We’re almost a third of the way through the Bundesliga season, and Bayern Munich, as is the case more often than not, look like the team to beat. Bundesliga statistics reflect that, as Bayern are not only solidly top of the charts in goals scored but have also allowed the fewest goals in the league.
However, as dominant as Bayern have been in several matches this season, they aren’t running away with the title just yet, and there are several teams whose starts warrant attention as well. Could a legitimate contender emerge from that bunch?
Can Bayern Be Stopped?
When Bayern Munich are beaten, and that’s not often, they don’t like it much. That’s why they respond as they do and therefore win as much as they do, and this season is no different.
After a very un-Bayern-like season, in which they failed to make it past the round of 16 in the Champions League needed a two-month unbeaten run at the end of last season to overtake Hannover 96 and Mainz 05 just to finish third, a response would have been very un-Bayern-like.
So, they signed the best keeper in the Bundesliga – and perhaps the world – in Schalke’s Manuel Neuer and strengthened the back line with the signings of Rafina and Jerome Boateng.
And then they started the season by losing 1-0 at home to Borussia Monchengladbach.
So, Bayern did as Bayern do much, much more often than not when such setbacks occur and responded in a big way. Bayern proceeded to reel off six straight Bundesliga wins and 10 straight wins in all competitions before a goalless draw at Hoffenheim. Then after a 2-1 defeat at Hannover a little over a week ago ended their run of eight matches unbeaten in the league and 13 matches unbeaten in all competitions, they responded by throttling Ingolstadt 6-0 in the German Cup and Nurnberg 4-0 in the league.
Their lead at the top may only be four points over Schalke, but the other numbers are far more impressive. They’ve scored an astounding 30 goals already and allowed a tenth of that, which is even more astounding.
Clearly the impact of Neuer’s arrival and a stronger overall defense are being felt, but there’s also something to be said for the form of Franck Ribery. Mario Gomez deserves plenty of plaudits for his hot start, as his 12 goals top the Bundesliga scoring charts, but Ribery is in fantastic form as well, with five goals and eight assists in 11 matches.
That lead in the table may still be relatively small, but it’s hard to see anyone standing in Bayern’s way this season.
Champions Dortmund Coming Around
After a dream run to the championship last season, Borussia Dortmund stumbled early on this season, but they appear to be getting things right, at least domestically.
After opening the season with win over Hamburg SV, Dortmund recorded only one win in their next five matches. When you lose a talent like Nuri Sahin, there’s going to be at least some sort of impact, but Dortmund also came into this season with increased pressure and expectation after last season, along with the increased workload of the Champions League. Dealing with that isn’t an easy thing to do, perhaps especially when there’s a great deal of youth in a team.
However, they’ve caught fire in the last month, going 4-1-0 in their last five matches, and now they sit third, five points back of Bayern.
Their Champions League form is another thing, as they only have two points from their first three matches, but they aren’t done and dusted there yet if they can turn it on in their last three group games.
While the likes of Götze and Kagawa are playing key roles as expected, Robert Lewandowski deserves a lot of attention for his early form. While striker Lucas Barrios, who scored 35 league goals combined in the last two seasons, continues to work back to 100% fitness, the Poland international has seized opportunity with both hands, scoring seven league goals and 11 in all competitions.
Once Barrios is fully fit again, that’ll make for a real selection headache for Jurgen Klopp, but it’s a welcome headache to have when injuries in the second half of last season threatened to trip up their sprint to the title.
Schalke Surge in Stevens‘ Second Stint
After contrasting a 14th-place finish with a run to the Champions League semifinals last season, Schalke started this season well, going 3-0-1 in the league in August.
Then after consecutive Bundesliga defeats and a goalless Europa League draw away to Romanian side Steaua Bucharest, manager Ralf Rangnick resigned on 22 September, citing chronic fatigue syndrome.
