Eight games, eight wins, a plus-24 goal difference...Bayern Munich looked unstoppable heading into Sunday’s clash with Leverkusen. Their dominance had been so consummate, so thorough, that it seemed it would require near-divine intervention for the German record champions to be defeated.
Whether divine or not, fortune favored Leverkusen on Sunday, and the Werkself recorded an improbable away victory at the Allianz Arena. A look at the lineups will reveal that Bayern were without Franck Ribery on the day, but the Frenchman’s absence was only one of many reasons the Bavarians were unable to take a point.
The overriding theme on the day was the recurrence of close calls that favored the visitors. Late in the first half, Philipp Lahm attempted a clearance that deflected off Stefan Kiessling. The ball could have gone anywhere, but it bounced into the net.
Leverkusen’s second goal was even more a product of fortune, with Sidney Sam heading the ball so wildly off target that it connected with Jerome Boateng before slipping across the goal line.
Fortune would not desert the visitors at the death, as Claudio Pizarro’s header beat Bernd Leno but only managed to hit the crossbar. A few inches lower and the match would have ended in a draw.
Even if they were a bit fortunate, Leverkusen certainly earned their win. Stefan Reinartz and Lars Bender ran tirelessly, each covering well over 13 kilometers before the final whistle. They were the gatekeepers at the edge of the penalty area and ensured that even when Bayern switched to a system that involved as many as eight players in and around the box, the hosts would not find a path to goal.
Inside the penalty area, Philipp Wollscheid was an absolute rock. The 23-year-old has long been under the radar with the DFB and top German clubs, but Leverkusen made a wise decision in spending €7.5 million to sign him from Nuernberg. Having spent the first 20 years of his life in the Saarland, far from the Bundesliga’s traditional academies, he is still quite raw for his age. He showed his promise at Nuernberg, and following Sunday’s brilliant showing against Bayern, he ought to be on Joachim Loew’s radar. Wollscheid still has a lot to prove, but the potential is certainly there.
Bayern will be disappointed with the result, and especially displeased to see the end of their winning streak, but there are some positives to take from the match. Leverkusen defended very deeply after they went ahead, but the hosts still managed to create many chances. The window of opportunity was always quick to close, and last-ditch heroics from Wollscheid and company denied the Bavarians again and again.
But it must be noted that Jupp Heynckes’ men did not simply resort to bombarding the penalty area with endless crosses and long-ranged attempts. They penetrated the box again and again, and just couldn’t quite put away enough chances to get a result.
The other positive for Bayern was their ability to control the match while playing in a comically aggressive formation late in the game. With centre-backs pressing well beyond the half-way line, Toni Kroos (more or less) anchoring the midfield, fullbacks in advanced wide positions and five players in and around the edge of the box, there were massive patches of green uncovered by any Bayern player. It was a throwback to the Louis van Gaal era, but without Daniel van Buyten as an emergency striker.
Though ultimately fruitless, the effort Bayern put into turning the result was awe-inspiring: They truly did everything they could, and everything was so nearly enough. They needed something as audacious as Manuel Neuer dribbling through the Leverkusen defense to create a last-second chance. Somehow, he did just that. Pizarro’s header just was not quite on target, and that made the difference.
Leverkusen can claim bragging rights as the first Bundesliga team to halt the Bayern freight train this season, and the result will do wonders for the confidence of a side that traditionally has been very volatile. Die Werkself have a very strong squad, and have a very real chance of finishing in the top four.
Despite dropping points, Bayern learned some valuable lessons on Sunday. Not entirely at their own fault, they were put in a very difficult position, played fearlessly, and earned some respect in the process. They still are four points ahead of Schalke and nine clear of Dortmund. A missed chance though it may have been, if Heynckes’ side can bounce back in their upcoming fixtures, it will only be a meaningless blip on the mark of what still looks to be a very successful season.