A five-star farewell: four takeaways from FC Bayern’s title-clincher against Frankfurt
The capacity crowd at a suitably raucous Allianz Arena would also witness an emotional farewell to two club legends, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry. One could not have written a better script for the occasion, as both veterans came off the bench to find the back of the net.
Bayern fans were expecting a title-clinching win, but not a feast of goals like this. Since their Super Cup drubbling, Adi Hütter’s Frankfurt have had an exceptional season, surpassing all expectations. It was clear that Die Adler’s European odyssey had taken a lot out of them however, and after scoring a surprise equaliser five minutes into the second half, they succumbed to the relentless power of the big red juggernaut as the Allianz Arena was transformed into a hive of pure and unadulterated emotion.
Bayern were not the only team to score a stack of goals on what was an amazing final Saturday. Die Roten were matched by SC Freiburg, who replicated the Munich scoreline against relegated 1. FC Nürnberg. Bayer Leverkusen pulled off the same feat in Berlin, which was enough to pull them into the top four. There were six goals in Mainz, where the home side came back from two goals down against TSG Hoffenheim to ruin Julian Nagelsmann’s send-off before he takes residence in Leipzig. Then there was VfL Wolfsburg, who scored eight of the nine goals in their encounter with FC Augsburg.
Yes, this is my opportunity to do my bit in plugging the Bundesliga, which will always be the most exciting league in the world. Bayern’s last-day triumph is just the crowning moment.
This has been a memorable season, for many reasons. Bayern’s title run was far from perfect, but the competition was all the better for it. Compared to the strolls of the recent past, this season we had to work for it. There were moments of frustration, but it gave us the frisson of excitement and tension we all craved. Finally, younger and more recently-acquired Bayern fans got to see a battle go all the way to the wire, reminding us older fans of some of the titanic struggles in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the end, it was easy enough. Five goals in the can, three points in the bag, job done. But for a short spell, there would have been a few jitters and some biting of fingernails.
Last week, Bayern were denied a win in Leipzig by VAR, when Robert Lewandowski’s errant big toe led to a Leon Goretzka goal being chalked off. Cue an almost identical moment in the final match, when Serge Gnabry had a wonderful goal reviewed and redacted on account of that same Polish Großzehe. It meant that despite peppering the Frankfurt goal, the Bavarians only had a one-goal advantage at half-time. This was followed by the news that Borussia Dortmund had scored a goal in Mönchengladbach, when a VAR review deemed that the ball had not gone out of play before the crucial cross was swung in.
Much like Lewy’s big toe, it was a close-run thing. It clearly looked like the ball was behind the byline, but the mathematicians and graphic analysts had done their thing after the usual to and fro. Maybe there was 0.01mm of the ball on or above the line. Who knows. Right now, nobody really cares.
Either way, at the time, it felt like a conspiracy. Then, five minutes into the second half, Frankfurt equalised. It was one of those moments where the goalscorer seemed to know nothing about it, with the Bayern box resembling a pinball machine. There was something Thomas Mülleresque about Sébastien Haller’s almost accidental finish, which made it even worse.
The good news was that we only had to wait three minutes for the David Alaba goal that restored Bayern’s advantage, and it was all plain sailing from there.
For most coaches at most clubs, a championship title in their first season would guarantee them welcome recognition. In some cases, a place in the history books. But Bayern München is not an ordinary club. Coming into the final week there was the usual mix of “leaks”, “insider statements” and assorted nonsense about the Croat’s future. Stories of him being given the boot even if he won the domestic double. Bizarre rumours of the even less experienced Mark van Bommel being lined up to take over.
I mean, really? Who writes this rubbish, let alone believes it?
It all reminded me of the early 1990s, when Jupp Heynckes’ first spell in Munich was brought to a premature end. When the completely inexperienced Søren Lerby was brought in. When Bayern were being hammered 6:2 by the likes of the now-defunct BK 1903 Copenhagen. Let’s just say things did not end too well.
As far as coaching at a major club is concerned, Kovač still has plenty to learn. But then, the majority of the big names also started out that way. This season has been a minefield for the 47-year-old, yet he has managed to make it through with a smile on his face. There have been tactical issues, yes, but these will surely get ironed out over time. The fact remains that coach can not be judged on a couple of results or even one season, but over the long term.
