For the seventh game in a row, Bayern Munich came from behind, this time to beat Leverkusen and leapfrog them to the top of the league. Robert Lewandowski gratefully accepted his opponent's gifts, as Matt Ford reports.
Ahead of kickoff in a deserted BayArena, Bayer Leverkusen presented Robert Lewandowski with a bouquet of flowers in recognition of the Bayern Munich striker being crowned Footballer of the Year. And it wouldn't be the last early Christmas present they would hand the Polish hitman over the course of the evening.
With just seconds remaining at the end of a scrappy second half, Jonathan Tah miscontrolled, comeback kid Joshua Kimmich nipped in, and Lewandowski fired a deflected effort past Lukas Hradecky. Hansi Flick turned and roared at this bench, fists clenched. On the edge of the center circle, his players danced and shouted in an ecstatic huddle.
It hadn't been pretty, but what Bayern have lost to sheer fatigue in recent weeks, they make up for with an irresistible will to win. Seven times in a row they have fallen behind, and seven times they have come back. In midweek, it saw them inflict a first defeat of the season on Wolfsburg. Here, they did the same to Leverkusen, leapfrogging Peter Bosz' team to go top of the Bundesliga over Christmas.
"We know we suffer from these attention deficits," Flick told DW, adding: "But now we finally have a short break and it's something we want to improve. This was the ending that we all wished for, rounding off a fantastic year for the team."
A fantastic year indeed, and yet they had the generosity of Bayer Leverkusen to thank for its happy ending – and of Jonathan Tah in particular. As if flowers and a last-minute winners weren't enough, the central defender had also been at fault for Bayern's equalizer at the end of the first half, getting his wires horribly crossed with Hradecky and allowing Lewandowski to slip the ball into an empty net. "A childish error," the Finnish goalkeeper admitted.
They were scruffy goals which summed up a scruffy game characterized by losses of concentration at key moments at the end of an unprecedented year. Professional footballers have been fortunate in being able to continue doing their jobs at a time when other professionals have been unable to – but they are also human, and the physical strain finally seemed to take its toll.
Because, although it certainly finished with a bang, this was more leftover Boxing Day sandwiches than the true Christmas cracker we'd been promised between two of Germany's most exuberant teams.
Bayer Leverkusen, league leaders for the first time since 2014, the Bundesliga's only unbeaten team, who had scored four goals in each of their last three games. And treble winners Bayern, who have blown away all before them in 2020.
And it started with a bang, too, when Patrick Schick hammered home a ferocious volley from a corner early on. It was the 19th goal that Leverkusen have scored from a set piece variation this season – a result of work done on the training field by Peter Bosz' assistant coach Rob Maas.
Against Hoffenheim last week, Leon Bailey had fired home a beautiful effort from a short corner taken in front of the north-east corner where a Jamaican flag bears his name. This week, Schick's finish, in which he demonstrated a technique reminiscent of Zinedine Zidane's volley in the 2001 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen, means it surely won't be long before a Czech flag joins the Jamaican one.
The former Roma and RB Leipzig man now has three goals in four games in December, and he had the ball in the net again on the half-hour mark, but was adjudged to have been a millimeter offside.
Bayer were causing Bayern exactly the sort of problems which Hansi Flick may have expected, starting conservatively with David Alaba and Corentin Tolisso protecting a back four.
Still, time and again, Leverkusen's midfield were able to pick out through balls to Bailey, Schick, Moussa Diaby and Florian Wirtz. But the Werkself's decision-making let them down at key moments, Schick unable to decide whether to feed Diaby or shoot himself in the 53rd minute, for instance.
And so, Bayern remained in the game – and that's always dangerous. But they weren't their fluid selves.
Kingsley Coman, declared "uninjurable" by former German international Lothar Matthäus before kickoff, withdrew with what looked like a hamstring injury after half an hour – another body succumbing to the strain. His replacement, Leroy Sane, only lasted 35 minutes before himself being removed in favor of Jamal Musiala – who struck the post late on as Bayern pressed for a winner.
"The freshness is lacking a bit," explained Lewandowski. "But when the fatigue sets in, that's when you have to show your quality."
That's precisely what he did in injury time. And it's precisely what Bayern have done on the final stretch of what has been a marathon year.
