Munich - Once 's thumping 23rd-minute strike had broken the deadlock following a lively opening from visitors 1899 Hoffenheim on Matchday 12, the FC Bayern München faithful settled back to enjoy another top-drawer performance from their heroes, culminating in a slightly flattering 4-0 win and three more points towards the defence of their title.
Simultaneous defeats for their two closest pursuers, VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach, added further to the festive atmosphere inside the Allianz Arena, but the biggest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for a 77th-minute substitution.
Götze bowed out to due applause for the cracker that leaves him joint-top of the individual scoring chart but the ovation for his replacement was positively thunderous, as re-entered the competitive fray for the first time since 13 July.
That, of course, was the date of Germany's history-making victory over Argentina at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, when supersub Götze and an embattled, latterly blood-streaked Schweinsteiger played as big a part as anyone in securing the first-ever World Cup success for a European team on South American soil.
Heavenly assist for starters
Professional football lives in the moment, of course, and the Bayern vice-captain wasted no time getting back down to business, his clever flick-through freeing up Sebastian Rode to round out the scoring against luckless Hoffenheim inside the final few minutes. “The football god's back,” team-mate said after the match, echoing – and by no means entirely tongue in cheek – the chant ringing around the stadium as Schweinsteiger took to the pitch. The 'god' himself quietly noted it “was really moving to get a welcome like that from the fans. Those are the kind of moments you never forget.”
For his part, Pep Guardiola acknowledged it was also a moment in which “I realised again just how important he is for this club.” The head coach was at pains to stress that the 30-year-old midfielder is self-evidently “not back to full fitness yet but with his experience, he's always going to be able to help us. This is great news for us, and above all for him.” With Philipp Lahm recently ruled out of action for around three months after fracturing his ankle in training, Robben, too, made the serious point that, “When Philipp's not there, Basti's our captain again. He's incredibly important.”
Help at hand for hard-pressed Alonso
Indeed, with Thiago, Javi Martinez and David Alaba already sidelined, Lahm's injury was the last thing Guardiola needed at this particular point in time. Even for a squad as strong as Bayern's the loss of four world-class candidates for a deep-lying midfield berth is a heavy burden to bear and as it stands, new signing Xabi Alonso is the man taking most of the strain. The veteran Spanish ace will be as happy as anyone to have a tried and tested fellow World Cup-winner at his side heading into the busy final few weeks before the winter break.
Against Hoffenheim, for example, Alonso was the lone link-up man between the defence and an exceedingly attack-minded quintet comprising Götze and Franck Ribery to his left, Thomas Müller and Robben down the opposite flank and Robert Lewandowski leading the line. Thrilling as it looks on paper and ultimately proved to be out on the pitch, it is a risky undertaking and Guardiola himself admitted that, “We had trouble with our build-up play in the opening quarter-hour, we were giving the ball away too often.”
More to come
Those are precisely the kind of symptoms Schweinsteiger has been expertly alleviating for years. For his part, the world game's most famous number 31 admitted that the 132-day gap between the World Cup final and last Saturday's 13-minute cameo was as much a test of patience as anything, as he battled to overcome a wearisome patellar tendon injury, but “the club gave me all the time I needed, that made things a lot easier.”
Now he aims to repay the good treatment in kind and given the current personnel situation, he can look forward to being fast-tracked back to top fitness out on the pitch over the coming weeks. In warning against premature expectations of a full-capacity return of his 'unearthly' powers, however, he also sounded an ominous sub-note to Bayern's opponents-in-waiting, saying, “I'm still not at the level I'd normally expect. Slowly but surely, there's more to come.”