For two minutes and 40 seconds, it was on. The last-day drama in the Bundesliga title race that all neutrals – OK, all non-Bayern Munich fans – and Borussia Dortmund supporters had hoped for had legs for a brief spell at the beginning of the second half, after Sébastian Haller prodded in an equaliser for Eintracht Frankfurt at the Allianz Arena. It was the season in microcosm. It didn’t last.
Before the window was up, Kevin Trapp could do no more than parry Thomas Müller’s hit from the edge of the area and David Alaba raced in to snaffle the rebound and devour any remaining nerves. At 1-1, with Bayern needing a point to guarantee the title should Dortmund win at Borussia Mönchengladbach, where they were in the process of cruising to a 2-0 victory, there was room for doubt. After Alaba’s intervention, this time, there would be no stopping Bayern.
It became a procession with Frankfurt flagging at the end of a long season but if that was deflating for everyone outside the Allianz, nobody inside cared. This magnificent arena, a formidable bubble of self-celebration at the best of times, was ready to party and what had become a rare moment to savour, of truly having to work for a seventh successive title and, for once, doing it on home turf, became something else.
With the hard work done – and, once Alaba scored, there was never a question of the visitors being able to resist – the party became a homage to the two players who have perhaps been the most visible in Bayern’s last decade-plus of triumphs, the two who ran Barcelona ragged on either side of the pitch in the 2013 Champions League semi-finals before combining for the late winner in the final against Dortmund at Wembley. The pair who cut, thrusted, strutted and even scrapped between each other.
Bayern will not quite be the same without Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben and while many romantics will regret that Dortmund were unable to seal the deal having at one stage led by nine points, it would take a hard heart to fully begrudge ‘Robbery’ their moment. They both grabbed it with two hands, Ribéry scoring a typically stylish fourth before Robben tapped in Alaba’s cross toseal a 5-1 win.
Ribéry, joined by a legion of family and friends afterwards, broke down in tears on the field as his greatest champion Uli Hoeness did likewise in the stands. Now the Bayern player with most Bundesliga titles (nine), it’s easy to forget what Ribéry has been through to get here, via French lower-league ignominy, legal wrangles in Turkey and much more. This meant everything to him.
The way in which Robben mischievously darted around the pitch to douse teammates and staff in the traditional beer-throwing celebrations suggested maybe he does still have the turn of pace to flourish elsewhere, as he has teased. Robben and Rafinha both emptied a flagon over their coach – the departing Brazilian sneaking in to dunk the manager during a live television interview – and, as Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Benedikt Warmbrunn pointed out, “Niko Kovac laughed, [and] the affection pleased and relieved him.”
It would be too much to expect the coach to be front and centre. This is Bayern, after all, where the hierarchical structure always trumps the bloke who simply picks the team and besides, this was Ribéry and Robben’s day. That so many of us were transfixed by the manner of the celebrations, looking for clues of interaction and body language, says a lot about just how difficult it is to gauge Kovac’s work and his short to medium-term security in his role.
Nobody went as far as giving 100% backing during the party – “I’ve always said I’m not getting involved in any speculation, so you won’t hear anything from me,” said Hoeness, his biggest ally – and the suspicion is he may retain his role through default. Nobody really knows whether the Pokal final against Leipzig will change anything either way, as the rebuild starts in earnest.
What must be said for Kovac is that the reaction to the Champions League exit to Liverpool, his nadir, was impressive. Many will say, in the modern parlance, that this young, developing Dortmund side under Lucien Favre “bottled” it (they certainly didn’t under pressure in a poised display against a Gladbach side battling to retain a top four spot). The truth is they were given ever-decreasing margin for error by a Bayern side who were tested as they haven’t often been in recent years, and responded by relentlessly reeling their rivals in. Nobody can take that away from Kovac, whether he is there to greet the new dawn or not.
• So with Gladbach’s slip-up it was Bayer Leverkusen, overcoming last year’s near miss and the subsequent crumbling of the Heiko Herrlich reign, that made the top four with a 5-1 victory at Hertha. Few would begrudge Peter Bosz his happy ending. He inherited a team in ninth place and with six games to go, Leverkusen trailed Frankfurt (and the top four) by 10 points but as the Europa League finalists collapsed under their heavy workload, Die Werkself chipped away and finally arrived in fourth “on the one matchday that mattered,” as Bosz put it. Kai Havertz, whose outrageously confident finish for the opener in Berlin set the tone, finished with 17 Bundesliga goals for the season, the highest single-season tally for a teenager in the competition’s history. He should stay next term, though there are doubts over other young talents, including Julian Brandt.
• The one team that improved their 2017-18 points total even more than Dortmund were Wolfsburg, a whopping 22 better off than they were at the end of last term. They thrashed Augsburg 8-1.
• Julian Nagelsmann, on the other hand, was unable to leave Hoffenheim with European football, as they let a two-goal lead slip on the way to defeat at Mainz. The coach’s full-time contretemps with the home side’s striker Jean-Philippe Mateta underlined the fire in the belly of Leipzig’s future boss, while his team’s misstep meant Eintracht Frankfurt did manage to qualify for Europe again.
• Werder Bremen said their goodbyes to Max Kruse who – the club announced during the week leading up to Saturday’s game with RB Leipzig – will leave at the end of his contract. Any sorrow, however, was lifted by the pre-match announcement at Weserstadion that Claudio Pizarro, who turns 41 in October, will be staying next season, and the Peruvian celebrated by hitting an 88th-minute winner.
• Schalke and Stuttgart waved goodbye to a regular season that both will be pleased to see the back of in a fitting manner, albeit one out of step with the fun and games elsewhere on the final day, with a goalless draw. It’s important to say ‘regular’ season as the latter now face a two-legged playoff to preserve their status, starting on Thursday when they host Union Berlin, who narrowly missed out on going up automatically on Sunday.