It wasn’t the sort of goal you’d over-celebrate. The second in an eventual 2-0 win to put away prone opponents, with the best team in the division besting the worst (the former beating the latter for the ninth time in a row), and the goalscorer netting against his former club for good measure.
Yet there was something else which made this not a goal to let off fireworks for. It reminded us that in recent times Bayern Munich have become used to seeing Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting deliver for them. For Schalke – his former club who are in a different dimension to the one which they inhabited back when the Cameroonian striker wore the royal blue – this was the latest, inevitable, familiar boot to the nether regions, their falling short as habitual to a modern-day Bundesliga script as Choupo-Moting emerging triumphant.
There will be those who wonder aloud how Choupo-Moting gets these gigs, as if that solitary relegation at Stoke City (when other bigger name overseas imports like Jesé and Ibrahim Afellay hardly covered themselves in glory) should define him. Yet this sort of image has always clung to him. When he signed for Schalke in 2014, plenty thought he wasn’t good enough to play for a club of that size; his peak, statistically, had been a pair of 10-goal seasons for Mainz and, statistically, those doubters were subsequently proved right over his three years in Gelsenkirchen. Then, as now, those criticisms missed the point.
Tuesday night’s 6-1 shellacking of Werder Bremen had underlined exactly how – and why - Choupo-Moting’s star is rising. After he missed a penalty it brought an end to seven successive games on the scoresheet, which was remarkable in itself, but also showcased exactly what makes him so valuable to the team. The goals – 11 in all competitions – have undoubtedly been handy, but his all-round play has really been a huge boost to Bayern’s season; his ability to anchor the attack by harvesting the ball and intelligently bringing others into play brings the best out of Serge Gnabry and the red-hot Jamal Musiala.
“Bayern’s game has a clearer structure with him playing in the centre of the attack,” as Tobias Altschäffl of Bild wrote. “He’s exactly what we need right now,” enthused Hasan Salihimidzic after one of Super Choupo’s recent greatest hits, a delicious shot from range against Inter to finish off the Champions League group stage in style (“I plucked up the courage and thought I’d have a go,” said the man himself on the night, a window into his own surprise at how well things are going).
If Stoke was a case of wrong place, wrong time, this is right place, right time. His spell at Paris Saint-Germain, under Thomas Tuchel, did wonders for his confidence. He was valued for his positive influence in the dressing room and as a squad player. It helped the team’s difficulty in finding true attacking equilibrium – rather than simply a dizzying array of options – and has played well since the departure of Robert Lewandowski. One past back-up, Sandro Wagner, believed he had the ability to contribute but ultimately caved to the immense frustration of backing up the Polish striker. It’s just timing. And how Choupo-Moting has capitalised.
His current coach thinks his centre-forward’s current success is a little more nuanced. “For me, he’s not a classic No 9 in that sense,” Julian Nagelsmann argued after Saturday’s win. “He’s just a gifted footballer. You can sometimes allude to him (like that) because he has a certain size.” If Choupo-Moting’s contributions did tick many of the big target man boxes, heading against the post in the first half before nervelessly tucking away the second, there was plenty to recommend that point of view. His ability, at 33 years of age, to keep mental and physical pace with a lightning counter-attack to finish that chance, just underlined how sharp his is.
Naglesmann has been in reflective mood this week, talking of “a turbulent year. Probably the most turbulent half-year of my professional life.” He also insisted in protecting Sadio Mané after his injury, saying he would not go the World Cup if not fully fit, with the long-term health of his player being the most important. With Bayern four points clear at the top, the coach has room to ponder – and he owes Choupo-Moting great thanks for creating that space to breathe.
Union Berlin have been the story of most of the first part of the Bundesliga season and rightly so, but they were supplanted to another less-heralded side deserving our attention. Urs Fischer’s long-time leaders were thrashed 4-1 at Freiburg, for whom the irresistible Vincenzo Grifo hit a first-half hat-trick – and they will spend Christmas in second place, despite also managing a European campaign (unbeaten winners of their Europa League group). “We’ve only played 15 games,” said the ever-cautious Christian Streich. “Let’s see how it goes.”
On the other side of the capital Marco Richter-inspired Hertha to move out of the bottom three with a win at home to Köln who ended up empty-handed. One Sargis Adamyan open-goal miss for the visitors to the Olympiastadion on Saturday, when Effzeh were only one down, underlined the issues of a team that coach Steffen Baumgart admitted “are in a relegation battle, you don’t have to skirt around it,”. Hertha have many issues, with president Kay Bernstein leading his debut AGM on Sunday and presenting €80m losses, but this was a start.
All is not well at Borussia Dortmund, who tumbled to a Friday night defeat at Borussia Mönchengladbach in a pulsating game, a result which means they will enter 2023 outside the Champions League places. “It was just bad football,” their long-suffering goalkeeper Gregor Kobel told ESPN after a wretched defensive display. With any early-season optimism totally dispelled, they face a grim battle to snare a top four place unless something radically changes.
Another issue for BVB has been RB Leipzig’s surge in form. Their win at Werder Bremen was their ninth in 10 games, sealed by an excellent Xaver Schlager winner. Die Roten Bullen have taken more points than anyone else since Marco Rose took charge in September. “We played it with great maturity,” said the coach after his team resisted a determined Bremen onslaught in the second half.
They are joined by Eintracht Frankfurt in the top four after Randal Kolo Muani bookended his excellent opening to his career in Germany with a slick equaliser to secure a point at Mainz. With a Europa League win, qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League and World Cup calls for Kevin Trapp and Mario Götze all secured, “this is one of the best years Eintracht has had in a long, long time,” according to Trapp.