Enter former boss Huub Stevens, who led Schalke to UEFA Cup glory in 1997, back-to-back German Cup titles in 2001 and 2002, and their memorable near-miss in the 2000/01 season. Considering the results Schalke have achieved in his first month-plus back, it’s almost like he never left.
Since his return, Schalke are 4-0-1 in the league, with the lone loss being a surprising 2-1 home setback against Kaiserslautern, consecutive Europa League wins over Maccabi Haifa and AEK Larnaca, and a place in the final 16 of the German Cup by virtue of a win at Karlsruhe.
After Saturday’s 3-1 home win over Hoffenheim, Schalke now sit second – four points behind Bayern. Last season, they had one of the league’s better defensive marks, thanks in no small part to Neuer, but despite the presence of two accomplished strikers in Raul and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, only relegated St. Pauli and Eintracht Frankfurt scored fewer goals than Schalke’s 38.
With a downgrade at keeper (no disrespect to Ralf Fahrmann and Lars Unnerstall), they’ve let their share in, but they’re far more dangerous in attack. Huntelaar is playing as well as he has in some time, while Raul continues to age very gracefully. Huntelaar is second behind Mario Gomez in the Bundesliga scoring charts with 10 goals, and Raul has scored five goals thus far this season after netting 13 times in his debut season with Schalke.
It’s likely quite a few Schalke supporters still miss Neuer, and that’s completely understandable. But this solid start domestically and continentally should show that there is without a doubt life after Neuer.
Resurgent Pizarro Leads Way for Werder Bremen
Despite some recent struggles, Werder Bremen still sit fourth heading into November, five points back of Bayern, only one behind Schalke and level on points with Dortmund.
A big reason for their solid start is a return to form for veteran Peruvian striker Claudio Pizarro. After scoring only nine league goals last season, Pizarro already has eight this season, and he’s assisted on another four, which means he’s had a direct part in 57% of Werder Bremen’s 20 league goals this season.
Pizarro could benefit from a little help though, as he’s the only person who’s scored consistently for Werder Bremen this season. However, Marko Arnautovic will be available this weekend against Cologne after serving a three-match ban for stepping on the ankle of Hannover 96 midfielder Sergio Pinto, and if he can start making headlines for the right reasons, he and Pizarro could form the kind of duo that could lead Werder Bremen to an automatic place in next season’s Champions League.
Surprising Gladbach Sit in Top Six
Last season, Borussia Monchengladbach survived relegation only by narrowly winning a relegation/promotion playoff against VfL Bochum, who’d finished third in the 2. Bundesliga.
Thus far this season, they not only look on track to avoid that battle for survival that they’ve been in seemingly almost every season recently that they’ve been in the top flight, but they could very well finish in the top half of the table for the first time since finishing fourth in the 1995/96 season.
After a 2-1 win over Hannover 96 on Saturday, Gladbach sit fifth with 20 points from 11 games. Last season, it took them 25 games to reach that mark.
Manager Lucien Favre took over in February when Gladbach were in last place, with only 16 points from 22 matches. He steered an amazing late-season revival, with the Foals going 4-1-1 in their last six matches to secure 16th ahead of Eintracht Frankfurt and then defeating Bochum in the playoff to stay up.
It looks like they’ve carried that momentum into this season. Along with the away win over Bayern, they have an unbeaten 4-2-0 record in six home games, with only Bayern sporting a superior home mark. They were one of the league’s worst teams defensively last season, surrendering nearly two goals per game, but that weakness has become a strength this season, as they’ve allowed only eight goals.
Their star individual achiever is attacker Marco Reus, who has five goals in 11 games after reaching double figures last season. The 22-year-old is, as is often the case with a rising German star, being heavily linked with a move to Bayern, but the fact that he’s ignoring all of that speculation (for at least the time being) is good news for Gladbach. There’s no telling what next summer will hold, especially if he gets a spot in Germany’s Euro 2012 squad, but if he can maintain his focus on the now and continue playing at a high level through the end of this season, big things could be in the cards for both him and the Foals.
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