+++ As it happened +++
In truth, Bayern didn't have to do all that much to win that game. And Leverkusen keeper Lukas Hradecky, one of several players culpable for the first goal, has just summed it up. "A childish mistake" he told Sky. In England, I think we'd say schoolboy error. Sounds about right.
The matchwinner told broadcaster Sky that Bayern's strength lay in their refusal to give up.
"What a year we have had," he said. "We always want more. And I hope that next year we will keep scoring goals like this." He added that his team had "the game under control".
FULL TIME: A familiar tale as Bayern yet again come from behind to win a game. They've trailed in each of their last seven matches but they just get the job done. Horrible mistakes cost Leverkusen, who started the match so well. Bayern are top as the Bundesliga heads in to its truncated winter break. And Robert Lewandowski does it again.
90+3 - Bayer Leverkusen 1 - 2 Bayern Munich (Lewandowski)
That's why they're champions. A horrible touch from Tah grants possession to Bayern and the ball is shifted to Lewandowski. He's wide on the left but his shot takes a deflection off Tapsoba and loops in. Another really poor error from Leverkusen, another Bayern comeback, another Christmas at the top of the table for the Bavarians.
90+2 - Lewandowski decides to drop deep and take matters in to his own hands. He lets fly form 25 yards but Tapsoba gets out an blocks. It loops high towards goal and Müller is briefly interested, but it falls to Hradecky.
90' - Diaby gets away from Davies for the first time in the match. But his cross is just too firmly-struck for Alario. Decent chance, that.
87' - Another corner to Bayern. It's better from Kimmich but Hradecky is decisive in punching clear.
84' - Amiri, Leverkusen's brightest spark, finds some space down the left. He's not really got much to aim for but buys a corner. Demirbay works a one-two from it but again fails to beat the first man.
83' - Yep, Schick is replaced by Alario. That's two hamstring injuries now. Perhaps a product of the relentless schedule.
79' - Woodwork!
It's nearly there. A great run down the left from Davies starts it off. The Canadian beats his man then pulls it back. It misses its initial target but finds Musiala who takes a touch and steers it against the post from the edge of the box. Schick looks to have done his hamstring now.
77' - If there's going to be a winner in this, it feels like it's going to be Bayern. They've had all the play in the second half and they've been here before.
74' - Leverkusen remove Bailey in favor of Demirbay. A frustrating night for the Jamaican.
73' - Kimmich swings in a free kick from deep on the left. The clearance bounces free and Lewandowski is winding up, but Müller decides he wants a crack with his back to goal and sends it harmlessly over.
70' - Gnabry is looking a real danger now as he stands up Tah before sliding a through ball ahead of Lewandowski. Hradecky is out quickly to prevent a big chance. Leverkusen look powerless to resist here.
68' - Double substitution
The sub has been subbed. Sane, who had a poor game after coming on early for Coman, is withdrawn for Musaila and Kimmich makes his return from injury. He's on for Tolisso.
67' - Chance!
Bayern spring Gnabry away down in the left channel and he drives the ball low across Hradecky. But the keeper makes a decent save, pushing it round the post. The visitors smell blood.
65' - Bayern ramping it up now. Sane and Lewandowski involved as they try to pick the lock in the box. But Dragovic gets in a crucial block at a crucial moment.
64' - Gnabry dances his way in to the box, a rare bit of real quality, but Müller takes over and his shot is blocked.
61' - A lot of tired-looking players out there, which has made for a low quality game. Amiri is an exception and his swerving drive from distance is saved, with a little difficulty, by Neuer.
60' - Amiri, whose influence is growing in this half, takes one corner. It's headed behind. The second one goes short and soon finds its way back to the halfway line.
57' - A better cross now, as Amiri lifts a freekick in towards Tah, but a Bayern head beats him to it. Then Bayern break through Gnabry but he gets his feet in a tangle and can't find a pass.
55' - Sane drastically overhits a corner, it's retrieved on the other side of the pitch and Bayern eventually win a throw. Not much comes of it. There have been some woeful crosses in the last 10 minutes.
53' - Hernandez dwells on the ball as the last man in the final third and Tapsoba, somehow the furthest man forward, robs him and appears to be in. The referee blows the whistle but that looked a clean tackle to me. Lucky Lucas.
52' - Davies and Alaba combine to bring Schick down and hand Leverkusen a freekick in a decent position on the right. But Amiri's ball is poor and fails to beat the first man, not a great start to the second half from Leverkusen.
