Lukas Podolski has been in two car crashes this week. On Monday, Poldi crashed his black Mercedes into the back of a family vehicle on the outskirts of Koln, causing several minor injuries and €18,000 worth of damage. The German international may have reflected, however, that this was rather less carnage than that inflicted on his FC Koln team on Friday night, when they collapsed to a calamitous, comprehensive defeat at home to local rivals Monchengladbach. For fans of Koln, it was the worst kind of car crash television.
The Rhein-Derby pitted two rivals on entirely different trajectories. Gladbach supporters began their half-hour train hop to the cathedral city knowing that a win would take them, at least temporarily, to the top of the Bundesliga. Appropriately, many of their number wore green and white Santa hats; under the brilliant guidance of Lucien Favre, it seems like every matchday is Christmas for the Foals. Koln, on the other hand, is sliding, even before the ice of the festive season takes hold. A swathe of injuries, particularly in defence, has left Norwegian coach Stale Solbakken with few options, a handicap he can ill afford in the parity-strewn lower half of the Bundesliga. Before kickoff, Gladbach fans huddled in their warm hats and lit flares, whilst Koln watched skimpily-attired cheerleaders welcome their team onto the field. It was quite appropriate: one of these teams is properly prepared for the rigours of the football winter, the other still hankering for the lost hope of summer.
It took only a minute for the differences to become apparent, the ever-improving Marco Reus drawing a save from Michael Rensing with a confident shot from distance. Mika Hanke is used by Favre as a point man, facilitating the greater genius of Reus, Patrick Hermann and Juan Arango. It was Hanke, though, who gave his team the lead, the ball finding its way to him after slaloming around the scattered, hopeless Koln defence. Ten minutes later it was two, a perfectly placed free kick from Arango beating Rensing’s despairing left hand. The game was effectively over as a contest, Koln unable to release their wingers from the shackles of the Gladbach defence, reducing Podolski to a frustrated observer. The half time break, with renewed athletic exertions from the cheerleaders, failed to spark a Koln revival. Instead, after only two minutes, Reus drove his team forward, and the ball again fell to Hanke to seal the victory. At the end of the game, the giant screen at the Rhein Energie Stadion could find nothing more inspiring to display than a No Smoking sign. Appropriately, the words, ‘Bitte Nicht Rauchen’, were entirely obscured by the huge clouds of smoke rising from flares in the jubilant Gladbach corner. The men in green had done as they wished with Koln, both on and off the field. “Zweite Liga”, they chanted at the home fans, and on this evidence, they could well be right.
Monchengladbach remained top for less than 24 hours. Dortmund, disrupted and defeated in London, returned to their customary fluency in the fierce Ruhrpott derby against Schalke. The visitors arrived in decent form, but looked nervous and untidy throughout. Manager Huub Stevens adopted a negative, defensive game plan, despite the absence of his fine stopper, Benedikt Howedes. Dortmund led after 15 minutes, a glorious inswinging free kick fro Marcel Schmelzer headed in by the powerful Pole Robert Lewandowski. Schalke’s young creative midfielders, Draxler and Holtby, never had room to work, and never looked likely to inspire a comeback. The win was sealed by the unlikely boot of Felipe Santana, the Brazilian defender sending his team to the Bundesliga summit, at least for 24 hours.
Most assumed that Bayern would reclaim the top spot on Sunday, with a trip to Mainz. The home side had shown flashes of attacking brilliance and defensive horror all season, so goals were hardly a surprise. But Bayern, throughout, were disjointed and, at times, disinterested. Curiously few reporters have attributed their ailing play to the absence of their driving force, Bastian Schweinsteiger. Toni Kroos simply cannot exert control in the same way, and Mainz overran the midfield. That Bayern came close at all was down to Mainz’s utter inability to defend set pieces, from which the giant Belgian Dan van Buyten scored twice, and could have had a couple more. Bayern lost 3-2, deservedly, and now sit third in the table.
Elsewhere, the game between Hertha Berlin and Chelsea-conquering Leverkusen could have ended ten-all, but the sides settled for three each, including a fine hat-trick from Swiss bulldozer Erin Derdiyok. Werder Bremen, Pizarro-less and reeling from a hammering at Gladbach, reclaimed fourth place with an impressive win over Stuttgart. Augsburg won a home Bundesliga match for the first time, seeing off perennially travel sick Wolfsburg, whilst Nurnberg gained a big win over a shaky-looking Kaiserslautern.
With the winter break approaching, the fixtures are increasingly growing in importance, and next week has some real highlights. Not really amongst them is the Friday evening clash at the Bay Arena, where Leverkusen will expect to bolster their top-four hopes against uninspiring Hoffenheim. Things pick up on Saturday, when first meets second as Dortmund visit Gladbach for a potential classic. Gotze versus Reus, the battle of the young tyros, is one to cherish. Continuing the top of the table clashes, third takes on fourth at the Allianz Arena. Dortmund debacle apart, Bayern have remained largely solid at home, and they should find enough holes in the porous Bremen rearguard to arrest their current decline. After this feast, the live televised games represent comparative famine. Saturday evening sees Koln again in the spotlight, travelling to probable defeat in Stuttgart. Sunday’s double-header begins with a feisty encounter between Hamburg and Nurnberg, but tails off with Schalke given an ideal opportunity to get back on track against bottom club Augsburg.
It remains to be seen if we are seeing a changing of the guard in the Bundesliga. Are Bayern’s woes are a blip or more terminal; can Dortmund pull off an unlikely title repeat, can Monchengladbach stay the course? We will be well into the Ruckrunde before we know the answers, but we can at least enjoy a much more competitive league than we feared during Bayern’s autumnal dominance.
By Tom Clover. Tom is our resident Bundesliga expert, and can be found on Twitter @TomClover.