Thiago Alcantara punctuated Bayern Munich’s progress to the DFB Pokal (German Cup) semifinals on Wednesday, first with a flying-kick in second half stoppage time to the chest of Bayer Leverkusen striker Stefan Kiessling (for which he only received a yellow card), and later with the winning penalty in a 5-3 shootout win, after the match ended 0-0.
It was indeed a horrible challenge, and one for which the Spaniard, who was making just his second appearance of the season after a year-long absence through injury, certainly should have been sent off.
Off The Post can only conclude that referee Felix Zwayer chose to be lenient with the former Barcelona midfielder due to his persistent injury problems since he joined the German champ for 21.6 million pounds ($31.8 million) in 2013.
Of course, sentiment shouldn’t play a role in refereeing decisions, which is why Alcantara should have seen red. After all, Kiessling was unable to continue. And to make matters worse for Leverkusen, the striker’s replacement, Josip Drmic, missed the penalty that set Alcantara up for the winning spot kick.
These injustices notwithstanding, Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt was gracious in defeat; he even saw fit to praise Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer: "This match did not deserve a loser but, even when it hurts incredibly, I am convinced that it will make us stronger. We've seen the best two goalies [in Germany] tonight, and the best one is between the Bayern posts."
Perhaps Schmidt would have been a tad less gracious if his team wasn’t in such amazing form right now. In fact, so good is Leverkusen’s recent form, that Bayern coach Pep Guardiola said he was delighted to have overcome “one of the best teams in the world” in his postgame press conference.
Now, before you dismiss his comment as hyperbole designed to mask the shortcomings of a team missing two of its biggest stars (we’ll get to this in a minute), consider that Leverkusen has pulled off seven wins, two draws, and just one loss in all competitions in its last ten games. More impressive: since the 2-2 tie at Augsberg on Feb 21, Schmidt’s men have conceded just one goal in all competitions—a 1-0 loss at Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League round of 16 (a result that was really a tie, because it forced extra-time and penalties, which Bayer again lost). That constitutes an amazing eight shutouts in nine games. Is there any other team in the world right now in better defensive form?
Unfortunately, fourth-place Leverkusen is 19 points adrift of Bayern in the Bundesliga standings, and it has now bowed out of both the UCL and DFB Pokal on penalties, so the BayArena club only has a top four spot left to play for, which it should comfortably achieve. Otherwise Schmidt & Co. would have made a perfect dark horse pick a la Atletico Madrid last year to win a trophy this season.
Meanwhile, though Bayern Munich has nearly wrapped up league, Guardiola, with two cup competitions still to play for, might just be beginning to worry about his team’s ability to put the ball in the back of the net. Case in point: Bayern has scored just one goal in its last three games in all competitions, and in its last two, the team managed a grand total of five shots on goal. You would expect more from such a firm favorite for this year’s UCL title.
It’s no coincidence that this offensive blip has come in the wake of recent injuries to Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. The latter, with 17 goals and seven assists to his name in 21 appearances, should runaway with this season’s Bundesliga Player of the Year award, while Ribery, whose season has been beset by niggling injuries, has contributed five goals and seven assists in just nine starts. Robben, out with a stomach tear, isn’t likely to return until the UCL final at the earliest, but the prognosis for Ribery is still unclear.
What is clear, however, is that the absence of Bayern’s two greatest playmakers is starting to wear on Guardiola. Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s quarterfinal at the BayArena, the usually cool Spaniard, when asked about Ribery’s return, snapped back: "I don't know when he'll return. Ask the doctors." Which is another way of saying: "The sooner, the better."