer taking the captain’s armband. Up front, Mario Götze started alongside Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben – with the rested Franck Ribéry on the bench.
With eleventh-placed Hannover carrying the burden of a seven-game winless streak and offering little threat on paper, Bayern kicked off as the red-hot favourites to pick up another three point haul. Right from the start the Bavarians quickly fell into the groove, taking almost complete command of the ball with their opponents prepared to bide their time until an opportunity came their way.
There was an early opportunity as Alaba forced H96 ‘keeper Ron-Robert Zieler into a fine save, but just as Die Roten looked to have established a hold on proceedings the home side scored against the run of play. A fast break and a smart interchange between Salif Sané and Jimmy Briand set up Japanese international Hiroshi Kiyotake, who beat the dawdling Danté for pace before firing a well-struck that slipped under the Brazilan defender’s challenge. It was a soft goal, but one that had the now familiar effect of sparking Bayern into action.
Just three minutes after falling behind Guardiola’s men won a free-kick at the other end, and Alonso – who had been criticised for a lack of control and pace in a number of his previous outings – silenced some of his critics will a well-taken free-kick that evaded the Hannover wall and wrong-footed the unfortunate Zieler.
With a firm stroke of Xabi Alonso’s right foot, the ball is heading for the back of the Hannover net
In a move that was loudly cheered by a section of the crowd and the small collection of Red Dragons in their small corner of Bavaria in London, Danté made way for Robert Lewandowski ten minutes before half-time, which made for an interesting change to the team’s shape. With Lewandowski on the pitch the three front men were able to assume a more orthodox offensive midfield role, with most of the attacks coming from the right flank through Robben and Müller. As a result, Götze was even more anonymous than usual.
This imbalance was corrected eight minutes into the second half when the disappointing World Cup final winner made way for fan favourite Ribéry, and Frenchman’s impact was almost immediate. While Götze had been floating on the periphery making up the numbers, Ribéry’s arrival helped to balance out the attack and provide the visitors with a spark that had been distinctly lacking for the first fifty-three minutes. The winger almost immediately forced Zieler into another good save, and with Bayern now in second gear it was just a matter of time before the second goal came. As the clock ticked past the hour mark a rash boot from Marcelo in the direction of Lewandowski’s head gave referee Tobias Welz no choice but to point to the penalty spot, and Müller made no mistake in dispatching the resulting Elfmeter.
Thomas Müller gives Bayern the lead as he strokes his penalty past Ron-Robert Zieler
There was now no way back for Tayfun Korkut’s side, and some eleven minutes later Müller scored his second and Die Roten’s third after another energetic run down the left from Ribéry. Having positioned himself perfectly to meet the Frenchman’s perfect delivery into the box, Müller completed the move with a firm header that gave Zieler no chance.
The irrepressible Müller rises to head home Bayern’s third
As the home side faded out of contention there were opportunities for Bayern to increase their advantage, but in the end nobody could grumble at what had been a hard-fought win against spirited and at times extremely scrappy opponents. Things would get even better for the league leaders courtesy of fellow Bavarians FC Augsburg, whose 1-0 win over second-placed VfL Wolfsburg ensured that Guardiola’s side would finish the weekend eleven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table.
In midweek the action switches back to the Champions’ League, and what is arguably the most important game of the season so far against Shahktar Donetsk.
Man of the Match
In terms of sheer impact Franck Ribéry gets a big mention, but for his two goals including that bullet header to wrap up the victory this week’s terrace hero is Der Raumdeuter, Thomas Müller.
Bundesliga Week 24
HDI Arena, Hannover, 07.03.2015
Hannover 96 1:3 (1:1) FC Bayern
Kiyotake 25. / Alonso 28., Müller pen 61., 72
Hannover: Zieler – Briand (68. Prib), João Pereira, Marcelo, C. Schulz (c), Albornoz – Schmiedebach (76. Ya Konan), Sané, Bittencourt – Kiyotake – Sobiech (58. Joselu)
FC Bayern: Neuer (c) – Boateng, Danté (32. Lewandowski), Badstuber – Rafinha, Alaba, Alonso (68. Schweinsteiger), Bernat – Robben, Götze (53. Ribéry) – Müller
Yellow Cards: Bittencourt / Alonso, Bernat, Ribéry