Bayern Munich steamrolled Schalke with a 4-0 win at the Allianz Arena on Saturday, extending their perfect record to four wins from as many matches in the new year. Following Dortmund's loss to Hamburg and draws by Leverkusen and Frankfurt, the Bavarians opened up a 15-point lead atop the Bundesliga table. Bayern now seem to be home clear as they look to win their first trophy in three seasons.
For Schalke, the result was just the next in a humiliating run of form that stands at just one win in their last 11 matches in all competitions. Following wins from Hannover and Hamburg, S04 have slipped to ninth place.
The match saw experimental lineups used by both sides, with Arjen Robben, Mario Gomez and Jerome Boateng all starting for the first time in 2013 for Bayern. Schalke, meanwhile, used Teemu Pukki as a lone striker (Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Ciprian Marica were unavailable due to injury), while Sead Kolasinac replaced the suspended Christian Fuchs in defense, and Tranquillo Barnetta and Marco Hoeger started in midfield in place of Jefferson Farfan and Julian Draxler, respectively.
Because of the result, and especially due to all the lineup changes, there were some poignant talking points to take from Saturday's match.
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Jupp Heynckes changed his starting lineup for the first time of the calendar year on Saturday, with Mario Gomez, Arjen Robben and Jerome Boateng replacing Mario Mandzukic, Thomas Mueller and Daniel van Buyten, respectively. And although there were many fresh faces, the league leaders didn't miss a beat.
Gomez and Robben didn't always look sharp in attack, it must be noted. The Dutch winger missed a one-on-one chance with Timo Hildebrand that he ought to have buried, while the German striker might have had more clear chances against a woeful Schalke side had he been a little sharper.
On the other hand, the pair played rather productively given that it was the first start of the calendar year for both. Both played a big role in David Alaba's second goal; Robben played the final ball to Gomez for the strike that made the score 4-0. If given more match practice, the two have every chance of, at the very least, becoming useful squad players.
At the back, Boateng had little threat to deal with in the form of Teemu Pukki, and later Edu. But he didn't make any mistakes and perhaps has benefited from his time on the bench. Like Gomez and Robben, he has every chance of reclaiming his spot in the Bayern starting lineup, especially after he serves his suspension against Arsenal in the Champions League.
There are few teams in Europe, and fewer still in Germany, that are an institution on the order of Schalke. Like Dortmund, S04 have a rich fan culture stemming from their working class origins. Their nickname, die Knappen, translates to "the miners," and their matches attract an average of 60,987 per match, 99 percent of the 61,673 capacity at the Veltins-Arena.
Things looked bright for Schalke in October, when they stood second in the Bundesliga and first in Champions League Group B. S04 have been in free-fall since then and now stand ninth in the league table. They sold star playmaker Lewis Holtby to Tottenham in the January transfer window and continue to operate under Jens Keller, who but for a brief stint at Stuttgart, has no experience as a head coach. Inexplicably, sporting director Horst Heldt has pledged to stand by the trainer until season's end.
Schalke are making fools of themselves in the Bundesliga, but their woes will in all likelihood compound in the coming weeks. They have a Champions League meeting with Galatasaray in Istanbul a week from Wednesday. By the time the second leg comes in March, it may not matter whether Schalke manage to recover any semblance of form.
Last spring, David Alaba emerged as a bright and rising star of world football with consistently impressive performances in the Bundesliga on the left of the Bayern defense.
The Austrian affirmed his talent in the Champions League, particularly in the semifinals against Real Madrid. Then, still an internationally unproven 19-year-old, he defended brilliantly against the likes of Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even after a harsh booking in the second leg, that would eventually keep him out of the final, he kept his cool. Approximately two hours after that heartbreaking turn of events, he stepped up with cool nerves and scored the Bavarians first penalty in a shootout win.
Alaba had a significant setback in the fall, when a metatarsal fracture kept him sidelined until late October. He has since found his form once more and grown more and more in confidence and class. And on Saturday, the versatile defender put in an excellent shift against Schalke.
With Tranquillo Barnetta giving him little trouble in defense, Alaba stepped freely into attack. After Franck Ribery won an early penalty it was the Austrian—not Mario Gomez, Arjen Robben, Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm or Ribery himself—who had the self-confidence and support of his teammates to take the spot-kick. And to no surprise, he converted. Later in the game he slipped into the penalty area to fire in Bayern's third goal.
Alaba's performance should not be applauded merely for the goals he scored, but also for his keen attentiveness in defense. In the 90 minutes, neither Tranquillo Barnetta nor Jefferson Farfan took or assisted a single shot on goal. Barnetta couldn't even put in one cross; Farfan did just enough to whip the ball into the penalty area on one occasion.
It was a comprehensively brilliant performance from Alaba, who remains criminally underrated in most discussions of world football's elite fullbacks. He continues to get better and better, though, and at this rate it will not be long before he is given the credit he deserves.