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RB Leipzig on verge of glory but still a long way from national acceptance | Bundesliga

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Leipzig’s German defender Marcel Halstenberg clears the ball in acrobatic fashion.

It was the busy Monday night that everyone could have done without – a creaking Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s fans and, ultimately, RB Leipzig. While one Europa League semi-finalist, not quite fresh from a famous win over West Ham in London, struggled to a defeat in Leverkusen with a scratch team the other, far more surprisingly, stumbled an hour to the north-west. If it wasn’t the start to the week Germany’s terrace stalwarts would have ideally wanted, it was far from what Domenico Tedesco would have been hoping for as well.

It’s the price of success, and you don’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. Yet the intrinsic fragility of late-season hopes and dreams could not have been clearer on this early summer night in Mönchengladbach. Leipzig still have the best Bundesliga record of any team in 2022, a testament to the fine work of Tedesco, but they have now been pulled back towards the pack by successive Bundesliga defeats, at the worst possible time. Freiburg had the chance to put pressure on their Champions League rivals by winning on Saturday and took advantage of the scheduling.

With all their resources, and a squad looking like being perfectly calibrated for this sort of juggling act, Leipzig were unable to respond. Tedesco made five changes from the semi-final first leg win against Rangers, but his team produced a lethargic first half. “You can take the tactics board and throw it in the bin,” said the visibly frustrated coach afterwards. Seeing a side that normally play with such zest stripped of their usual vim is jarring, and it’s what we saw here.

It wasn’t just the rigour of Gladbach, keen to impress after a disappointing campaign, which pressed Leipzig. This unforeseen, at least at the start of the season, return of Monday evening football (don’t call it a comeback) presented the perfect confluence of punchbags for ultras. Having seen off the detested matches on the first day of the working week as part of the new television rights deal, supporters were stuck with it again. With the police and security authorities too busy on May Day to deal with Sunday matches this week, the games of the Europa League participants were put back to Monday – and absence hasn’t exactly made the heart grow fonder for German supporters. There were plenty of empty seats (and a mere smattering of fans from Leipzig in the away section) in Borussia-Park and a banner in the Nordkurve, where Gladbach’s ultras gather, pledging Keine Akzeptanz für RB, Montagspiele & Polizeiwillkür – no acceptance for Red Bull, Monday games and police authoritarianism.

Leipzig’s German defender Marcel Halstenberg clears the ball in acrobatic fashion.
Leipzig’s defender Marcel Halstenberg clears the ball in acrobatic fashion. Photograph: Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images

And yes, Leipzig remain a target of ire too, for while they cut a stylish swathe around Europe on the field, German supporter culture has not forgotten who they are or where they come from. There was a sea of shrill whistles from the Nordkurve (as in actual whistles with a pea inside, in their thousands) every time the visitors took possession, which deafened in the game’s early stages. When the stadium announcer heralded Gladbach’s goals – a confidently struck Breel Embolo opener and a typically classy brace from Jonas Hofmann – in traditional call-and-response style with the home fans, they replied ‘null’ for Leipzig, even after Christopher Nkunku’s well-taken first-half equaliser. The fans’ message was clear: what they do just does not count.

It is inescapable. Freiburg, Leipzig’s opponents in the DfB Pokal final as well as their competition for a Champions League place, have declined to lend their support to the traditional half-and-half scarf for the showpiece, and one will not be produced. Before then, Tedesco must find a way to bring some much-needed clarity back to his side before Thursday’s trip to Ibrox, in which clear heads are a must. “We were too frantic in trying to get the ball into the box,” complained Willi Orbán of his side failing to take advantage of Nico Elvedi’s second-half red card, for chopping down Nkunku when clean through. Leipzig are prolific on the road but Gladbach frustrated them well with 10 men, with Hofmann’s second clinching the win despite the numerical disadvantage.

There is much Tedesco can’t change about Leipzig. The image of him on the touchline here, pushing both palms downwards to appeal for calm, tells us he knows what he can do, and needs to do.

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Bundesliga results

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Union Berlin 1-1 Greuther Furth, Hoffenheim 3-4 Freiburg, Arminia Bielefeld 1-1 Hertha Berlin, Augsburg 1-4 Cologne, Dortmund 3-4 VfL Bochum, Mainz 3-1 Bayern, Stuttgart 1-1 Wolfsburg, Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-1 RB Leipzig

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Talking points

Freiburg had put the squeeze on their top four rivals by winning at Hoffenheim (and all but finishing the hosts’ European hopes) in a seven-goal thriller on Saturday. “It’s an amazing feeling,” said Lukas Höler, who nodded in the third from on the goalline, “and the highlight of my career so far.” He might yet have greater highlights to come. SCF have plenty of opportunity to shape their own destiny, with the final two games against their direct rivals Union Berlin and Leverkusen, with the Pokal final to come too. Christian Streich’s men can’t lose, really – whatever they manage will be a resounding overachievement.

Whether Champions League or Europa League is the final prize, it appears Freiburg are ready to step up a level with their recruitment, with Bild among those reporting that the World Cup winner Matthias Ginter will return to the club when his Borussia Mönchengladbach contract expires in the summer. He will replace Nico Schlotterbeck, whose signing for Borussia Dortmund as the latest part of their rebuild was confirmed on Monday.

Meanwhile, for the first time in just shy of four years, Bayern Munich and Dortmund both lost on a Saturday. One suspected it might be one of those rare afternoons for the champions when Julian Nagelsmann posed for selfies with fans before taking his seat on the bench prior to kick-off. Mainz certainly attacked the game with greater intensity and Robert Lewandowski breaking the record for away goals in a Bundesliga season was really the only issue of note from a Bavarian standpoint. On the same theme Hasan Salihamidžić had some defensive work to do post-match, insisting that the club still cared for sporting integrity despite the squad’s trip to Ibiza ahead of Sunday’s reception of Stuttgart – with Hertha’s Felix Magath already voicing his concerns of how engaged Bayern would be against his club’s relegation rivals.

Dortmund managed to lose their penultimate home game despite an Erling Haaland hat-trick, which put them in a winning position against Bochum having gone 2-0 down in double quick time early on. Two strikes in the last 10 minutes by Jürgen Locadia and Milos Pantović, though (the winner was a third penalty awarded from handball in the game), gave Thomas Reis’s team a famous win and confirmed they will be in the Bundesliga again next term. The players celebrated into the night with fans on Kortumstrasse. “It was pure emotion,” beamed Reis. “We did a great job this season.”

Hertha were a whisker from certain safety after Lucas Tousart’s header gave them the lead at Arminia Bielefeld – but a stoppage-time equaliser by the home side’s Joakim Nilsson, allied with Chris Führich’s explosive late leveller for Stuttgart at home to Wolfsburg, kept the gap between the Berliners and the Swabians at four points, with Stuttgart still the favourites to end up in the playoff spot, which Arminia continue to strive for.

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