Borussia Dortmund further secured their hold on third place in the Bundesliga and again narrowed Bayer Leverkusen's advantage to four points on Saturday as they hammered Werder Bremen, 5-1, at the Weserstadion.
Robert Lewandowski opened the scoring on the 26th minute, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled BVB's advantage before the break. Both were on target a second time following Manuel Friedrich's strike, meaning Levent Aycicek's last-minute goal was no more than a consolation for the hosts.
Although Dortmund failed to keep a clean sheet yet again (the last time they held opponents scoreless in the Bundesliga was October 19), it was the visitor's largest margin of victory since they beat Stuttgart, 6-1, in early November.
For Bremen, it was a sixth consecutive loss to BVB that left the club just three points clear of the relegation zone. The once proud northern side will need to be very careful not to slip into the lower three teams, or their long-term future could be in serious danger. Click "Begin Slideshow" for a look at the major talking points from Saturday's action.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan's transition to playing in the Bundesliga has been disappointing to say the least. Heading into Saturday's match, the €27.5 million signing from Shakhtar Donetsk had directly contributed to goals in only four league matches. But the Armenian international had a rare positive game against Bremen.
Mkhitaryan scored a critical second goal late in the first half; he'd initially put the ball seemingly too far to his right but managed to produce an outstanding finish. His goal came after he'd missed a pair of very good chances. But even those missed chances may have been positive for the player, who has often struggled to put himself into scoring positions.
After the break, Mkhitaryan completed his brace with a fine finish after playing a key part in the lead-up play. His interplay with Marco Reus was a delight to watch and suggested that he may have turned the corner. But still, he needs to build on his form if he is to live up to the expectations on his shoulders. The fact that Milos Jojic recently arrived to put pressure on him could provide just the spark Mkhitaryan has needed.
When Dortmund brought Manuel Friedrich out of retirement as an emergency signing in November, it was an act of desperation. The 34-year-old had not played professionally for half a year, and inserting him in their starting lineup to face Bayern Munich just days after he resumed training was foolhardy at best.
The fact is Friedrich needed time to train. And he finally had that during the winter break. After Marian Sarr's naive mistake led to a loss to Hertha Berlin in December and Sven Bender's shocker against Augsburg in Round 18, Jurgen Klopp reinstated Friedrich in his starting XI. And the veteran played with pure class, crowning a solid defensive display with a goal early in the second half.
Friedrich won't be a starter when Mats Hummels returns, but for now, it will be comforting for Dortmund to know that they will have an experienced, senior centre-back as depth behind Hummels and Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
One of the biggest problems Dortmund faced in the first half of the season was that—despite a fantastic start to the campaign—fatigue severely impacted their form, and the club had a woeful November and December.
Injuries, of course, played a direct role in Dortmund's implosion, but the form of some key players—Marco Reus in particular—waned as a lack of depth, and their inability to put results to rest early in their games left them physically and mentally exhausted.
After a pair of close games to start the 2014 calendar year, Dortmund had it rather easy against Bremen. The visitors led for all but the opening 26 minutes and were two or more goals ahead for more than a half. Reus and workhorse Sven Bender were withdrawn shortly after the hour mark, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was rested for the final quarter-hour and those who completed the full 90 minutes were rarely forced to push themselves physically considering the huge lead BVB held.
Dortmund entered Saturday's match having kept one clean sheet in all competitions since October 19. The one exception was against 3. Liga side Saarbrucken in the DFB-Pokal. Suffice to say, BVB's defense has struggled woefully. It is, however, relevant to note that Dortmund did not feature a back four of natural defenders during that time; Saturday was different.
With longstanding first-choice full-backs Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer on either side of the resurgent veteran Manuel Friedrich and in-form Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Dortmund finally held an opponent scoreless, as Bremen had few chances.
Given that Dortmund had won five straight games against Bremen, keeping four clean sheets in the process, it may have seemed inevitable that BVB would hold Werder goalless. But after failing to contain a typically toothless Eintracht Braunschweig and conceding twice to Augsburg, nothing was guaranteed. Surely enough, moments before the final whistle, Levent Aycicek spoiled any hopes BVB had of finally keeping a clean sheet—one they needed more than their large margin of victory.
Heading into Saturday's match, no Bremen player had scored for five games. It appeared that the host's drought was set to extend to six, but Levent Aycicek found the net in the 89th minute.
Aycicek, who celebrates his 20th birthday next week, was part of an outstanding crop of 1994-born German attackers who shattered the record for goals scored at the 2011 Under-17 World Cup in Mexico. The front four of Aycicek, Samed Yesil, Okan Aydin and Marvin Ducksch (as well as Mitchell Weiser, who replaced Ducksch after his injury in the group stage) has been woefully unfortunate with injuries, and none has made his way at senior level.
Aycicek himself tore his anterior cruciate ligament just months after the U17 Euro, and he has since had two more knee operations. If he stays fit, however, he could become the star he once promised to be. Saturday's performance, albeit brief in a substitute's role, was a first step in the right direction.
Running the score up on a dismal Bremen side is not exactly something to be proud of, but at this stage, Dortmund will take what they can get. In the last three seasons, they obliterated opponents on a regular basis, and it was not uncommon for nearly half their team to be named to the Bundesliga Team of the Week.
Before the Bremen match, BVB had only delivered a "statement performance" once since the early weeks of the campaign—their 6-1 drubbing of Stuttgart in early November. Since then, it's been week after week of fighting to hold onto narrow leads, struggling to break a deadlock or even chasing a game from behind.
Close matches are hugely taxing from a physical and mental perspective, so a 5-1 win against Bremen will do wonders for the confidence of Jurgen Klopp's men. In particular, the fact that Lewandowski (who'd scored just once since the end of November) and Mkhitaryan (who'd gone since September without a goal in Bundesliga play) were each on target twice will be a big boost for BVB. Huge games are coming up for the Ruhr side, with the DFB-Pokal and Champions League on the horizon.