Goals are keeping the Bundesliga exciting even if the title race has a familiar feel with Bayern Munich racing away at the halfway stage.
Only two games were settled by just one goal in the last round before the winter break, with all but one of the rest featuring four goals or more. Bundesliga defenders are having a hard time defending.
Bayern’s early troubles have been quickly forgotten, as has Borussia Dortmund’s best-ever start to the league after its collapse. Meanwhile, Schalke has proven resilient under new coach Domenico Tedesco and quietly moved into second, two points ahead of Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen, which appears to have found consistency after an unsteady start under Heiko Herrlich.
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Cologne already looks doomed after making the worst start by any side since the league began in 1963, while Hamburger SV – the only remaining surviving founding member – faces yet another battle to avoid its first demotion.
Bayern has an 11-point lead and already looks certain to clinch a record-extending sixth straight title. Jupp Heynckes has overseen 15 wins in 16 games across all competitions since returning as coach and few believe the side will undergo the type of collapse that hit Dortmund’s title challenge. Dortmund was leading by five points but then failed to win in eight games and is now 13 points behind Bayern.
”We’ve rarely been able to celebrate Christmas in as relaxed a mood as this year,” Bayern chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said.
Second-place Schalke will be concentrating on qualification for the Champions League and consolidation in Tedesco’s first season. Leverkusen, Leipzig, Borussia Moenchengladbach and Hoffenheim have similar aspirations.
PICK OF THE PLAYERS
Perhaps no player has benefited as much from Heynckes’ return as Arturo Vidal. Heynckes, who worked with Vidal at Leverkusen from 2009 to 2011, said he was unhappy with the Chile midfielder’s condition when he arrived, and warned that he would not play many games unless there was stark improvement ”because there are other players that are ahead.”
Vidal stepped it up in training and responded with a man-of-the-match performance against Augsburg, scoring one and setting up another goal in a 3-0 win. He scored in each of Bayern’s next three league games and kept his starting place for the last two.
Other players to impress: Christian Pulisic, one of the few Dortmund players who looked determined to drag the side out of its slump; Alfred Finnbogason, who chipped in 11 goals and set up three more for Augsburg; and Leon Bailey, whose performances for Leverkusen have been capturing attention.
It took some time for Leon Bailey to settle at Leverkusen after arriving from Belgian club Genk last January, but the now 20-year-old Jamaican has really shone toward the end of the year.
With six league goals already this season, Bailey finished 2017 with the winning goal in Leverkusen’s German Cup win in Moenchengladbach. He had scored two in the previous league game and set up his side’s three goals in the two league wins before that.
Quick, intelligent and cool in front of goal, Bailey looks like a bargain as Leverkusen only paid a reported 12 million euros ($12.8 million) for his services. His contract runs to 2022.
Weston McKennie, 19, at Schalke and 17-year-old Jann-Fiete Arp at Hamburger SV have also impressed.
Perennial underachiever Schalke has surprised its fans by finishing the first half of the season in second place. Tedesco has molded the side into a cohesive unit – with a usually stubborn defense – that has shown great resilience, illustrated particularly in coming from four goals down to draw 4-4 at Dortmund in the Ruhr derby.
The 32-year-old Tedesco, who saved second-division club Erzgebirge Aue from relegation last season, steered Schalke to its best opening half of the season since 2011 with 11 games in a row without defeat. After missing out on European qualification last season, Schalke is on course for the Champions League from Tedesco’s first.
POINTS TO PROVE
Germany forward Sandro Wagner will be hoping his winter switch from Hoffenheim to Bayern Munich does not impact adversely on his chances of playing at the World Cup.
The 30-year-old Wagner, a late addition to Joachim Loew’s Germany side with five goals in seven games since making his debut this year, will have to be content with a substitute’s role at Bayern, where league top-scorer Robert Lewandowski is virtually irreplaceable.
Loew said he had discussed the switch with Wagner, who must now hope he gets enough playing time to remain in form.
Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer will hope to return from injury on time to cement his place in the World Cup squad.