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Feb 12, 2014

Pokal ties tell tale of the season in Germany

GERMANY -- When the going gets tough, the tough get going, as Billy Ocean once said. While domestic cup competitions may usher in squad rotation for many of Europe's giants, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund were in no mood to ease off in this week's DFB Pokal quarterfinals as they build toward a busy period. Dortmund were first up, visiting Eintracht Frankfurt's Commerzbank-Arena. Dortmund have a week's extra grace before the resumption of their Champions League campaign compared to Bayern, and they'll need it.

Saturday's liberating victory at Werder Bremen recalled BVB at their most fluent, though Robin Dutt's side are now so habitually weak that it was difficult to judge the display's true worth -- and the afternoon stroll at the Weser came at a cost, adding two more to what has been a mind-boggling casualty list this season. This time, it was Sven Bender and Marco Reus. Low-grade hamstring strains kept the pair out here, with the latter also a doubt for the Champions League visit to Zenit St Petersburg.

If Reus is widely recognised as the team's creative spirit, one could even argue that Bender was the greater loss, with his versatility between midfield and defence helping Jurgen Klopp to -- just about -- hold his ailing side together in recent weeks. The coach filled the gaps in Frankfurt with club captain Sebastian Kehl coming into midfield and the ultimate jack-of-all-trades, Kevin Grosskreutz, slotting into his old position on the left of midfield, having spent most of this campaign at right-back. There was a certain comfort in this enforced familiarity, with Robert Lewandowski's impending exit leaving a residual awkwardness hanging in the air, despite his double at Werder on Saturday. The Bayern-bound forward, already involved in a traffic dispute with a teenage fan this year (for which Lewandowski was fully exonerated), woke on Monday morning to find his white Porsche Cayenne relieved of its wheels and propped up on bricks. Whether this was the work of disgruntled fans or simply a random theft is unclear.

Yet if the fans' feelings for him are in doubt, his irreplaceability is as plain as ever. His continued ability to accelerate, to hold up, and to do the dirty work up top, quite apart from his continued goal scoring, will be difficult to cover with just one new player. He remains his competitive self, too, with referee Knut Kircher taking the centre-forward and combative Eintracht centre-back Carlos Zambrano to one side near the end of the first half to calm fraying tempers. Their feud ran and ran through an increasingly fractious second half. Elsewhere, the dynamic of Dortmund's attacking play is already changing. Jakub Blaszczykowski's serious knee injury has restored Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to the lineup on a regular basis. Aubameyang may sometimes lack Kuba's tidiness in possession, but his explosive pace, combined with Henrikh Mkhitaryan's ability to accelerate from central areas, only heightens BVB's potency on the counter. Their first chance of the match saw Mkhitaryan found in space on the edge of the area by Aubameyang after the latter sped clear in the 12th minute, but the Armenian dragged his effort wide.

This prefaced another older trait of Dortmund's -- their recurring wastefulness in front of goal. Mkhitaryan, Grosskreutz and Lewandowski were all serial culprits. It seemed it might again cost them, especially as Eintracht began to break with more purpose after the interval, until the worthy Aubameyang applied a back-post finish after Kehl flicked on Mkhitaryan's 83rd-minute corner.What the DFB Pokal can represent for Dortmund is some sort of surety, establishing Klopp's work in the present as a direct continuation of the successes from the not-so-distant past. After his winning goal, Aubameyang revealed to journalists that the coach had shown the squad a "moving" film of the 2012 final triumph over Bayern in Berlin, to underline the importance of the trophy. "We want to do the same as they [the 2012 team] did," said the Gabonese striker, "because [winning] the league's going to be very difficult. We want to win this cup."

For Bayern, the Pokal is of value for different reasons. If it's there, they want to win it. The leaked footage of Pep Guardiola's profane training-session tirade at his players during the winter break in Qatar had again emphasised this hunger. If Bayern are evolving with their Catalan coach, so is he with them. The intense figure of his opening months at the Allianz Arena is a marked departure from the Zen image that so enraged Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the dressing-room scenes described in the Swede's autobiography.

From the moment that the two teams broke from the prematch pleasantries into their own halves at Hamburg's Imtech Arena on Wednesday, that appetite was again apparent. Dante and Mario Mandzukic, in particular, charged into warm-up runs that suggested they'd been feasting on raw meat since their latest win, Saturday's victory at Nurnberg.

It was those two, incidentally, who struck the decisive blows of the first half as struggling Hamburg's brittle resistance was swatted aside. Yet perhaps more instructive of Bayern's current fluidity was that Mario Goetze was the architect of both. Firstly, he provided Mandzukic with surely the easiest goal this season, streaking to the byline and laying on a tap-in for the Croatia striker, before his corner was nodded in by an unchallenged Dante. It was relentless, against an ailing opponent. After the break, Arjen Robben thrashed in a third, and Mandzukic then completed a hat trick at leisure, taking him up to 17 for the season. Goetze was again the provider for Mandzukic's second and Bayern's fourth, and the former Dortmund man was outstanding -- and far too good for poor Hamburg. "There are no easy games," said Thiago Alcantara after the match, before instantly letting the mask slip, adding "even though it was easier than we expected."

Further back, Philipp Lahm again dazzled as Guardiola's de facto Sergio Busquets, playing almost as a third centre-back for the evening, such was Bayern's dominance and Hamburg's inability to do anything more than constantly clear their lines to anywhere. He was joined back there by Javi Martinez in the second half, as Bayern showed that even in cruise control, they have an eye on the future.

Bayern inspiration and Dortmund perspiration -- it's been the story of the German season so far, and was again this week. Now we'll see if it gets both sides where they want to be in the latter stages of the campaign.