It reached a bit of fortune but few, not only at the persuasion of Bayer Leverkusen, are complaining. Freiburg eventually took the lead in a five-goal thriller at the BayArena on Saturday, a scenario that looked far from likely at half-time. Their coach Christian Streich called it a “lucky win”, with characteristic frankness.
Unimportant. Freiburg returned to European competition this week at the top of the Bundesliga. They’ve only been there once, after a 4-0 win over Stuttgart on the opening day of 2000-01, so whether you count that at all is open to debate. Streich said after the match that he was not worried about what was undoubtedly a short-lived moment in the top tier. “I’m not interested in that,” he told Sky. “It’s all going well so far – we’ve been the luckier teams in some of these games so far.”
However, Ritsu Doan’s back-post winner from point-blank range sees his side summit on goal difference against Borussia Dortmund after five games, in a season that has already heard further talk of ways to make the Bundesliga a competitive title race after Bayern Munich’s ominous start of 15 goals in their opening three wins is worth celebrating.
For those of you hoping the coach and club are channeling their inner Leicester, Streich pushed the mind in that direction by going full on Claudio Ranieri in his post-match press conference. Far from basking in a sunny spot early in the season, the coach spoke of avoiding relegation as his top priority for the domestic season. “In a year where we’re playing in Europe, it’s about playing a few games in European competition and keeping Freiburg in the Bundesliga,” Streich said. “If that happens, it will be a good year. And I’m really serious about that.”
He has a point, to an extent. Their last European campaign, in 2013-14, saw them stretched, as might be expected of a medium-sized top-flight club. They finished in 14th place, a drop from last term’s top five finish which took them to Europe in the first place. Streich remembers that because, he was there. During the mid-season break the Bundesliga’s longest-serving coach had spent 11 years in sole charge of the first team. The butcher’s son who brought approachability to the Bundesliga benches should be appreciated.
In the lead up to this game, Streich once again showed just how different he is, being one of the few figures involved in the elite game who isn’t complaining about the punishing schedule over the next few months. “There are worse ones for me,” he smiled. “We worked for it and for us it is an absolute pleasure.” Despite his solidity, Freiburg is no longer just a scrappy underdog. Moved to their Europa-Park Stadion last year, they are going places.
If anything on the pitch underlined the club moving up a level, it was the return of Matthias Ginter. Others have returned before – Jonathan Schmid and Vincenzo Grifo, for example – but usually after failing to recapture the magic elsewhere. World Cup-winning defender Ginter is a little different. After leaving Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Mönchengladbach paid €17m to sign him in 2017. The player has other options when leaving this summer and although there are feelings about his decision to rejoin, he wouldn’t have come otherwise he believes in the ambition of the club. He is only 28, with many good years ahead of him.
If Ginter’s homecoming is his career coming full circle, it seems like a symbolic and significant moment for the coach and the club. Having made his Streich debut in January 2012 at 18, Ginter scored a late winner in a relegation battle with Augsburg that set the stage for a great escape; a calling card for the teenager who also launched the legend of Streich, a reluctant coach who has now become a club, and national, mainstay. After a strong display from Leverkusen in the first half, with Kerem Demirbay’s goal little reward for their dominance, Ginter pulled them back, launching himself between two defenders to equalize with a diving header. Although Leverkusen debutant Callum Hudson-Odoi gave his team a second wind, setting up Patrik Schick for an equalizer at 2-2 shortly after coming on, Freiburg and Doan there is an answer.
“I’ll stay as long as I can stay where I am,” Streich insisted shortly after guiding Freiburg back from the fall in 2012. He’s stuck there, and that’s why he’s still there. There have been difficult moments, such as a last-minute relegation in 2015, although Streich guided the club back to the top flight at the first attempt. Sometimes you wish he would just put his feet up for a second and enjoy the sunshine. He deserves it. Even if there are things that can be fixed in the Bundesliga, replacing Christian Streich is not one of them.
The big match in Berlin between the top two at the start of the game, Union and Bayern, did not disappoint, with the hot Sheraldo Becker lighting the blue touchpaper by volleying Manuel Neuer inside 12 minutes. Joshua Kimmich quickly equalized with his own rocket, but Julian Nagelsmann’s men could not find the decisive blow, with Union goalkeeper Frederik Rønnow and his defense standing firm. Substitute Jamie Leweling almost stole it in the closing stages only to be denied by Neuer, who praised the home side’s kindness. “They are our toughest opponents so far,” said Germany’s goalkeeper.
Another weekend and another one-goal win for Borussia Dortmund, who beat Hoffenheim on Friday night thanks to Marco Reus’ first-half goal. Although it was a more composed BVB, losing Jamie Bynoe-Gittens to a shoulder injury after a collision with Ozan Kabak did not knock them down. The blowout against Werder Bremen is starting to look more like an exception as the weeks go by, with Dortmund now having three clean sheets from their opening five games. Visiting coach André Breitenreiter also acknowledged the gap between the teams, calling his side “too sloppy and too passive”.
Two of the Bundesliga’s Champions League participants warmed up for this week’s European kick-off in Frankfurt, where Eintracht beat RB Leipzig 4-0. They run harder and are more determined at both ends of the pitch. Randal Kolo Muani and Mario Götze were again both outstanding, with team upgrades on paper as their Europa League triumphs now materialised. “Wow,” was Frankfurt coach Oliver Glasner’s simple assessment. Leipzig, who are formidable, have a big few weeks hosting Shakhtar Donetsk and Dortmund followed by a quick trip to Real Madrid.
Werder Bremen struck again, scoring twice in the last five minutes in Bochum to win – both from Niclas Füllkrug, one a powerful header and one a penalty after Oli Burke was fouled. Their final goals already set a record, with no team having scored five stoppage-time goals after five games, as Tim Lüddecke of Kicker points out.
The first win of the season for Hertha, at Augsburg, was sealed by Marco Richter, with his stoppage-time goal in the Berliners’ 2-0 win just 55 days after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. “It’s surprising that he’s back with us,” enthused coach Sandro Schwarz.