Bayern dig deep to open 2016 with three points at Hamburg
In football, there are no extra points awarded for the aesthetics of a goal. So long as it crosses the white-line, it counts as much as any other. Even a perfectionist like Bayern coach Josep Guardiola appreciates the need to do things ugly, and every so often, get a slice of luck. On a night in Hamburg where the thermometer dropped below zero, the scrappiest of efforts would hand Bayern Munich three points after the Bavarians defeated Hamburg 2-1 on Friday night.
The German champions opened up an 11-point lead — which could be chopped down to eight after Saturday night — and extend their unbeaten run of matches against Hamburg to 15 encounters. Robert Lewandowski was on target twice to improve his impressive scoring record — his second was his 50th competitive goal for Bayern. Hamburg managed to equalize early in the second half through Xabi Alonso’s own-goal, but when behind, there appeared to be only one winner.
What will have been most disconcerting to the Bayern trainer was the often pedestrian football from his team. The ball was often shifted into ineffective positions; one example is the ‘U’ horizontal pattern which Guardiola appears to scorn. The Catalan, who will leave at the end of the season, had offered prior-warning during the winter break about his side’s weaknesses. "We aren’t quite ready yet to win the Champions League," he said, while acknowledging he wasn’t sure what level his team stood at.
Hamburg’s well-coordinated pressing was effective, but their early attempts were timid from long-range. Aaron Hunt forced Manuel Neuer to scurry across his line and gather on 12 minutes before Dennis Diekmeier struck wide from distance after 20 minutes. Given the competitive start from the Northern Germans, how the hosts conceded the first will have frustrated head coach Bruno Labbadia.
Johan Djourou was caught out of position and Thomas Muller charged through on goal, but after lobbing the ball wide, he was upended by Hamburg keeper Rene Adler. Referee Felix Zwayer was sharp to award the spot-kick, which Lewandowski duly converted from 12 yards and net his 24th overall of the campaign.
Hamburg, a former European Cup winner, has lived a precarious life in recent seasons. The club’s proud record of appearing in every single Bundesliga season since 1963 has sat on the precipice of collapse for the past five years. In each of the last two seasons, Hamburg has survived relegation through the playoff system, but under Labbadia the club has made huge strides towards mid-table stability this season.
Bayern demolished the Northern Germans 5-0 on the opening day of the season, but that clinical edge was missing to kickoff 2016. In the second period, Bayern’s finishing was uncharacteristically slack. French winger Kingsley Coman, arguably the side’s most impressive performer, tested Adler from distance on 46 minutes. Douglas Costa, Lewandowski and Thiago Alcantara all squandered half-chances to leave the game hanging on a knife-edge.
With the help of Alonso’s deft touch, the home side leveled on 54 minutes. Aaron Hunt’s tantalizing delivery, clipped into the box with precision, was turned home by the Spanish midfielder as he attempted to hook the ball clear from the path of Pierre-Michel Lasogga, the Hamburg center-forward who was poised to convert.
Minutes later, Guardiola was dealt another important blow when Jerome Boateng pulled up on the sideline and had to be replaced by Javi Martinez. The German centerback, perhaps the best in his position for the past 18 months in European football, limped off with a muscle injury, which should be overcome in the next week-or-two.
There was no beauty in Bayern’s winner in the 60th minute when a scramble for the ball took place inside the box. Martinez headed on to Muller, but his shot cannoned against Lewandowski and wrong-footed the keeper. Despite the pleas for offside, the Polish marksman was behind both Hamburg centerbacks and took his tally to 17 for the season.
Bayern wasn’t able to add to the scoring, with David Alaba’s excellent free-kick the closest attempt, but the Austrian’s strike hit the woodwork. Inspired by combative midfielder Lewis Holtby, Hamburg’s efforts were admirable, but ultimately in vain as the league-leaders collected the first three points of the new Bundesliga season.
However, for Bayern and Guardiola to achieve their ambitions of a treble this season, including the UEFA Champions League, performances will need to improve.