DAVID SMITH - Saturday, March 31, 2012
FC Nürnberg vs Bayern Munich
Bundesliga - Saturday March 31, 2012
Timothy Chandler and FC Nürnberg put on a heroic effort to hold German heavyweights FC Bayern at bay, however luck was not on their side as they fell to an Arjen Robben goal for their fourth straight loss.
Heading into the legendary Bavarian Derby, a run of three straight losses had caused Nürnberg's once comfortable cushion ahead of the relegation zone to shrink to a mere four points.
With a Bayern team which was victorious in their last six and likely headed to the Champions League semifinals coming to visit, Dieter Hecking and his squad couldn't have been given any tougher task to try to turn things around before falling too close to potential disaster.
A second-leg Champions League encounter against Marseille awaiting for the Bavarians on Tuesday likely influenced head coach Jupp Heynckes in his decision to leave Franck Ribery on the bench at the start, giving right-sided midfielder Chandler a slight break in having the lesser burden of Danijel Pranjic and Diego Contento working his side of the field.
The first real chance of the game fell to the hosts in the seventh minute, when Philipp Wollscheid got his head on a corner from the left, sending his shot down and towards goal, however unfortunately directly into the direction of Manuel Neuer for an easy save.
The Bavarians looked at times a team distracted by their ongoing European campaign, and only had their first close call in the 14th minute. Thomas Müller kept possession under pressure in the central midfield, broke free towards goal and laid pass forward for Mario Gomez, whose awkwardly-angled from the right of goal was hit weakly for an easy save by Raphael Schäfer.
Three minutes later, they were again close when Robben whipped a picture-perfect corner from the right to the near post to Holger Badstuber, however the central defender's header towards to upper far corner was just a touch off-target.
Practically out of nowhere, "Der Club" nearly shocked their red-clad visitors midway through the half; Javier Pinola received the ball in the middle of the field on a counter-attack, saw an open lane directly to the left side of goal and blasted a long-range shot that took Neuer by complete surprise, but was a couple yards wide.
Rather than playing his usual role of the delicately dancing Dutchman, Robben was far from his normal standard of quality, which was clearly on display four minutes past the half-hour. Prajnic whipped a long cross from the left win to the far post where Robben had found open space, however his header was hit unnecessarily wide right, spoiling a perfect opportunity.
Then three minutes later, Chandler returned the favor; Daniel Didavi sprang the speedy American through the Bayern central defense with a splitting through-ball, however Chandler's first touch on the ball was with the delicacy and softness of a taxidermied wombat, allowing Jerome Boateng to recover and kick it safely out of his path.
The hosts were at it again in the final minutes of the half, nearly giving themselves the advantage at the break when Timmy Simons headed Adam Hloussek's inswinging corner down and towards goal, but his shot was cleared off the line at the last second.
While Heynckes' team came out of the break with a renewed intensity for the first couple minutes and looked to have turned momentum firmly in their direction as would have been expected prior to kickoff, the game once again settled down into a defensive game of cat and mouse, with Bayern being stifled at every turn.
They had a close call four minutes after the break when Schäffer was forced into a point-blank save on a ten-yard Müller shot, however did little for the next quarter-hour.
The 57th minute substitution of Prajnic for Ribery eventually proved a key factor, although not before a slight bit of controversy momentarily robbed them of what looked to be the opening goal.
Robben cut in from the right and held the ball long enough to allow Müller to spring free into the box before poking a short pass to the German international. Müller immediately sent the ball square across goal for Gomez to put away, however the linesman had lifted his flag having seen the German to be in an offside position - a decision which later replays showed was entirely incorrect.
Three minutes later, however, the continued pressure from the visitors made whatever contentious petulance was brewing from the linesman's decision entirely irrelevant.
Dominic Maroh turned the ball over to Toni Kroos just outside the area, and the 22 year-old World Cup veteran quickly lobbed a pass over the defense to Ribery who was clean through on goal.
Schäfer, who on numerous occasions bailed Nürnberg out with his reflex saves over the 90 minutes, did so once again with a block of the Frenchman's shot, however the ball fell to the foot of Robben for an easy finish to the right side of goal.
Rather than despair at having given up the lead in such a cheap way after 70 minutes of fine work, Nürnberg kept at their game, and were close to equalizing in the 75th minute on the individual brilliance of substitute Robert Mak.
The former Manchester City youth product danced into the right side of the penalty area on a counter-attack, thoroughly leaving Contento befuddled, and tried to pick out the wide-open Pekhart with a short cross directly in front of goal, however Badstuber was able to clear the ball at the left post, likely saving his team's lead.
With five minutes left, a flurry of activity saw Nürnberg again coming close when Pinola's cross from the left was a touch to far ahead of Pekhart, then the Bavarians nearly doubling their lead seconds later as Schäffer came up big at the right post to for point-blank blocks of both Müller and Robben, then launching into the air to pick out a high header from Gomez that would have barely grazed the underside of the crossbar.
Then in the 88th minute, late Nürnberg substitute Almog Cohen left all 48,548 in attendance needing a change of underpants when he rocketed a 35-yard shot from out of nowhere to the left side of goal, again taking the constantly-jeered Manuel Neuer by surprise.
The former Schalke man could only redirect the ball onto the post, where it took an unlucky - for the hosts - deflection and rolled wide, saving €25 million keeper from likely sending his Bayern career into complete ruin.
Nürnberg continued to push, and were again close in injury time when Wollscheid headed Chandler's long cross from the right just wide of the mark, however they were unable to break down the Bavarians in the end, and were forced to settle for only the moral victory.
The loss leaves Nürnberg with only a three-point cushion ahead of the 16th-place relegation playoff spot, putting added importance on their trip next Saturday afternoon to Freiburg - a team they are currently edging by the narrowest edge in goal differential.