Bayern Munich dominates Germany’s top-tier league, the Bundesliga, yet again this season, ensuring the top spot at the mid-season break for a record fifth time and strengthening its standing among the world’s top clubs. But a couple of rival clubs are on its heels, hoping to knock the Bavarians from their throne and also win a place in the European Champions League, where the Bundesliga has placed four clubs over the past few years.
Bayern has lost only one game so far this season and enjoys an eight-point lead over Borussia Dortmund. The club is on track to win a record fifth consecutive league title – it already has 25 – and is still in the running to win the German Cup year-end tournament of all domestic teams and the Champions League. Winning all three championships in a season is a feat last accomplished by Jupp Heynckes in 2013.
But the team will spend the second half of the season with a coach whose bags are packed for England’s Premier League – Pep Guardiola. The 44-year-old Spaniard, who is rumored to have clinched a deal with Manchester City, will be replaced by the Italian Carlo Ancelotti in summer. The planned change of guard could be disruptive, especially if the team is knocked out early from the Champions League, its Holy Grail.
“Thomas Müller is irreplaceable. He is an absolute role model for Bayern, a person everybody can identify with.”
Arguably one of the club’s – if not the world of soccer’s – highlights in the season’s first half was the record-breaking five goals scored by Polish striker Robert Lewandowski in less than 10 minutes when he personally demolished Wolfsburg 5-1 in a Bundesliga match in September. The first was a left-footed finish from six yards, followed by a precise long-range shot, then a clever follow-up and a crashing drive from a central position. The last goal was the best: a volleyed scissors-kick. The 27-year-old took home a total of four records that day: the fastest hat-trick (in 3:22 minutes), fastest four-goal haul (5:42 minutes), fastest five-goal haul (8:59 minutes) and the most goals ever scored by a substitute in the Bundesliga. It doesn’t get much better.
There’s no shortage of talent on the squad. On his 300th Bundesliga appearance against Hannover 96 in the last game of the mid-season, the ever-present Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer kept his goal clean – for his 143rd match. With injured Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Douglas Costa watching from the sideline, Kingsly Coman, the 19-year-old French midfielder, won a chance to show off his speed and dribbling skills, scoring four goals in 14 appearances and earning a debut on the French national team in October.
He has been a breath of fresh air since arriving from Juventus in August in a two-year loan, with an option to stay for an additional €21 million, or $23 million. “It’s incredible how fast Kingsley has integrated at Bayern,” Mr. Guardiola told reporters recently. “He has rare dribbling skills that you don’t see very often but his final ball, giving assists, that’s where he can improve.”
Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge will probably have a cigar or two over the holidays after extending the contracts of winger Thomas Müller, defender Jerome Boateng and midfielder Javi Martinez until 2021. Mr. Müller, a top scorer and crowd-pleaser, has been repeatedly linked with a move to Manchester United to reunite with Louis van Gaal, who brought the forward through to the Bayern first team as a youngster. But it’s hard to see this arch-Bavarian, a small-town boy from the Alps whose accent is as thick as bratwurst, play anywhere else.
“Thomas is irreplaceable,” Matthias Sammer said in an interview with the Munich Abendzeitung newspaper. “He is an absolute role model for Bayern, a person everybody can identify with.”
Last month, the club announced record financial figures for its 2014/15 season, including an operating income that exceeded €100 million for the first time and equity capital amount to €411.5 million. Deputy Chairman Jan-Christian Dreesen called Bayern Munich “the healthiest club in the world.”
Borussia Dortmund, second in the Bundesliga table, is fighting not only to keep pace with Bayern but also to keep the English Premier from poaching its star players. The league, awash in more than €7 billion in cash from a lucrative broadcasting deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky network, will have to wait a bit longer for Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The 26-year-old Gabonese, linked with a move to the English league in recent weeks, said he won’t be leaving Dortmund this season, ending speculation about his immediate future.
Mr. Aubameyang is the Bundesliga’s top scorer already with 18 league goals up to now and a total 27 goals in 26 appearances in all competitions so far this season. Dortmund may struggle to hang on to him in the long term.
The English club with a particularly big appetite for Dortmund players is Liverpool F.C. whose new coach, Jürgen Klopp, was the German club’s trainer for the past seven seasons. Mr. Klopp is reported to be trying to poach a number of his former stars at Dortmund, including defenders Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic as well as midfielder Ilkay Gundogan.
Dortmund’s coach Thomas Tuchel has slipped comfortably into the big shoes left behind by Mr. Klopp, who lost his touch in a city that adored him but appears to have regained it in Liverpool. Dortmund suffered a rare 2-1 defeat away to F.C. Köln on Saturday but has done so well and scored so many goals – 84 – in the first six months under under its new coach that it could afford the pre-Christmas slip-up. At least, Mr. Tuchel hopes so.
Borussia Dortmund may be second to Bayern Munich in the German league table, but new figures show the club draws bigger crowds than its arch rival – and any other soccer team in the world for that matter. It had an average crowd of 80,410 at its matches in the 2014/15 season, when it finished the season in a disappointing seventh position, according to figures compiled by Sports Venue. This season, with the club within striking distance of the Bavarians, could see an even higher attendance at the Signal Iduna Stadium – but only slightly – as the stadium only holds a total 81,359 people.
As for the other top contenders, Hertha Berlin, in its last game before the winter break, tightened its hold on third place – that’s right, third place – with a 2-0 victory over Mainz 05, its fifth win in six matches. For those who may have forgotten, this is the same team that managed to escape relegation to the second division last season only because it scored a couple more goals than its second-division rival. The players are largely unchanged and not exactly brimming with individual class.
Many contribute the club’s success to coach Pal Dardai, who has cultivated close relationships with his players and created a winning team spirit. He has also formed one of the fittest teams in the league after putting the squad through a grueling but productive pre-season training that most of the players had never experienced.
Another coach who’s shown a surprisingly winning hand is Andre Schuber at Borussia Mönchengladbach, fourth in the Bundesliga table. After Lucien Favre, who got off to a terrible start with the team, unexpectedly threw in the towel, Mr. Schuber was brought as an interim coach to put the squad back on track. Under his leadership, Mönchengladbach embarked on a 10-game winning streak that included a surprising 3-1 win over Bayern Munich on Dec. 5. The club made a commendable comeback from the bottom of the heap, but the second half of the season will show whether it was fortune or clever coaching that put Mr. Schuber on the victory path.
Bayer Leverkusen will spend the Bundesliga’s winter break fifth in the table and just two points behind Mönchengladbach for a Champions League playoff spot. The club’s chief executive, Michael Schade, has praised one person in particular for its standing – the 27-year-old Mexican Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. Mr. Schade has referred to him as the club’s “life insurance.”
The former Manchester United striker has contributed 11 goals to Leverkusen’s league total of 25, and also scored eight more in the Champions League and the German Cup, where Leverkusen has reached the quarterfinals. The club signed him in the summer transfer period after ManU coach Louis van Gaal saw little need for him, reportedly paying €11 million. “You might dream of a transfer like this, but you can’t expect it,” Mr. Schade said in an interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper.
Mr. Hernandez and his attacking partner, Stefan Kiessling, started off as rivals but have flourished into a dynamic duo.
The award for the cheekiest dirty trick in the first half of the season must go to Augsburg goalkeeper Marwin Hitz, who sabotaged the penalty spot in front of his goal by twisting the heel of his boot into it ahead of a penalty shot by Köln’s Anthony Modeste, who subsequently slipped and missed the goal.
“That wasn’t the fairest thing to do,” Mr. Hitz conceded after the game.
No one disagreed.