Bundesliga

Bayern Weary, Schalke in Crisis: Germany's Magnificent 7 Need Winter Break

Ribery's moment of madness will see him miss at least the next round of the Pokal.
Ribery's moment of madness will see him miss at least the next round of the Pokal.Victor Fraile/Getty Images
Clark WhitneyFeatured ColumnistDecember 19, 2012

Earlier this month, Bild published an article on the Bundesliga's "magnificent seven," the clubs that advanced to the knockout rounds of the Champions League and Europa League.

But as club football in Germany comes to an end until after the New Year, most of the Bundesliga's best have abandoned their horses and are now limping into the winter break.

The third round of the DFB-Pokal proved just as much on Tuesday and Wednesday as many of the sides that have dominated opposition on the international stage all season struggled to replicate their form in their last game before the winter break.

Schalke began life under Jens Keller in a disappointing way on Tuesday as they lost to Freiburg.

As has been the case so many times in the last month, the Gelsenkirchen side played aggressively and took the initiative on the offensive end but had little to show for it. They equalized after going behind but conceded shortly thereafter and lost 2-1.

Fatigue is not the only problem Schalke face—they have been in crisis for weeks.

For them, the winter break could not have come soon enough. It offers players a chance to unwind and refresh physically and mentally, and the second preseason will be just what Keller needs to discover how to handle his team.

Schalke were not the only side among the "magnificent seven" to bow out in the Pokal. On Wednesday, Hannover and Leverkusen were also eliminated.

Leverkusen went ahead early against Wolfsburg thanks to a freak Fagner Conserva Lemos own goal and looked in control for much of the match but collapsed midway through the second half. Daniel Carvajal was far too sloppy inside his own box before Christian Trasch capitalized with the equalizer.

Then, in the 89th minute, Leverkusen defender Omer Toprak headed the ball directly to opposing striker Bas Dost for the winner. It was almost as though he meant to say: "Look, I'd rather lose in 90 minutes than play for another half hour."

Hannover's dismissal was even more humiliating.

While it's true that they faced a task of the highest order in Dortmund, the manner in which they were eliminated speaks of a very fatigued side that just wanted the break to come. The Lower Saxons never looked dangerous and took just four shots on Roman Weidenfeller's goal as they lost 5-1.

Dortmund were most certainly the strongest finishers among the Bundesliga's European hopefuls, and it was clear that Mario Gotze intended to end what was a frustrating calendar year on a high note. The 20-year-old netted a brilliant hat trick, raising his tally to seven goals and five assists in his last eight appearances in all competitions.

Even so, BVB have played for much of December without proper full-backs or even a true defensive midfield anchor as injuries and illness have taken their toll on Marcel Schmelzer, Lukasz Piszczek, Sebastian Kehl and Sven Bender.

Apart from Dortmund, the only other Bundesliga side in Europe to win their Pokal fixture by more than one goal this week was Bayern.

While they did beat Augsburg 2-0, it was far from a routine win. The Bavarians were outshot 21-14, and only got their second goal five minutes from full time. Augsburg were criminally poor in front of goal and paid the price.

But it was Augsburg—not Bayern as viewers are accustomed to seeing—that determined their own fate. 

Bayern entered the game having drawn two of their previous three Bundesliga matches, and as of late have looked a step below their usual brilliant selves. Fatigue from Euro 2012 was always going to hit them harder than any other Bundesliga club, and even with their vastly improved depth, the weariness of key players has taken its toll. Typically a model professional on the pitch, Franck Ribery was sent off on Tuesday in a rare moment of madness.

The last team to consider is Stuttgart, which edged past Koln with a 2-1 win. (Gladbach have played well as of late but did not have a Pokal match this week.)

The Swabians were 2-0 ahead within the first 36 minutes but turned on the cruise control too early. They were vastly outshot in the second half and were very nearly pushed to extra minutes. Had Koln equalized, it was clear they would have won.

The Bundesliga is a unique league in that it uses more young players for more minutes and teams cover more ground than their counterparts in any of Europe's top leagues. The risk of injury and burnout is especially high for young players and those who exert themselves more. As such, it is no wonder that the magnificent seven are limping over the finish line.

They now have a month to recharge before it all begins once more. And although the second round will be just as strenuous as the first, they will enter the latter rounds of the Champions League and Europa League fresher and more rested than their Spanish, English and Italian counterparts.

Follow Clark Whitney on Twitter

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