The Bundesliga is back! A thrilling Matchday 18 saw Schalke and Hannover kick things off with a 9-goal instant classic. Dortmund followed with an imperious performance at Bremen, while a fierce battle between Düsseldorf and Augsburg closed out the weekend. All this and more in THT’s weekly Bundesliga review column, Beer and Bratwurst.

Hallelujah, it’s raining goals in Gelsenkirchen

Schalke and Hannover kicked off 2013.

Hannover’s visit to Gelsenkirchen on Friday produced a literal game of two halves. What had been tipped as one of the high-octane encounters of Matchday 18 got off to a slow start, as Schalke and Hannover fell into a war of attrition. Players on both sides snapped at each others’ heels as often as at the ball. A flurry of fouls in the first half left fans wondering if the match would see more yellows than goals.

Their worries were eased in the 44th minute: Christian Fuchs’s long throw-in skip-stoned over Hannover’s defense and into the path of Jefferson Farfan. The Peruvian measured the tight angle to perfection, sending a volley through Zieler’s legs and into the back of the net. The half-time whistle blew on Schalke 1-0 Hannover.

Schalke doubled their lead at the start of the second half when Lewis Holtby’s pass found an unmarked Julian Draxler, who coolly claimed his fourth goal of the season. Instead of settling the match, however, Draxler’s 49th minute goal ripped open the floodgates: the next 20 minutes saw no fewer than 6 goals. In the 55th minute, Pinto’s right-footed shot took a wicked deflection off Neustädter to loop past Hildebrand’s outstretched arms, and Szabolcs Huzti made it 2-2 four minutes later. Goals in the 64th and 67th minutes from Höger and Marica then put Schalke 4-2 up — before Huzti promptly changed it to 4-3 with his second goal of the night. Hannover looked set to pull level yet again. Mame Diouf had been a breath away from scoring all evening, but whether it was a fluffed bicycle kick or a volley edged just wide, things refused to click for the Senegalese forward.

Holtby topped off a stunning individual performance with a fifth goal for Schalke in the 88th minute, and finally seemed to put the topsy-turvy match to bed. But one final twist awaited in the dying seconds of stoppage time: Diouf went for another bicycle kick, this time from 20 yards out — and the resultant goal was one for the end-of-season highlights reel.

The final score read Schalke 5, Hannover 4. Referee Deniz Aytekin bears some blame for Hannover’s disappointment, as the allotted two minutes of extra time were not exactly sufficient given the number of cards, goals, and substitutions in the second half alone. However, between Diouf’s missed chances and the team’s defensive errors, Hannover had only themselves to blame for coming away empty handed. Mirko Slomka had said in December that Hannover would focus on defense during the winter break, and backed up his word with three defensive-minded signings in Andre Hoffman, Franca, and Arsenal’s Johan Djourou. But whatever defensive training the team underwent during the same period, they had very little to show for it in Gelsenkirchen on Friday. Conceding on the road is no shame, but conceding five raises eyebrows. Winter break or no winter break, defense will have to be Slomka’s number one priority for the rest of the season if he is to steady the teetering Hannover ship.

Dortmund humiliate Bremen at home

Klopp has faith in his team.

“There are still 51 points to play for,” said Jürgen Klopp at Hinrunde’s end. After Matchday 18, Borussia Dortmund are still 12 points adrift of runaway leaders Bayern Munich; but the defending champions have backed up their coach’s confidence with this latest five-star performance at Werder Bremen.

Though the hosts enjoyed plenty of possession, Bremen found themselves down 0-2 inside of 20 minutes as a goal each from Marco Reus and Mario Götze all but decided the match. A third from Felipe Santana at the start of the second half was the final nail; the rest was icing on the cake. Dortmund’s beloved Nuri Sahin made his Bundesliga return as an 84th minute substitute, and two more goals from Lewandowski and Kuba topped the evening off with a flourish.

Bremen were, in a word, out-classed. Dortmund delivered a top-notch team performance with ease and style. Reus, Götze, and Lewandowski were lethal as ever, while Mats Hummels once again set a gold standard for defending, neutralizing the Bremen attack and linking up seamlessly with the rest of the well-oiled Dortmund machine. The statistics speak for themselves: Bremen had 58% possession but took only 8 shots (3 on goal), while Dortmund generated 15 shots, converting 5, with 42% possession. On average, Bremen are only one year younger than Klopp’s baby-faced side, but that year may as well have been 100 on Saturday. Thomas Schaaf has a long way to go in the nurturing of Bremen’s youthful talents.

Dortmund now have 40 goals to their name this season, second only to Bayern, who march on toward the title with a routine victory over Greuther Fürth. But the gauntlet is thrown: 48 points left this season, a four-win cushion for Bayern, and 16 match days for Dortmund to show what champions are made of. Game on.

