High-flying Hannover stunned an again off-colour Bayern Munich side and moved into second place in the Bundesliga table.
Both sides came into this game in nigh-on full strength condition. There were three key absentees, however – Bastian Schweinsteiger, who’d accumulated five yellow cards (although given his sketchy recent performances, some might argue he and the team needed a brief break from one another), Luis Gustavo, who had the sniffles, and for the hosts, top scorer Didier Ya Konan, sidelined with a knee injury.
Although Hannover started the game one place ahead of Bayern, you could argue the psychological advantage was with the Bavarians going on the last four results between the two sides: 5-1, 3-0, 7-0, and most recently, in October 2010, 3-0. The victories – 18-1 on aggregate – were all in Bayern’s favour. And, ominously, the 5-1 win that came in the March of 2009 was on the back of a midweek cup elimination for FC Hollywood – something Louis van Gaal’s side experienced on Wednesday when humiliated by Schalke at the Allianz Arena.
From kick off, Hannover went long, looking to press high, and standing their defence just off the halfway line, forcing their guests into an early submission. However, the plan backfired when Bayern cleared with a hoof, causing Karim Haggui to haul down Mario Gómez in a moment of panic. For 15 or so minutes thereafter, the ball, territory, and ability to dictate the game’s tempo was Bayern’s, and they had an early chance to show for their command of the ball. However, Arjen Robben’s daisy-cutter free-kicker was easy for the goalkeeper to take. The home side, three banks wedged together, weren’t being pulled out of position by the teasing Bayern sideways passing. Content to let the visitors come into their half, Hannover defended aerial and ground passes with determination and aggression, keeping both centre-backs within a yard or two of Gómez.
Gradually, Hannover began to push up the pitch as a unit. Although the pressing didn’t reach the stage of sprinting into the face of the ball-holding defenders, the strikers and widemen began forming a wall higher up the pitch. Bayern, although not quite flustered, tried operating a direct style of play – long balls for in-form Gómez to chase. With both Hannover central midfielders relatively deep, there wasn’t the space for Franck Ribéry or Arjen Robben to cut inside as the world and his dog knows they’re so fond of doing. Despite the lack of cutting-edge shown by van Gaal’s side, Hannover were no great shakes on the ball either. Panicky and wasteful, they nevertheless had a chance to change the complexion of the tie in the 12th minute. Caught high and casual, Bayern were on the backfoot when Jan Schlaudraff counter-attacked down the right, played a clever and unexpected cutback to Konstantin Rausch, only for the marker-free youngster to bounce a first-time volley into the side netting.
Trying to prise Hannover apart, Bayern kept their two wingers on the chalk. However, the space left them vulnerable, giving the home side’s central players the chance to release the confident wingers on one-on-one duels they were winning every time. This problem was encapsulated in the 15th minute when Rausch burst down the left, sent a sumptuous diagonal cross into the enormous corridor between the trademark erratic Bayern defence and Thomas Kraft. In acres of space, Mohammed Abdellaoue – a handful throughout the first half due to his love of dropping deep for a spot of holding the ball up or flicking it on – steered the ball in masterfully for 1-0! Moments later, Lars Stindl burst down the right, but wasn’t as successful with his ball across the box for Rausch, who timed another ghost into the box to perfection. Bayern didn’t exactly respond explosively in the immediate aftermath, although another Robben free-kick kept Ron-Robert Zieler on his toes.
Approaching the half-hour mark, Schlaudraff was running riot – drawing lunges, hassling defenders, and pulling Bayern out of his own’s side half. Hannover were cruising, and dominated possession for a short spell of five minutes or so. They had both full-backs stood in the opposition’s half, and Robben and Ribéry chasing shadows and tucked infield alongside the defensive midfielders. On the rare occasions Bayern did cut in and nick the ball, Hannover halted their attacks down the left with great energy – aided by a too-often delayed releasing pass. Bayern were never able to get Toni Kroos involved, such was the congestion in the centre, and although the Bayern full-backs were now pushing on every time the away side got the ball (maintaining the width and allowing Robben and Ribéry to cut inside), van Gaal’s side were so one-dimensional, and too often used the full-backs as decoys while their expensive widemen ran into brick walls. Of course, all this only kept the Hannover wing threat alive, and Rausch should have punished the out-of-sorts visitors by turning in another Stindl cross.
