The Bundesliga’s first Englische Woche – as they call a midweek programme of fixtures in Germany – of the season always hands out a few opportunities to unlikely heroes, as head coaches mix it up in the midst of a busy programme.
Carlo Ancelotti, with a prestige Champions League meeting against former club Paris Saint-Germain, is no different, and accordingly made six changes for Bayern Munich’s Tuesday trip to Schalke, the standout fixture of the round.
One was enforced, with Sven Ulreich taking his position between the posts on the day it was announced Manuel Neuer would be out until January with another foot injury, suffered in training on Monday and which has required surgery. Yet if most eyes at the Veltins Arena were trained on the replacement goalkeeper (who began this week with a grand total of seven Bundesliga appearances for Bayern since arriving in summer 2015), the limelight was quickly wrested away from him by one of the other stand-ins.
With Arjen Robben at home in Bavaria with the flu and Franck Ribéry on the bench, James Rodríguez made his first Bundesliga start for the club. While putting a player who was the fourth-priciest in football history when he arrived at Real Madrid in 2014 into the ‘unlikely hero’ category might be stretching it, the level of his influence in his first proper crack was highly impressive.
The conditions were set fair for him, certainly. With Thomas Müller, a player who defies formations if ever there was one, also recalled in tandem, Rodríguez’s place in an amorphous 4-2-3-1 ticked all his favourite boxes. He began on the right, had the liberty to drift into his favourite No10 role when Müller moved out, and even periodically swapped wings with Kingsley Coman.
Coman began on the left giving young right-back Thilo Kehrer a torrid time, but if the 21-year-old felt any relief when the wide pair swapped, it was short-lived. It was into space behind the flagging Kehrer than Rodríguez drifted midway through the first half, and when he got to the byline his cross was charged down by Naldo – or, more specifically, the Brazilian defender’s arm, with the VAR ruling for a penalty after referee Marco Fritz initially signalled a corner. Robert Lewandowski scored from the spot.
Rodríguez had led the initial protests, chasing Fritz with some vehemence, and couldn’t have looked any more pumped for this. He was everywhere, and had a goal of his own five minutes later, sweeping in Corentin Tolisso’s excellent pass after Schalke conceded possession in the own half. “He has improved his physical condition a lot,” said Ancelotti of the Colombian in his post-match press conference. “He’s not yet 100% but today, he was really good.”
There was more to come, too. Rodríguez’s cross was headed against the post by Müller at the start of the second half, with Bayern motoring, and he created a terrific third for substitute Arturo Vidal with 15 minutes to go, lifting a chip over the advancing defence which the Chilean smashed home on the volley. Rodríguez almost had another just before full-time, but the busy Ralf Fährmann superbly palmed out his low shot.
It was quite the statement from a player who hasn’t had it easy since arriving in Germany, dealing with both a very public split from his wife and suffering a serious muscle injury in pre-season, the latter perhaps the nadir of a shambolic couple of days at the Allianz Arena during the Audi Cup. “The goal gave me confidence,” he told the television cameras after, “and made me more relaxed. I was already having a good game and the goal helped.”
That fine fettle is good news for his coach. The perception of Rodríguez’s arrival was that it was nice, but not strictly necessary, with many wondering where he would fit. After all, even the two deepest-lying midfielders in last week’s Champions League match with Anderlecht – Tolisso and Thiago Alcântara – can both do a decent job behind Robert Lewandowski.
A continuation of this sort of form will push him from good-to-have towards vital. He arrived on loan at the behest of the coach, who had not been in favour of him squeezing out Ángel Di María at the Bernabéu three years ago. Yet now, perhaps Rodríguez is the way by which Ancelotti will finally impress a version of his personality on Bayern.
If Bayern’s football has often lacked the requisite sizzle under the Italian, it’s not been for want of trying. The XI against Anderlecht had been stuffed with attacking talent, without connecting to provide the desired fluency. This, with Rodríguez pulling the strings (and Müller’s versatility a very handy foil), was an entirely different kettle of fish. It was with a quiet satisfaction that Ancelotti praised his side’s “intensity” at full-time.
