Double delight in Berlin: four takeaways from FC Bayern’s Pokal victory over RB Leipzig
Opponents Leipzig were tough opponents, and Bayern would have a few rocky moments early on in Berlin. But in the end, everything fell neatly into place. Manuel Neuer, back in the starting eleven, made a fantastic save early on. Kingsley Coman, finally injury-free, scored a stunning goal. Then there was Robert Lewandowski, who made a solid season-ending statement with two clinical finishes.
Bayern may have just pipped Borussia Dortmund to the Bundesliga title, but there are some very strong claims that RB Leipzig were, in terms of form and results, the second-best team in Germany. This is borne out by the raw numbers over the course of what was a very exciting Rückrunde, which put Ralf Rangnick’s side in second behind Bayern, ahead of Bayer Leverkusen and Dortmund.
Given the tough encounter at the Red Bull Arena two weeks previously, it was clear that the Bavarians were going to be presented with a stiff challenge by the Saxon outfit. For the opening half hour, this was indeed the case. Were it not for a stunning save from Manuel Neuer after just eleven minutes, it could have been a far more testing evening in the German capital.
After that, however, Leipzig’s moments were fleeting. The newly-crowned Bundesliga champions dominated the possession, created more chances and ultimately strolled to a decisive victory. Neuer was outstanding, the four-man back line was stellar, and the midfield supreme. To cap it all off, Robert Lewandowski showed just why he needs to stay put in Munich. If just to put things in perspective, the younger and faster Timo Werner, seen by many as a future Bayern player, was completely neutralised – to the point of being almost anonymous.
There were some serious doubts when the team lineup was announced, and I was among those who felt slightly concerned at Neuer’s inclusion. The keeper and captain has had to endure a painful, injury-riddled season, and the thought of him being thrown straight into the mire, up against the likes of Werner, Youssef Poulsen and co., was possibly a step too far. It was a selection that also could have very easy played into the hands of the coach’s critics.
We need not have worried. The Bayern number one was at his absolute best. Secure, assured, and completely and utterly in command. It was if he had never been away.
In the eleventh minute, Neuer produced a save that only Neuer could produce. Poulsen’s firm and well-directed header was surely heading for the back of the Bayern net, but that famously solid right arm forced the ball up and against the crossbar. It was reminiscent of Oliver Kahn’s save to deny Valencia’s Amadeo Carboni in the 2001 Champions League final shootout. We all love Sven Ulreich, but could he have have pulled off that sort of save? It was a moment that separates the good from the great.
One might wonder just how many years Neuer still has left in the locker, but goalkeepers are special beings. If he has managed to put the worst behind him, there is nothing stopping the skipper from remaining Bayern’s regular custodian for a while yet.
For me, there was no one single man of the match. If Neuer was outstanding between the sticks, Robert Lewandowski more than matched him in front of goal. The Polish international has fluffed his fair share of opportunities this season, but still managed to snare the Torjägerkanone for the fourth time – second best behind the legendary Der Bomber. In Berlin, Lewy was simply lethal.
The number nine’s first goal was not just clinical, but the product of a player with a well-honed footballing brain and acute sense of spatial awareness. His calm and precise header left Leipzig keeper Péter Gulácsi completely bamboozled, more than making up for his poor showing two weeks before.
With Bayern two in front after Kingsley Coman’s superb strike, Lewy’s second of the evening was the icing on the Kremówka Papieska. Typical Polish precision, followed by a less typical and rumbustious celebration that was taken straight out of the Franck Ribéry playbook. As the Pole, Trikot in hand, charged towards the ecstatic red-clad supporters in the stands, it was a moment of pure passion that will live in the memory. It was a genuine Mia San Mia moment.
In last week’s Mailbag, I was the only commentator who argued that the “Kovač out” issue should be put to bed. If last week’s resounding triumph over Frankfurt was not enough to keep the dementors at bay, the securing of an historic twelfth domestic double (as well as the Super Cup earlier in the season) should end this tedious discussion. For the moment, at least.
Yes, the coach made a few mistakes. He still has plenty to learn. But he has the passion that we all would want in a Bayern coach, and it is clear that he understands the club and its culture. There were some pundits who suggested that Kovač would be outsmarted and out-coached by the older and more experienced Ralf Rangnick in Berlin. There were also those Bayern “fans” who might have secretly hoped for a Leipzig victory, if just to provide Uli and Kalle with an excuse to give the Croat the boot. Hopefully, these voices have been silenced.
The powers that be have given Kovač their backing, and this needs to be bolstered by giving him the players he needs in order to take the next step after the summer break.
For some, Niko Kovač will never be the right man for the job. However, the fact remains that he turned around a massive deficit, and in taking Bayern to the double became the first man to achieve this feat as both a player and coach. He also gave us one of the most exciting seasons we have seen in years. Even the biggest doubters cannot claim that they have not been entertained.