Bayern Munich made it two straight wins to start the second half of the Bundesliga campaign on Sunday as they beat Stuttgart 2-0 at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. The league leaders defeated fellow Bavarian side Greuther Fuerth by the same margin last week, and in a more traditional derby match against the Baden-Wuerttemberg-based VfB, again came out winners.
It wasn't an easy match for Bayern, who were frustrated by the hosts' high offside trap and referee Florian Meyer's occasionally questionable decisions. But Mario Mandzukic put the visitors ahead after 50 minutes after a rather opportunistic interception, and Thomas Mueller sealed the result 18 minutes from full time.
In the end, it was a very comfortable result, and Bayern moved 11 points clear of Leverkusen atop the Bundesliga table. There were many interesting takeaways from the match, which saw Manuel Neuer keep his 13th clean sheet of the Bundesliga season.
Bayern had trouble breaking down the Stuttgart defense for most of the game, and especially while the score was 0-0. But 50 minutes into the game, before they were in all-out attack mode, the visitors caught a bit of luck: Cristiano Molinaro played a back pass toward Sven Ulreich that was poorly weighted, and Mario Mandzukic stepped in to intercept. The Croatian striker rounded the goalkeeper and fired home the opener for Bayern.
The first goal came under fortuitous circumstances, but Stuttgart had shown no ambition beforehand and could hardly have expected any better. Luck turned the other direction minutes later, however, as Thomas Mueller had a goal wrongly called back for offside.
And shortly before the hour mark, Toni Kroos had a stonewall penalty claim denied as he was brought down from behind by Georg Niedermeier. Instead of potentially sending off the Stuttgart defender, referee Florian Meyer showed Kroos the yellow card for dissent.
In light of the poor calls, it ought to have been 3-0 with half an hour left, but Stuttgart's slight hopes of taking a point held until the 72nd minute. When Mueller finally finished off the result with a tap-in from a Mandzukic cross, neither side could complain with the result.
It wasn't always brilliant stuff from Bayern, who are capable of much, much more. But with the luck that went their way and in the opposite direction, they absolutely deserved their result against a toothless Stuttgart side.
While the Bayern attack is not yet at 100 percent, their defense is certainly ready to aim for three titles in May. The Bavarians have held their opponents scoreless on 13 occasions in the Bundesliga this season, and on Sunday they kept their second consecutive clean sheet to start the 2013 calendar year.
Fuerth never really looked to be a threat last week, and for good reason: They have scored a league-low 11 goals this season. But Stuttgart have quality attackers in Vedad Ibisevic, Martin Harnik and Shinji Okazaki. Yet, the Swabians managed to take just five shots on goal, only one of which came from inside the Bayern box.
It may be true that Stuttgart are not exactly Champions League quality, but the fact that Bayern have gone 180 minutes without seeing much of a threat to their goal—while the likes of Chelsea concede two against Brentford—speaks of a confident and fully focused defensive unit.
Daniel van Buyten's re-insertion into the Bayern defense has been seamless, and despite his lack of pace, the towering Belgian has looked very consistent since replacing Jerome Boateng. Dante remains a stalwart, and his recent call to the Brazil national team further validates his growing reputation as a top defender. On the flanks, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba are as good a combination in attack and defense as any in world football.
Critically, Javi Martinez has finally settled in at Bayern, and his partnership with Bastian Schweinsteiger has left the back four with much less work than would otherwise be expected. The second-to-last band of defense is always critical to a team's solidity, and the pair's combination of ball-playing and ball-winning quality make them a very reliable duo.
Adding the highly adaptable Toni Kroos into the mix as a player who can operate in deep areas, Bayern can switch into lockdown mode if need be.
It's a cliche that defense wins titles, and as it stands, it appears that Bayern will comfortably win the Bundesliga with potentially a record for fewest goals conceded in a season. Beyond that, the DFB-Pokal and Champions League are very much within reach.
Despite their occasional attacking difficulties, the Bavarians are consistently strong at the back, and their continued focus will go a long way in knockout competitions.