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Oct 18, 2011

Uncertainty interfering with play

There could have been plenty of talking points in Germany following the Bundesliga's ninth round of games at the weekend. Bayern Munich's continuing, and almost ridiculous, dominance, for instance, or the sudden insurgence of the cellar dwellers, as the bottom three teams all won away from home. Instead, almost everyone - from coaches to pundits like Franz Beckenbauer to the viewers of Werder Bremen announcer Arnd Zeigler's cult call-in show on regional television - were debating one particular aspect of the rulebook.

It wasn't just one game and one crucial situation that triggered the discussion but a series that stretched over the whole weekend. On Friday evening, reigning league champions Borussia Dortmund underlined their recent upswing in form by defeating a strong Werder side 2-0 in Bremen despite finishing the game with ten men. The result wasn't undeserved, as Dortmund displayed an uncharacteristic efficiency coupled with a great fighting spirit, and even Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf later said his players lacked determination on the night and couldn't complain about the outcome.

What he did complain about, though, was inconsistent refereeing. The visitors' second goal came from a corner Werder's defence couldn't properly clear. As Dortmund defender Mats Hummels knocked the ball back into the goalmouth, his team-mate Patrick Owomoyela was onside and proceeded to put the ball away from close range. But another Dortmund player, striker Robert Lewandowski, had been clearly offside, standing in the six-yard box.

Obviously, the referee had felt that Lewandowski wasn't interfering with play - had been in a so-called "passive offside" position - and thus allowed the goal to stand. But Schaaf pointed out that the German FA's referees had visited the clubs before the season to inform players and coaches that passive offside would be penalised much more often in the future. This new directive was the result of a seminar held in May, known as the FIFA Referee Assistance Program, meant to make this particular refereeing decision less of a judgment call.

But the remainder of the Bundesliga weekend would prove that passive offside is now even more confusing and seemingly arbitrarily enforced than before. On Saturday, a close and tense game between Mainz and Augsburg probably turned three minutes before the break. As Mainz winger Marcel Risse was about to cross from the right, striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting was a few inches offside near the penalty spot. Risse didn't set up Choupo-Moting but pulled the ball back for the onrushing Nicolai Müller, who fired the ball into the far corner past the passive offside Choupo-Moting.

The beaten Augsburg keeper Simon Jentzsch later said that Choupo-Moting had not been obstructing his view, but adding: "I'm glad the referee blew his whistle." Because that's what happened - the goal was disallowed. Eight minutes from time, Augsburg started a rare counter attack which led to a - correct - penalty and the only goal of the game. It was Augsburg's first-ever win in the Bundesliga, but it left a sour taste. As early as half-time, Mainz business manager Christian Heidel complained that "a clearly legal goal" had been chalked off.

Those two decisions were contentious and crucial enough, but the matter came to a head during the last game of the weekend, Sunday's clash between Cologne and Hannover 96. A great Lukas Podolski free-kick put the hosts ahead, but then the visitors put Cologne under pressure and went looking for what would have been a deserved equaliser. On 70 minutes, Hannover midfielder Sérgio Pinto scored with a powerful first-time shot from the edge of the penalty box. However, the goal wasn't given, because Pinto's team-mate Didier Ya Konan had been standing in the box, a few steps to the goalkeeper's left, as he hit the shot.

While Ya Konan had clearly not been distracting the goalkeeper or interfering with play in any other way, the new interpretation of the rule may have forced the linesman to wave his flag, as the player could have been too close to the action for comfort, even though Cologne goalkeeper Michael Rensing later admitted he'd had no idea why the goal wasn't given. Then, 16 minutes later and at the other end, Podolski struck home from a tight angle to make it 2-0. It was a fantastic goal - but, while the ball whistled through the air, Cologne's Adil Chihi was in a blatant offside position right smack in the middle of the six-yard box. This time, however, the referee regarded this as passive offside and allowed the goal to stand.

Hannover were particularly unhappy about these calls, as the team would have climbed into second place with a win in Cologne, which would have set the stage perfectly for the coming Sunday, when league leaders Bayern travel to Hannover.

This match should be the sternest test so far for a side that is running away with the Bundesliga in record-setting fashion. The Munich giants and their new goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, have now gone 748 league minutes without conceding a goal (the record, set by Timo Hildebrand with Stuttgart, stands at 884 minutes) and last Saturday, against Hertha, the team jumped to a three-goal lead within the first 13 minutes, thanks in large part to the wizardry of Franck Ribéry, rejuvenated under new coach Jupp Heynckes.

The last time Bayern made it 3-0 so quickly in the league was in February 1983, when Karl-Heinz Rummenigge scored a hat-trick and Bayern beat Karlsruhe 6-1. Yes, it's an age like that and it's such players you have to compare the current Bayern side to. After all, the club legend, and current chairman, Rummenigge finished that 1982-83 season with 20 goals - his modern-day counterpart Mario Gomez has already scored half that amount with just nine games gone.

So perhaps it's indeed the case, as some observers already suggest, that Bayern face something like true competition only in the Champions League. Napoli held them to a draw in Italy on Tuesday night but, even so, you'd have to say this season is shaping up to have all the markings of something memorable. Bayern are so good, they don't even have to complain about the refereeing.

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