In perhaps the most hotly anticipated season opener in all of its 51 seasons, the Bundesliga kicked off on Friday with a real firecracker of a contest between two historic clubs, great title rivals of the 1970s FC Bayern München and Borussia Mönchengladbach. In some quarters – perhaps slightly ignorant ones, albeit – Pep Guardiola’s first league test had been billed as a foregone conclusion – a question of how many goals the Rekordmeister would sledgehammer home past a sorry Borussen defence, and most certainly not a question of which team would appear better on the night.
All the more stupifying are the facts. Bayern have only beaten Gladbach outright once in the past five meetings – a 4-3 victory on the final day last year joined by two draws – one in the DFB Pokal, which Bayern scraped through on penalties – and two losses. Statistically, you’d perhaps expect the pundits and supporters to respect Bayern’s opposition a little more than they do, but such is the calibre and expectations of this team, anything short of a repeat of last year’s treble will be seen as a bad season for the Bavarians.
Mönchengladbach started the brighter, probing hard into Bayern’s defence without creating any chances of note to trouble Manuel Neuer. On the other hand, Bayern looked much happier to keep the ball with little intent and definitely didn’t attack with intent until roughly 12 minutes in. Franck Ribery played a teasing ball through a gap in the Gladbach defence, who stood like statues, expecting the flag to be raised for Mario Mandzukic’s presence behind them; instead, Arjen Robben took advantage with a probing run and a deft chip over Marc-Andre ter Stegen, scoring what was at that point (and probably still is) the best goal of the season so far. And the first one.
Bayern’s first attack had brought with it the first goal, and with their tails up like bloodhounds, the Bavarians sensed Gladbach were there for the taking. In disarray, die Fohlen couldn’t defend a cross, and when ter Stegen fumbled the ball straight into Mandzukic’s path, the Croatian doubled the lead. Bayern looked like they were cruising, with some people – again, predominantly from an ignorant viewpoint – claiming that the game was over. That it wasn’t. Borussia began to rediscover their rhythm, with Patrick Herrmann gifting Raffael an opportunity that the Brazilian wasted, before Tony Jantschke roughed up Ribery in the area but failed to get a boot to the ball before the onrushing Manuel Neuer collected the ball in his pall.
Mario Mandzukic had a chance for Bayern’s third – heading feebly wide – but Borussia’s riposte was strong, with Kruse forcing Manuel Neuer into a world class save to keep the score at 2-0, and Bayern again settling to control but not create. This drop in intensity allowed Gladbach a way back into the game; Juan Arango playing a low cross into the area, and after miscommunication between defence and goalkeeper, Dante landed a poacher’s effort in the back of the net for his ex-club. It’s a cliché that it’s the best possible time to score, just before half time, but reducing arrears really set die Fohlen up for another crack at Bayern in the second half.
Another crack they indeed had, Kruse forcing another excellent save by Neuer before hitting his own man from another chance. While the opening exchanges to the second half weren’t all one way – ter Stegen being forced into some stops from excellent long range effors by Bayern’s midfield, and the post denying the Bavarians a third, die Fohlen certainly were in the ascendancy and it appeared that if they could become a fraction more clinical, there were still points left in the game for them.
But then, the sucker punch. Out of nowhere, referee/walking Specsavers advert Tobias Welz pointed to the spot. After the initial confusement, it became clear that Dominguez had made contact with the ball with his hand – and, despite the fact it wasn’t an intentional ploy, Bayern had a chance to re-assert their dominance with twenty minutes to go. Thomas Müller stepped up, but his effort was saved by ter Stegen, who sprung to his left and pushed the up, towards the left side of the box. But moments later, the levels of ridiculousness got turned up to 11. Following a fairly innocuous bit of defending by Dominguez, Welz pointed to the spot again – for another handball – and it was another contentious decision.
While the first penalty may be given some of the time, the second was all the more surprising because it actually struck the Spanish defender on the shoulder. Either way, Bayern had another chance, and this time Austrian defender David Alaba sent ter Stegen the wrong way, firing ome for a 3-1 lead.
The following twenty minutes showed typical signs of a team in shellshock following a surprising call, and while they still attempted to haul a point back to Niederrhein, the only chance of note was when Kruse failed to get a shot away from a promising break. Instead, Bayern controlled the game, almost certain of the points – and but for ter Stegen, could have had more goals. Late on, Robben fell in the area while Mandzukic should have seen a second yellow for an off ball incident, but Welz seemed scared to make more massive decisions.
But, credit where credit is due, Bayern hung on well for victory – and overcame a tricky test in a Mönchengladbach side who, at least on this performance, have it in their locker to be there or thereabouts at the business end of the season. Guardiola will be glad to have overcome his first league test, having hoped that the adaptation from the old to new system would not be too costly in terms of points on board. It was a professional performance indeed, but a spectacle that, for seventy minutes at least, both teams and their manager can be proud of producing. And a word must also be said for Borussia’s excellent fans, who outsang the Bayern faithful for the full 90 minutes, a particularly goosebump-inducing rendition of “Die Elf vom Niederrhein” at 2-0 down included. So, it seems that, one game into the Bundesliga’s 51st season, we’re already in a familiar situation – the football’s great, the fans brilliant, and Bayern just can’t help but win.