50' - Diaby, who has been quiet, gets some space to run in to. But he opts for an early cross, which is terrible and bounces tamely in to Neuer's arms.
48' - Bayern stream forward in a promising counter but Gnabry picks the wrong option and, after the ball falls to Sane, he loses out to the backtracking Wirtz.
46' - And we're off in a second half that will determine who is top of the Bundesliga at Christmas. Straight away Bayern are in the ascendancy, forcing a corner. It's taken short, recycled and eventually Müller is squeezed out by Tah just outside the six yard box.
HALF TIME: Lewandowski's effort is poor, striking a hip in the wall, his second effort is equally tepid and, when the ball falls to Müller, he's offside. That's it for the first 45. Not a great game by any stretch of the imagination. But it was a great goal by Shick to get us underway. Once again though, Bayern bounce back, though a string of elementary errors from the hosts lent Lewandowski a helping hand.
45+4 - Bayern sneak in a corner which Süle gets a head to. But he's crowded out. But hang on, Tolisso's attempt to get the ball back in to the box has been rewarded with a freekick for handball. Good position right on the edge of the box, just to the left of the 'D'.
45+1' - In to three minutes of injury time here and Bayern have a free kick out on the right in the final third. Gnabry whips it in and Lewandowski finds far too much space at the front post ten yards out. But he can't get over it and sends it flying over.
43' - GOAL! Bayer Leverkusen 1 - 1 Bayern Munich (Lewandowski)
Oh deary me. A string of dreadful errors undo Leverkusen. First Tapsoba's loose pass is intercepted by Süle on the right, then - after Sane worked it to Müller, Tah and Hradecky challenge each other for the cross and got underneath it. Lewandowski just waits at the back post to head in to an empty net. Very on-brand for Leverkusen, that.
42' - Scrappy stuff here, as it has been for most of the half from both sides.
39' - Sane dips in from the left and tries to play a simple 10 yard pass to Lewandowski but it's way off target and rolls out of play on the other side of the pitch.
38' - Amiri drives at Süle just inside the Bayern box, but his soft shoe shuffle goes awry and it runs out of play. The big man looks a target for Leverkusen's quicker players.
35' - You know things are slightly desperate when Süle chances his arms with a 25 yard shot. The makeshift right back's effort flies predictably over. Worrying performance for Flick so far.
32' - Early substitution
Coman limps off and then lies on the turf holding his leg. Sane replaces him. Not a bad sub, but the Frenchman has been on great form this season.
30' - Schick is at the center of the action here. The Czech striker forces a short pass to Diaby on the edge of the box but Süle slides in to block. The shot may have struck Süle's arm on the deck but he knew nothing of it. And Coman is in trouble.
28' - Disallowed goal!
Patrik Schick is suddenly streaking through on goal with the freedom of the Bayern half. He slips it low to Neuer's right but looked offside. Replays look closer than the naked eye but it's eventually ruled out. A warning sign for the high line.
27' - The visitors trying to build a bit of momentum and try an attack down the right. It's eventually worked infield to Gnabry, who has drifted in off the left but his effort it blocked.
24' - Gnabry is handed a yellow card after a pretty clumsy aerial challenge. He was up way too early and crashed in to Dragovic.
21' - Chance!
Bayern put together their best move of the match as Davies flies down the left. The Canadian picks out a smart pullback to the onrushing Alaba but the Austrian completely misses his kick. The ball runs through to Lewandowski who totally shanks it. First signs of life from the champions.
19' - Leverkusen working the ball nicely now and a string of passes leads to a shot. Wirtz speeds up the move with a cute flick around the corner and Schick tests Neuer from the edge of the box. But it's low and comfortable enough for Bayern's shot stopper.
17' - Bayern have another corner but again it's no trouble for the hosts, where's Kimmich when you need him?
14' - GOAL! Bayer Leverkusen 1 - 0 Bayern Munich (Schick)
Pick that out! A sensational strike form Schick puts Bayern behind yet again. Bailey worked a corner on the right short to Amiri. He stood up a ball to the back post and Schick leathered a waist high volley past Neuer's hand in to the top left corner. I think that was the first shot of the match.
11' - Bailey again looks to go one-on-one with Davies but again his touch is heavy and again it goes out of play. A forgettable start to this one.
9' - Tolisso sends Coman away down the right. He whips in a deep cross early after spotting Lewandowski peeling away to the back post. But he overhits it slightly and the Polish striker can't get it under control.