Düsseldorf and Augsburg put on a show

It was a match that looked less than appealing on paper: cellar dwellers Augsburg paid a visit to Fortuna Düsseldorf in search of just their second win of the season, their last three-point haul coming all the way back in October. Spectators came expecting the routine; what they got was anything but.

Alex Manninger’s Augsburg debut was a wild one. But all’s well that ends well.

It began in the 40th minute, when a poor clearance from Fabian Giefer lead to a comical communication mix-up with Juanan. Desperately trying to get a ball back to his keeper, the center back sent a header straight through Giefer’s legs and into the path of a charging Sascha Mölders. The Augsburg striker could hardly miss against an open goal. Five minutes later, Fortuna were caught collectively ball-watching as a cross sailed into the box toward Ja-Cheol Koo, who took his chances with a tightly-angled shot: 0-2. Markus Weinzierl ran a mini victory lap in joy.

The second half then produced one of the more bizarre goals of the season. The Fortuna defense failed to clear a mediocre cross from Augsburg, nervously tapping the ball back to Giefer while Mölders closed in at a dead run. Giefer cleared. But only as far as Mölder’s backside — off which the ball bounced straight into the back of the net. Fortuna were left pondering the scoreline and possibly the meaning of life, as Mölders ran windmilling for the touchline to execute a cartwheel that matched the aforementioned goal for sheer lack of grace.

The home side showed tremendous spirit, however, rallying from 0-3 down to snatch Alex Manninger’s clean sheet. A fearless solo run by Robbie Kruse deep into Augsburg’s box set up Stefan Reisinger for his fourth goal of the season. And after a match of hitherto solid defending, the Augsburg defense now went Titanic (read: leaky). In the 91st minute, Reisinger struck again off a corner, and Augsburg’s three-goal lead was down to one. Fortuna’s comeback was as 11th hour as they got, but Reisinger went for the hat trick and found the back of the net — only to have the goal disallowed over a foul call. It was drama on top of last-minute drama, as seemingly no one but referee Manuel Gräfe saw any such foul. But Fortuna’s eponymous patron goddess was not with them on Sunday, and the final whistle blew for 2-3.

Whatever this match lacked in quality, it more than made up for in competitiveness and sheer absurdity. Augsburg gained three valuable points in their relegation battle, and must be commended for a lively and opportunistic performance: the Bavarians made more attempts on goal than any other team on Matchday 18, as well as committing the second highest number of fouls (21). Fortuna, meanwhile, can consider this a day of misfortune that underscored their fortitude, in the thrilling almost-comeback of the last 20 minutes.

Other Results…

Bayern Munich 2-0 Greuther Fürth. Leverkusen 3-1 Eintracht Frankfurt. Wolfsburg 2-0 VfB Stuttgart. Hoffenheim 0-0 Mönchengladbach. Mainz 0-0 Freiburg. Nuremberg 1-1 Hamburg.

Random Five:

1. Hoffenheim’s 0-0 draw against Gladbach marked the young club’s first clean sheet since September.
2. Bayern won 17 corner kicks against Fürth, a league record for any team in a single match day this season.
3. The second half of Schalke v. Hannover (8 goals) was the highest scoring half of football in the Bundesliga in 31 years.
4. A pyrotechnics display by visiting Frankfurt fans at the Leverkusen put the match on hold for 10 minutes.
5. Four newly-appointed coaches made their Bundesliga debut this weekend — Jens Keller (Schalke), Dieter Hecking (Wolfsburg), Michael Wiesinger (Nuremberg), Marco Kurz (Hoffenheim) — and all four debutantes managed a tie or better.

Flop of the Week

Werder Bremen in the last 20 minutes against Dortmund. Bremen were outclassed, but it was their mental collapse that allowed defeat to turn into humiliation. This was Bremen’s second biggest home loss in their history, as Thomas Schaaf’s youthful side completely lost the plot after conceding a third goal early in the 2nd half, and Dortmund — already on cruise control — streamrolled them.

Player of Week

Dortmund delivered a masterclass performance in teamwork, but for individual brilliance, the accolades go to Lewis Holtby. Certain players have that priceless ability of affecting the whole course of a game. Against Hannover, Holtby took the game by the scruff of its neck and inspired Schalke to five goals — all five of which, it turned out, the Royal Blues needed to take three points from a harrowing Hanoverian encounter. Holtby recently confirmed that he will be departing for the English Premier League, and this transfer is a blow not only to Schalke but to the Bundesliga as a whole.

Goal of the Week

Though it came as too little too late, Mame Diouf’s bicycle kick in stoppage time was a jaw-dropping piece of skill worthy of judgment on its own terms. This is a definite goal of the season contender.