The Bundesliga title race resumed with a bang following the lengthy winter break, as Bayern Munich travelled to Hamburg on Friday night. Two former Spurs heroes went head-to-head in the battle of the dugouts: Jürgen Klinsmann’s Bayern were tied at the top (on 35 points) with tiny Hoffenheim; Martin Jol’s Hamburg lurking behind on 33. With Hertha Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen also within three points of top spot at the break, the race for supremacy in German football this spring promises to be an intensely-fought one.
Bayern’s faltering start to the season has been well documented, but hopes of an improved showing were boosted by a thumping victory over Stuttgart (now managed by ex-Liverpool defender Markus Babbel) in the German Cup last week. However, as Klinsmann later stated, the Bavarians were ‘asleep’ for the first 30 minutes of the resumption of league duties.
During the opening half-hour, Hamburg flooded forward at will – tricky winger Piotr Trochowski causing havoc with his ceaseless work ethic and clever invention. The German international struck the base of the post with an early shot from distance. Dominant HSV hardly seemed perturbed by the absences of Nigel de Jong (now plugging the many gaps in the Manchester City engine-room) and tireless frontman Ivica Olić (bound for Bayern in the summer).
TV cameras homed in on the Croatian, serving a controversial suspension for dismissal in a mid-break friendly, watching on as his present team-mates dominated those of his future. Yet it was Bayern who were unfortunate not to take the lead when Luca Toni had an apparently legitimate goal chalked off, ostensibly for impeding Hamburg’s Bastian Reinhardt. It was, in fact, Reinhardt that might have been penalised instead – for shirt-tugging – as the giant Italian strode through to fire past Frank Rost.
One of Klinsmann’s main concerns about the side he inherited in the summer must be the security (or otherwise) of its last line of defence. Oliver Kahn’s successor was always going to have a tough act to follow, but Michael Rensing has consistently struggled under the weight of expectation that comes with being Bayern no.1.
On the cusp of half time, Rensing palmed David Jarolím’s rather tame deflected shot straight into the path of the grateful Mladen Petrić. The Croat striker nodded in from near the penalty spot to put Hamburg into a deserved one-goal lead. The Bayern ‘keeper’s pain would hardly have been soothed by Klinsmann’s post-game description of the goal as “stupid”.
Within seconds of that concession, Bayern broke upfield and, from Bastian Schweinsteiger’s cross, Toni flashed a header narrowly wide of Rost’s goal. On the other side of the whistle, the second period opened with Hamburg on the offensive once more. Petrić latched onto ex-Bayern striker Paolo Guerrero’s smart through-pass, but could only divert the ball against the post; Guerrero then wasted a gilt-edged opportunity to grab a second goal from the rebound.
The brightest star in Bayern’s galaxy – Franck Ribéry – was, as ever, full of flicks, tricks and no-look passes. Only the end product was missing from his repertoire, as the lime-booted winger found his influence suppressed by the close attentions of Collin Benjamin throughout. Zé Roberto, still sprightly at the grand old age of 34, offers great skill and industry in his second spell at the club, while giant Brazilian centre-half Lúcio still enjoys the odd lung-bursting upfield surge. Yet Klinsmann’s side palpably lack the formidable aura carried by all-conquering Bayern teams of the past.
They pressed hard for an equaliser throughout the second half – having another possible goal denied by the linesman’s flag when it looked as if Rost might have clawed a shot out from behind the goal-line. Trochowski, probably the shortest man on the pitch, then headed off the line from a Toni flick-header.
Toni’s profligacy continued, as his performance leant more towards Euro ‘08 than Fiorentina 05/06. With 20 minutes to go, the 31-year-old inexplicably headed wide of the target again when set-up with a presicion headed pass from Miroslav Klose. It was a chance that ‘Coach Klinsi’ himself would surely still have bulged the net with, even at the age of 44.
Klose, Lúcio and Toni again, spurned further opportunities to level the score as the clock ran down. Even the late introduction of Landon Donovan (who arrived on a Beckham-esque loan deal from LA Galaxy) couldn’t alter the destiny of the game, HSV hanging on for three precious points. For twenty-four hours at least, Jol’s men lead the table by a point.
Rumours persist that Zenit St Petersburg’s midfield general Anatoliy Tymoschuk will also join Bayern – possibly in the summer – while Philip Lahm, Ribéry and, for definite, Lukas Podolski (who returns to Koln at the end of the season) could all be heading for the exit. Whatever the comings and goings, Klinsmann certainly has his plate full.
A Champions League tie with Sporting Lisbon looms on the horizon amid a close-fought Bundesliga title race which is beginning to resemble that of 2006/07, when a young Stuttgart team emerged as unlikely champions and Bayern finished only fourth. A repeat of such an outcome would not be at all palatable to the giant egos at ‘FC Hollywood’. Klinsi: the pressure is on.