8' - Fairly sedate start here, two heavyweights feeling each other out a bit before attempting to land the big punch.
5' - Bailey tries to slip past Davies on the Bayern left. It'd be some foot race that, but the winger's touch is heavy and it dribbles out for a goal kick.
4' - Leverkusen have settled a little, popping the ball about in the middle of the park, but then Wirtz punts one out of play under little pressure.
2' - An early corner for Bayern, who start on the front foot. But it's easily cleared. Süle appears to be trusted at rightback again.
Not long to go now, so let's have a quick recap of the table situation. RB Leipzig's 0-0 draw with Cologne earlier means they can't go in to the short winter break top. A draw in the big game would keep Leverkusen top of the pile, a win would extend their lead over RB to three points and a Bayern win would see them go two points clear.
A couple of big calls to make for Hansi Flick, with a few injuries in midfield. Leon Goretzka doesn't make it, so it looks like David Alaba will partner Corentin Tolisso with Alphonso Davies at leftback and Niklas Süle in the center. Probably. There are a few ways they could work this one, with no natural right back in the line up. Florian Wirtz, the latest wünderkind off the Leverkusen production line, starts for the hosts, with Patrik Schick the focal point up front.
RB Leipzig missed the chance to go top ahead of this evening's game after failing to breach a resilient Cologne defense in a 0-0 draw at the Red Bull Arena. Further down the table, Borussia Mönchengladbach missed an opportunity to make up ground after spurning a 1-0 lead to lose 2-1 to Hoffenheim at home. But they may well be without Marcus Thuram for some time, after the French forward was dismissed for spitting at Stefan Posch from close range. A serious offence in normal times, the specter of COVID-19 could well see the league hand down a big suspension.
Elsewhere, Schalke continue to edge closer to the Bundesliga's longest ever losing streak, a late goal won it for Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt won in Augsburg.
DW's reporter Matt Ford is in Leverkusen for us today. But perhaps got a little over-excited and set off a touch early. Still, at least he can watch all those goals in the early kickoffs. Oh...
At half time in the five early Bundesliga matches, it's pretty soporific stuff. RB Leipzig, who would go top for now if they won, are being held by Cologne and the only goal so far has come from the penalty spot, Lars Stindl scoring for Borussia Mönchengladbach. Hopefully the goals are being saved for tonight.
Despite being controversially pipped to the FIFA Best men's coach award on Thursday (Robert Lewandowski did at least bring home the best men's player award), Hansi Flick was quick to turn his attention to Leverkusen.
"We're good sports about it. Kloppo and his coaching team deserved the award, just as our team would have done," he said in his prematch press conference. "Obviously we were a bit disappointed yesterday, but life goes on - we've got new targets to reach.
"They [Leverkusen] are a quality team in really, really good form. They're confident and they're playing well. They have a style of play - they play possession football and are capable of dictating the game."
Flick added that he was keen not to rush Joshua Kimmich back from injury while Leon Goretzka is touch and go for the game.
Peter Bosz took time to praise both Leon Bailey and Florian Wirtz and hinted he thought Bayern are a touch more vulnerable than usual after their tough schedule.
"Bayern is and remains a top team," he said. "At the moment they are one point behind us and are winning their games - even if not as convincingly as last year. But we are on a good run and play good football. The self-confidence is there.
“I don't care who is the favorite in this game. For me, such a top match doesn't mean added stress. As an athlete, you want to play big games; that gives you a special energy. Tomorrow will be this kind of game."
-- After another dismal defeat for Dortmund last night, their title hopes look to be hanging by a thread. That's not the case for these two and the winner, if there is one, will go in to a truncated winter break top of the pile.
That's to be expected for Bayern Munich but Peter Bosz' Leverkusen have been more of a surprise package, particularly given the departure of Kai Havertz. A rejuvenated Leon Bailey, Lucas Alario and impressive young prospect Florian Wirtz have led the way up front while experience pros like Jonathan Tah and Lars Bender keep the back door shut.
Their visitors have looked understandably leggy of late after the shortest of preseasons. But they've done enough to stay firmly in the hunt in all three remaining competitions and it'd be a brave person who bet against them retaining the league title.
Let's hope it's as fun as the last 1st v 2nd clash, the 3-3 between Bayern and RB Leipzig.