Arjen Robben and Bayern players react in Leverkusen
It was a conspicuous way to celebrate victory. After their 2-1 win over Mainz on Saturday, Borussia Dortmund's players cavorted on the pitch in front of their fans at the Westfalenstadion, draping their arms across each others' shoulders and spraying energy drinks around like champagne.
Officially, they were celebrating a club-record eighth consecutive win, but it felt like something more significant. With second-placed Bayern Munich having lost 2-0 at Bayer Leverkusen earlier that day, Dortmund now find themselves seven points clear at the top of the Bundesliga with only 10 games remaining.
In a little over a month Bayern's title challenge has disintegrated, and yet they started the season like a train. With new signing Manuel Neuer imperious between the posts, Bayern took 28 points from a possible 36 between August and November and finished the year as autumn champions with a three-point lead over Dortmund.
The formula was a familiar one. For Ottmar Hitzfeld and new signings Franck Ribéry, Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose in 2007, read Jupp Heynckes and Neuer, Rafinha and Jerome Boateng in 2011. Then, as now, Bayern reacted to the loss of the German league crown by bringing a successful former coach back to the club and bolstering the resources at his disposal with expensive summer signings.
However, whereas Hitzfeld finished the 2007-08 campaign with a league winner's medal around his neck, Heynckes has seen his side's title challenge unravel at a vertiginous pace. Since the start of the year, Bayern have won just three out of seven games in the Bundesliga and face the prospect of two consecutive seasons without the German title for the first time since Dortmund's back-to-back successes in 1995 and 1996.
"From today, we certainly cannot talk about the title anymore," said sporting director Christian Nerlinger after the loss at Leverkusen. "If you look at the table, we have given Dortmund a perfect assist. The title is something we are no longer dealing with."
The absence of Bastian Schweinsteiger — out since early February with torn ankle ligaments — has been keenly felt, but Bayern's most pressing problem is a perplexing lack of bite in attack. Having plundered 16 league goals in the run-up to Christmas, Mario Gómez has scored just twice since the winter break, while both Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben are struggling for form.
A victim of his own versatility, Müller has been used by Heynckes to plug holes across Bayern's front line and the top scorer at the last World Cup has only three league goals to his name. His frustration spilled over in a first-half spat with Boateng at Leverkusen on Saturday. The coach played down the incident, saying the players were merely "letting their emotions out", but Müller also lost his rag with Holger Badstuber during the 1-0 loss to Basel in the away leg of their Champions League last 16 tie. The Bayern changing room does not appear to be a particularly harmonious place at present.
Robben, meanwhile, has suggested that he does not enjoy Heynckes' full confidence and the Dutchman is still to extend his contract beyond its 2013 expiry date. Bayern's inefficacy in attack has only increased the burden of expectation on Ribéry, who scored both goals in the 2-0 win over Schalke on February 26 but who was only able to play the last half hour at Leverkusen due to a knock sustained in France's friendly win over Germany.
Heynckes conceded that "alarm bells were ringing" after the defeat by Basel but the 66-year-old refuses to entertain talk of a crisis. "When you are coach of Bayern, you must be able to deal with such situations and show that you are in command of the situation," he said. "With my experience, I can do that."
Clouding Bayern's horizon is the ubiquitous presence of Dortmund, who await Heynckes' side in the DFB-Pokal semi-finals later this month, followed by a Bundesliga clash between the top two on Dortmund's patch on April 11. With the champions in such relentless form, and Bayern floundering, those post-match celebrations are looking more and more like a dress rehearsal for another title party.
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