Bayern Munich show character to win hard-fought double | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 25.05.2019
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Bayern Munich show character to win hard-fought double

After a season of constant speculation over Niko Kovac's job, and fierce criticism of a squad thought to be too old and stagnant, Bayern Munich completed the double by beating RB Leipzig 3-0 in the German Cup final.

Three wonderfully crafted goals delivered Bayern Munich their 19th German Cup victory, but the exploits of Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels, following a season of intense scrutiny, stood out as defining moments in a far closer contest than the scoreline might suggest.

Two standout saves at crucial moments from Neuer quashed question marks over whether the keeper is still up to the task, while Mats Hummels wound back the clock to defy Germany national team coach Joachim Löw's decision to end his international career

On the sideline, Niko Kovac was animated throughout the clash, his celebrations after Robert Lewandowski killed the match in the 85th minute showing a relieved man who has been under constant scrutiny in a tough first season in charge.

DFB Pokalfinale 2018 FC Bayern München - Eintracht Frankfurt | Niko Kovac (picture-alliance/SvenSimon/F. Hoermann)

Winning the league and cup double in your first season is enough to get a second chance, isn't it?

It was a performance of precisely the character and strength that Bayern's critics had argued was missing for most of the season. 

Read more:  Bayern Munich win German Cup, secure domestic double

Match-saving Neuer

Manuel Neuer's remarkable career in goal for Schalke, Bayern and Germany had threatened to start tailing off in the last two years. Scarred by injury, and out of the team in recent weeks, there were even calls to let his match-fit understudy Sven Ulreich play this crucial game in the club captain's stead.

Thankfully for Bayern, Neuer started and excelled. With RB Leipzig well on top in the early exchanges, Neuer stepped up. Most of the 74,000 fans inside the Olympiastadion thought the ball was destined for the net when Yussuf Poulsen met a corner in the 11th minute, but Neuer somehow batted the ball onto the post to leave the ground in shock.

DFB Cup - Final - RB Leipzig v Bayern Munich (Reuters/A. Hilse)

Neuer denies Poulsen early in the game with a trademark reflex save

Bayern were struggling at that stage, uncharacteristically spraying simple balls past the feet of teammates and struggling to adapt to RB Leipzig's relentless pressing and commitment in defense. Kovac cut a frustrated figure as he prowled the sidelines, and without Neuer's reflexes and strong right hand, Bayern would have been flailing.

As it was, Lewandowski scored a fantastic off-balance header on 29 minutes, ghosting ahead of Willi Orban and jumping away from goal to make contact with the ball. The lead settled Bayern and they should have scored at least one more before the break.

"It was not an easy situation, I knew I just had to gamble and try to get the ball on target," Lewandowski said of the difficult finish. "The timing was perfect, the keeper was bit too far away, I think he moved too late and so couldn't get to the ball. Not a typical goal, but I'm happy to have scored from that position." 

But the lead looked fragile at the start of the second half, when Neuer was once again forced to deny Emil Forsberg in a one-on-one on 48 minutes, with his leg and arm both playing their part to deflect the danger.

"Sometimes the ball wants to go in and sometimes it doesn't; Neuer made a great save," Forsberg said later. "Of course it hurts, but I couldn't have done more." 

DFB Pokal Finale - RB Leipzig vs Bayern München (picture-alliance/dpa/H. Schmidt)

Manuel Neuer rolled back the years, twice, in a game where it wasn't certain he'd start

Neuer's opposite number Peter Gulasci had praised the German before the game, and was stoical in the mixed zone after defeat: "I didn't want to jinx it for him, as they say, but it looks like I did! He made two really good saves at important saves." 

Read more:  Former West Germany star Bernd Schuster: 'Ter Stegen should be Germany's No. 1'

Hummels stands tall

Along with Joshua Kimmich, Hummels was Bayern's best defender on the night, reminding the world why he remains one of the game's most intelligent defenders, even if now lacking the pace to keep up with them.

He struggled at times with the pace of Timo Werner, but his positioning prevailed on numerous occasions and his ability to penetrate going forward also impacted the game.

He could have scored Bayern's second on two occasions; Peter Gulacsi denied him from both close and long range either side of halftime. And his commitment in defense was on show as he blocked a thunderous effort from Forsberg after 66 minutes.

"When Lewandowski scored the third and we knew it was over, there was an enormous sense of happiness. A really great feeling, real joy," Hummels told reporters afterwards. "There were difficult phases for us this season, for the team and for the coach, but we boxed our way back out of the corner. We can be very proud of that."

Kingsley Coman would get Bayern's second 10 minutes later, pulling down a loose ball in the box with a neat touch and smashing home with his weaker left foot. And Lewandowksi then sealed the 3-0 victory, beating Dayot Upamecano in a one-on-one battle and delightfully dinking his shot over a stranded Gulacsi.

Leipzig's captain and central defender Willi Orban quipped later that Lewandowski had had a typically anonymous game, punctuated by two crucial goals: "I didn't see him all that often during the game, but he was there in the decisive moments."

DFB Pokal Finale - RB Leipzig vs Bayern München | Arjen Robben und Frank Ribery (Reuters/A. Gebert)

They've lifted 20 trophies together at Bayern, and scored a combined 268 goals

New era kicked off

It was more than deserved for Kovac and his team. Bayern's 2018-19 double-winning season might not be remembered as fondly as some of the others, but it could at least secure Niko Kovac the chance to build something new. 

For Bayern, it's the end of an era as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, perhaps the Bundesliga's best ever duo, played their final games for the club. An emotional Ribery took a while to leave the pitch as the Bayern fans serenaded him with a rendition of Les Champs-Élysées.

The rebuild is now Bayern's main focus with a number of new signings already sealed, while Coman's goal gave fans another reason to believe in the next generation.

Read more:  German Cup: Niko Kovac could make history but still have no future