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May 17, 2014

An unexpected double

"Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack."  -- Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

If you're competitive in business/sports/politics/life, you've at least been inspired by the Chinese philosopher-general; whether through quotes or his treatise, written 1,500 years ago.  This particular quote seems apt here, for the DFB-Pokal final, as defence won the day -- Javi Martinez, specifically.

With Mario Mandzukic already in Croatia, Bastian Schweinsteiger not healthy, Franck Ribery starting from the bench, and a late scratch in David Alaba; Pep Guardiola would be forced in to a wholly new Startelf. Bayern Munich would officially call it a 4-2-4, but it played anything but.  More like a 3-3-4, at the end of all things.

- Hesse: Bayern recover form in time - Buczko: Dortmund show heart

Martinez, officially listed as a holding midfielder, dropped in between Jerome Boateng and Dante as the lone centre-back, while 18-year-old Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Brazilian Rafinha moved well forward to flank captain Philipp Lahm.  The quartet of Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos, Mario Goetze and Arjen Robben comprised the snaky, fluid forward line -- albeit with no true striker.

A bit of desperation from Guardiola given his options, to be sure -- but also a stroke of absolute genius.  Rather than resting on his, of late, "my way, or the highway" tack -- Bayern stuck in a never-ending cycle of passing without producing -- this free-flowing attack, partnered by a stalwart back three, produced results.  Held it off 'til late, mind you -- but still.

I would get a few things right in my preview of the match: the importance of Martinez to win, Mueller and Robben scoring the goals for Bayern -- but I never really thought die Roten could pull this off.  I slept peacefully the night before; highly unusual for as big a final as this.

Martinez, criminally under-used, or in the wrong position, by Bayern's Guardiola for much of this season, was flawless in Berlin's rainy Olympiastadion on the evening.  All that came his way via counter-attack was deftly, beautifully dealt with by the Spanish international.

Robert Lewandowski, who?  Marco Reus, what?

Perhaps that's not fair to the rest of the squad, as they collectively -- finally! -- as a team regained possession; hassling and harrying BvB all over the pitch.  Although Dortmund looked lively at times, few of their golden counters presented themselves; they'd only have 30 percent possession in the first half.

However scant the Black and Yellows chances were, they'd seem to go 1-0 up in the 64th minute from former Bayern defender Mats Hummels.  Dante cleared from well behind the stripe, saying afterwards:  "[His] header was very close, but I thought I'd cleared it off the line."  Hummels, however, looked to be negligibly offsides; though no flag was raised. Both Bayern and Dortmund voted for goal-line technology along with seven other Bundesliga clubs, while only three teams in the second division voted in favour. Perhaps hard done for Dortmund, but they know to whom to complain.

As the match slogged on with the rain streaming down, I thought that a slow, controlled pitch would be to Bayern's advantage.  After all, haven't they been -- in recent years -- the fittest team in the league?  Not this season, as it turns out, as I'd expected Dortmund to run out of gas.

They didn't.  Bayern did.

Mueller, Hojbjerg and Kroos dropped like flies towards the end of 90 minutes, and in to extra time, when Ribery received a quick back massage from his coach; the midfielder agonising on the sideline.  Manuel Neuer had taken a couple of good drops on his shoulder, as well, leaving young, third-string keeper Lukas Raeder warming up.

With Bayern's side stretching and groaning, you might have thought it was all over (after giving their fans a strange glimmer of hope), but Robben rarely fails to produce in big-game situations.  A Roman Weidenfeller throw-in was easily read by Boateng, who deftly crossed it in to the Dutchman -- Robben hopping the gates and celebrating with the Bayern faithful soon after.

It's truly been a remarkable season -- and a remarkably healthy one -- for the "Man of Glass."  The slight, frail guy with a petulant attitude has been replaced with an assured leader on the pitch -- still baffling defenders everywhere.  With the same moves.

Mueller, stretching his own calves out when no one else could, surprisingly put the icing on the cake in extra-injury-time, somehow rounding Weidenfeller for Bayern's second on the night.

Amazing.

Had Bayern lost the Pokal (which I fully expected), in context -- looking back at it all -- I would have ended at the conclusion that Guardiola's first season at the helm was still ... all right.  Funny to say that, now, with an unexpected double -- the year after winning the treble.

All season long have I been critical, and I can't promise you that I won't be in the future.  But for now, I'm wholeheartedly drinking Pep Guardiola's grape juice.