As Joshua Kimmich roared his approval on the final whistle, hearts may well have sunk among newly assembled enthusiasts around the world and, likewise, in the Bundesliga’s marketing department. Bayern Munich’s Tuesday teatime win in the table-top clash at Borussia Dortmund may have been narrow, but it was also as significant as football can be in the strange world we currently inhabit.
Moving the incumbent champions seven points clear of their most common irritants with six games to go, there is really no way of looking at the aftermath that suggests that the contest is still going. Just as the Bundesliga opens itself up to the world, any pretence of a title race has been closed off. “From today,” lamented Dortmund’s outstanding defender Mats Hummels, “I think all the other teams are out of it.” Winning goalscorer Kimmich appeared to take no little delight in proclaiming how “mentally tough” it would be for BVB to find their way back from here if, indeed, they were ever really in the title race in the first place.
Yet if we as observers and enthusiasts of football have become quite bad at using the end point to rewrite the details of the journey, now would be a good time to stop. The efforts of both teams made this an occasion to savour, and it was a more than worthy battle. The tension that one mistake could be vital in the title race propelled the spectacle, rather than constricted it. It was, certainly in the first half, thrilling fare and a rare occasion on which the football itself was so involving that the emptiness of the stadium sank to the back of the mind.
It signalled its intentions early on, with Erling Haaland threading the ball through a retreating Manuel Neuer’s legs after he had rushed out to stop Thorgan Hazard. Jérôme Boateng mopped up the danger from in front of the goalline, his first decisive action in a late afternoon that saw him – like Hummels – roll back the years towards his majestic best of Brazil 2014.
The claim of finding the fire within might be a cliché but both teams did here, and Bayern increasingly so as the game unfolded. “Maybe with the ball, it was not our best,” Thomas Müller told the Bundesliga’s world feed broadcast in the moments after the final whistle. “But with the heart,” he continued, beating the left side of his chest, “and that’s the most important thing.”
In close games at the top we often hear of Bayern-Dusel – the mythical ‘luck’ particular to the Rekordmeister which means sometime, somehow, they always get it done. There was none of that here though, even if other VAR officials would have suggested a look when the grounded Boateng’s upper arm deflected Haaland’s second-half shot wide. Bayern got it done through application and strength of will, and they deserve their extended lead at the summit.
It was more than desire alone, of course. Bayern’s ability “to bring the skills of a league leader into the game” as it progressed, as Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Christof Kneer put it, was the fine margin that won them the game – part mentality, part sheer quality. Kimmich will take deserved credit for his goal, less a bolt than a looped vapour trail from the blue, and Hansi Flick grinned that he was “satisfied with him in every training session and every game,” though both player and coach hinted that the latter had put the idea in the former’s head, pointing out Roman Bürki’s habitual position off his line. It underlined Flick’s starring role in shaping and enabling this talent in recent months.
As well as being a goal worthy of winning most games, Kimmich’s strike did underline what was lacking in their challengers. It would be churlish to skim too much credit from the midfielder’s visionary moment but having got a hand to it, Bürki must have felt great disappointment in not being able to avert it. The Swiss goalkeeper should not be hung out to dry for this but it was perhaps him, and Dortmund under Lucien Favre, in microcosm. Very good (and Bürki has been one of his team’s outstanding players in the past two years), but not quite elite.
Much of the focus on Favre’s words after the match were about him seemingly casting doubt on his own future, as Sky’s Patrick Wasserziehr asked if he was capable of taking the team on to the next step, and Favre enigmatically replied that he would explain his views further “in a few weeks.” Perhaps the greater proclamation of note, however, was the sympathetic arm-around-the-shoulder he offered his team arguing “we played well, better than against Wolfsburg or Schalke.” That may well have been true, but it felt like settling for what was not quite good enough.
On Wednesday morning, Kicker’s survey for the day asked if Favre should remain at BVB beyond the season’s end. If it seems harsh, that’s because it would be to some extent (and Lothar Matthäus’s post-match suggestion that Kovač would fit well as a replacement would do little to lift the spirits of fans, one imagines, feeling like a change for the sake of it), and the leaden displays of Emre Can and Jadon Sancho, two usually sure-fire game changers whose second-half introductions instead caused Dortmund’s tempo to plunge, underlined how fitness issues tied the coach’s hands when it came to the crunch. It wouldn’t, however, be out of kilter with the prevailing breeze of the campaign, in which Favre has already survived a few hairy moments.
That scent of nearly but not quite has always clung to Favre’s Bundesliga career. Judging him, or anyone, against this magnificent Bayern, is not entirely even-handed. For even in smothering hopes of a thrilling run-in, the champions’ palette has already offered plenty to savour.