Just look at Julian Nagelsmann, who has been widely praised by many pundits as a tactical genius. He had been expected to take Hoffenheim into the Champions League, but was unable to even wave goodbye in Sinsheim with a final win that would have sealed a Europa League spot. For all of Nagelsmann’s much-fêted tactical nous and scientific ability, his side threw away a two-goal lead half-time lead and conceded four against middle of the table Mainz. The reality is that being a coach is far from easy.
Some have criticised Kovač for being too generous in his comments after difficult matches, but it is worth remembering that a certain Josep Guardiola would often describe a poor defeat as a “Super Spiel”. These same people will choose to define the season by the defeat against Liverpool, or the dark winter spell that saw the Bavarians thrashed by Gladbach and throw away points at home against Augsburg and Düsseldorf. I am sure that some of these critics might have been secretly wishing for bad results, if just to create the suitable scenario for Kovač’s dismissal.
The way the season actually panned out tells a completely different story. At the end of 2018, Bayern were nine points adrift of table-toppers Dortmund. The professional doom-mongers on social media were suggesting that we would be fighting for a place in the Europa League. Instead, the coach turned it around – an astonishing achievement. Next week, Kovač could be looking at securing a domestic double. What now remains is for the powers that be to give him the backing he deserves. Not just with vague nods of approval, but a clear statement of intent.
As always, the best was saved until last. After all of the gossip and speculation, we knew that this season would mark the end of the Munich careers of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. Two players who can truly be described as Bayern legends. Mercurial in different ways, both players have shaped Die Roten for the last decade.
Frenchman Ribéry arrived from Olympique Marseille in 2007, and made an immediate impact. Dutchman Robben, after a torrid spell at Real Madrid, arrived two years later. Together, they helped take Bayern back to the pinnacle of world football, the highlight being the treble year of 2013, crowned by the Champions League triumph over Dortmund at Wembley. We will never forget Robben’s neatly taken late winner, and Ribéry’s smart assist.
Of course, there were many more magical moments. Far too many to list. Ribéry charging down the left, skinning defenders and leaving them trailing in his wake. Robben, with his signature cut in from the right move, often followed by an even more spectacular finish. When the numbers are rolled together, we get 732 matches, 268 goals and 283 assists between them. We may never see their like again.
It was always going to be an emotional afternoon, but it turned into something nobody could have scripted. Minutes after coming on for Kingsley Coman, Ribéry provided a moment of magic. A familiar charge down the left, a slick move that saw him ghost through two defenders, and a finish that was clinical as it was beautiful. The following scene was also typically Ribéry. Having celebrated by removing his shirt, he hugged referee Sascha Stegemann before receiving his expected yellow card.
Moments later, it was Robben’s turn. Having replaced Serge Gnabry, the Dutchman provided a couple of flashes down the right, and fired in a couple of long-distance efforts. Then, the goal, his 99th in the Bundesliga, duly arrived. Set up on a plate by Alaba, and calmly finished with that prolific left foot. The only shame was that he couldn’t notch up number 100 as the match ticked towards the final whistle.
Let us also not forget Rafinha, who would have got some pitch time against Frankfurt were it not for Leon Goretzka’s injury in the first half. Some commentators and Bayern fans have suggested that the Brazilian should have replaced Goretzka with Joshua Kimmich shifting into the centre. There are those that may use this as another reason to have another dig at the coach, but it clear that decided to go with his head rather than his heart, which was probably the correct decision at the time. Setting up the dream farewell sounds good in hindsight given the final score, but at the time Bayern were only a goal up with plenty to play.
The versatile Rafinha will never be seen in the same frame as Ribéry and Robben, but since his arrival from Schalke 04 in the summer of 2011, he has been the perfect squad man. A feisty player who has always worn his heart on his sleeve, Rafinha, like Ribéry, contributed massively to the squad’s emotional heartbeat.
It is the last time we will see the three R’s at the Allianz Arena, but they may still have a part to play in next week’s cup final. The story is not quite over. What are the bets on Rafinha coming off the bench next week in Berlin, and scoring the winner?