The absence of Neuer could still weigh, especially in the biggest games. Bayern are keen to push the image of business as usual, rolling out Ulreich first for the cameras post-match and getting the hashtag #SvenZuNullreich up on social media post-haste after the game. He had looked shaky in the first half, and it could have been costly when he spilled Daniel Caligiuri’s cross.
The 29-year-old grew into the game, though, and faced his enquirers with fitting modesty. “It’s always difficult to stand in for him,” Ulreich gamely confessed, “because Manu is the best goalkeeper in the world.” If Rodríguez grows into his game much more, maybe Ulreich will be able to continue his role as unassuming caretaker.
• There will be no bedding-in period for new Wolfsburg coach Martin Schmidt. He faced Werder Bremen on Tuesday in what already had the look of a basement battle. After taking the lead with an excellent Divock Origi goal, Wolfsburg ended up grateful for a draw as Werder spurned a stack of second-half chances. Werder’s inspirational midfielder Thomas Delaney, who set up the equaliser for Fin Bartels, chided his team for being “too passive” before half-time. “Thank God we were better after the break,” he added. Schmidt at least has a point on the board ahead of Friday’s trip to Bayern.
• Perhaps wary of being known only for being knocked out during the 2014 World Cup, Christoph Kramer has been busy collecting a spate of new head injuries this week. After getting clanged in the face by Leipzig’s Naby Keïta at the weekend, the Mönchengladbach midfielder was back in the wars in his side’s 2-0 win over Stuttgart, after a collision with Anastasios Donis. No headaches for Dieter Hecking, though, with the iconic Raffael’s brace giving Gladbach the points.
• Leipzig really missed the suspended Keita in the defeat at Augsburg, which was more comprehensive than the 1-0 scoreline suggested. Balance is proving to be an issue in the face of the increased demands on Ralph Hasenhüttl’s squad. Emil Forsberg started on the bench, before being thrown on just past the hour in an attempted salvage operation. At the final whistle, a grim-faced Hasenhüttl confronted Augsburg captain Daniel Baier, who had aimed a ‘Nescafé handshake’ at the coach. Baier was subsequently banned for one game and given a €20,000 fine.
• So much for the Leverkusen revival, and hooray for Hertha, who were excellent especially in the first half of their 2-1 win – thanks in part to another absolute cracker by Matthew Leckie, who has excelled since arriving from Ingolstadt. “We were far too deep in the second half,” said Karim Rekik, though Hertha’s success in toughing out a difficult finish to the game must please Pal Dardai, another coach getting used to heavy rotation.
• Dortmund remain on top of the pile after a 3-0 win at Hamburg, which also made them the first team in Bundesliga history to not concede a goal in their opening five games of the season. Christian Pulisic’s beautifully taken goal was the clubs 3000th in the Bundesliga. For Hamburg – who weren’t actually that bad – the future is a concern after major investor Klaus-Michael Kühne announced he wouldn’t be funding the club further, having already put in €60m over the years. Kühne described the level of finance required in the modern game as “frightening.”
• The misery continues for Köln, whose losing start stretched to five games with the home defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt, for whom Sébastien Haller scored the winner from a debatable penalty. After renouncing their previously-stated intention to appeal Sunday’s loss at Dortmund, Peter Stöger changed three of his back four and was rewarded with an improved defensive performance, but it wasn’t enough. They go to in-form Hannover on Sunday in desperate need of something.
• Hannover picked up another point at Freiburg, with Martin Harnik’s opener for the visitors cancelled out by perennial super sub Nils Petersen, who netted his 20th goal from the bench for Freiburg just nine minutes after coming on. Comeback of the round was by Hoffenheim, who trailed 2-0 at Mainz after 15 minutes and won with an injury-time Mark Uth goal.
Results: Köln 0-1 Frankfurt, Mainz 2-3 Hoffenheim, Hamburg 0-3 Dortmund, Hertha Berlin 2-1 Leverkusen, Freiburg 1-1 Hanover, Mönchengladbach 2-0 Stuttgart, Augsburg 1-0 Leipzig, Schalke 0-3 Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg 1-1 Werder Bremen.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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