It’s arguable that Bayern’s reputation and a possible underestimation of their opponents was influencing how the game played out too. Whereas the home side’s players hacked down their opponents’ very few decent final-third moves, Bayern’s defence let the Hannover attackers come at them. Similarly, Hannover’s midfield always kept two of Bayern’s three central midfielders man-marked when Bayern toyed with making a pass from the defence, although as the hosts always went long from goal-kicks and restarts, Bayern never had the chance to replicate this tactic.
His job (and reputation) on the line, van Gaal made two changes at the interval. The haphazard Holger Badstuber and ineffectual Anatoliy Tymoshchuk went off, replaced by Daniel van Buyten and Andreas Ottl – like-for-like positional changes. The Dutchman’s side started the half with urgency, as Breno stormed out from the back with the ball, looking to release Gómez between the right-back and right-sided centre-back – a zone the striker had occupied throughout the first half. Mirko Slomka’s side were now in a more defensive mindset – wide midfielders and full-backs interchanging, as one followed Ribéry or Robben inside, the other providing the net for the overlap of the Bayern full-backs or Gómez. Attack-wise, the long ball was the only way forward for Hannover, and van Buyten joined his colleagues in struggling to shackle Abdellaoue. When the Belgian was drawn out and into fouling the Norweigan striker, he gave away a free-kick. The ball was sliced clear for a corner, which Hannover played short. Rausch, catching Bayern off-guard, cut in through the left-hand joint of the box, and curled a left-footer into the top-corner for 2-0!
Alas, the goal only served to make Hannover very nearly shoot themselves in the foot. In the throes of their excitement, they were too gung-ho with their pressing. Thus, a mix-up allowed Ribéry to reach the byline and dink a ball across the box, and Robben made it 2-1 with his head in the 54th minute (four minutes after Hannover had given themselves a seemingly priceless two-goal cushion). Flying down the flanks with greater incision and purpose (aided by Hannover sitting deep, reducing their threat on the break), Bayern were now getting in behind their hosts regularly. Hannover responded to this threat as the hour mark approached by adopting a six-man defence; their widemen essentially operating as full-backs. Despite this congestion of the zone surrounding and including the D, there was no structure to the way Hannover were manning it now. When Robben ducked infield and carried head-down towards goal, four home side players were caught in his dust, and eventually, one of them managed to scythe the Dutchman down.
But lest we’d forgotten, this is Bayern Munich, and calamity is never far away these days. Robben was robbed on the halfway line, and looked pleadingly from the floor for a free-kick he was never going to get. The dispossesser, Sérgio Pinto, was allowed to carry towards the D as four Bayern defenders backed off. The Portuguese midfielder – with all the time in the world – let fly, only for Kraft to catch the shot. Yet somehow, the young custodian conspired to drop the ball over himself and into the net! 3-1, with 28 minutes to play. As we to’ed and fro’ed, Bayern, now in a 4-2-1-3, nearly made it 3-2 with 25 minutes to go – the long ball over to Gómez finally having the desired effect, as the German international held it up before quickly laying it off for the incoming Robben (who fired wide). Two minutes later, the former Chelsea man was fed to go one on one, but the former Manchester United ‘keeper Zieler was off his line in a flash.
The ball was now mainly Bayern’s, and Hannover were happy to give them it with their long goal-kicks, which enabled the hosts to get back into their compact 4-4-2, with their defence nearer the halfway line than Zieler, and both forwards narrowing the angles for the ball-holders in the Bayern defence. Van Gaal had three attackers bobbing in and around the Hannover back four, with Robben teasingly dropping back to get the ball and run at the defence. Bayern’s attack-minded formation received a blow in the 72nd minute, however, when Breno was harshly sent off for *kicking out* at Stindl. His Dutch coach, who’d spent the game with his eyebrows planted in his fringe and his eyes wider than his Brazilian centre-back’s torso, now looked close to losing it physically with the rest of his body. He managed to hold himself together eventually, but one thing will surely now be lost… his position as coach of Bayern Munich.