Bundesliga Blog (May 6)
May 6 2012
Köln had the luxury of controlling their own destiny this weekend, win or tie and book their spot in Thursday’s first leg of the relegation play off. The schedule wasn’t kind to them, week 34′s opponents were a Bayern squad who had nothing to play for but momentum heading into a pair of big Cup finals on consecutive weekends, against Dortmund for the DFB Pokal and Chelsea for the Champions League title. Bayern might be expected to rest their first-choice squad and their B team would go through the motions in a game that meant the world to Köln but little or nothing to the visitors. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, Bayern started with none of their stars on the substitutes bench and were easily the better side on the day. The season ending 4-1 loss meant that Köln needed a helping hand from Hoffenheim to live to fight another day.
Hertha Berlin are perhaps the only team in Germany that the Köln fans might pity, another club ostensibly too big to fail, a textbook case all year of how not to run a football club. That they were gifted a lifeline with Köln’s loss was perhaps much more than they deserved but, in beating Hoffenheim 3-1 in front of a rowdy Olympiastadion, they showed that they were up to the task. It was the most gripping match of the day, if for no other reason than it marked the return of Markus Babbel whose exit from the capital city earlier this season was ham fisted and clumsily handled by Hertha upper management. Babbel’s revenge would surely come on Saturday with the opportunity to condemn his old team to the ignominy of relegation to the second tier.
No one told Berlin midfielder Änis Ben-Hatira about that script and he was the unlikely hero on an unlikely final day of the schedule, scoring twice after having netted only one goal previously all year. Not only had he scored but that one goal in sixteen appearances, his overall performances have ranged from the mediocre to the downright terrible. All that is forgotten and forgiven now and Saturday’s game will long be remembered by the long-suffering Hertha faithful should the club manage to win the relegation play off. Standing in their way will be Fortuna Düsseldorf who did just enough on Sunday to hold off a rampant St Pauli that ran roughshod over SC Paderborn in a bold attempt to bulldoze their way back into the top flight.
51 000 fans packed the sold out Esprit-Arena hoping to witness Düsseldorf lock up third place and the chance to return to the 1st Bundesliga for the first time since 1997. That fifteen year stretch out of the big leagues included a season in the nether regions of the fourth tier that is the North Rhine Oberliga, a long, long way down indeed. All four goals in the 2-2 draw against Duisburg came in the first 27 minutes of play, as was the red card that sent Duisburg’s Maurice Exslager from the pitch, indicative of the intensity at which the whole game was contested. Trainer Norbert Meier has done a fantastic job of turning around the fortunes of a club who were on the verge of an irreversible culture of negativity and a result against Berlin will be ample reward for his work. History is however against Düsseldorf making the jump, in the four years since the introduction of the relegation play off, the third place club from the 2nd league has beat the third last team from the top flight but one time when Nuremberg beat Energie Cottbus to make the jump to the 1st league.
The big losers on the day were St Pauli who crushed Paderborn, a team that was two points above them in fourth place heading into the last weekend. Pauli’s 5-0 shellacking will give them nothing but an emphatic end to a campaign that saw them tied with Düsseldorf on points but four goals less on differential, the thinnest of margins to keep them down in the second tier. They will be joined there next year by Sandhausen and Aalen, both small clubs that have never risen this far in the German football pyramid. Indeed Sandhausen were on the verge of amalgamating with Hoffenheim and Astoria Walldorf as a rebranded FC Heidelberg. Their fans nixed the idea, Hoffenheim went on to promotion to the top league backed by their millionaire owner’s riches so this promotion to the second league is vindication of sorts for the supporters. Taking their places in the 3rd Bundesliga will be Hansa Rostock and Alemannia Aachen while the relegation play off between the second and third leagues will pit Karlsruhe against Jahn Regensburg whose star player Tobias Schweinsteiger is the brother of Bayern’s classy midfielder Bastien.
April 27 2012
Even after Borussia Dortmund clinched their second straight Bundesliga championship on Saturday past, their run as the toast of German football was cut short by the club they out-duelled to the title. Twenty six straight games undefeated, the Meisterschaft sewn up with two games left in the season, the most exciting football seen in the league in years and yet they have been pushed off the front pages and TV pundit shows by the side that considers this nation’s sporting heart and soul to be it’s own personal property. This time, though, it would be ridiculous to begrudge Bayern Munich the attention they are basking in after the drama that unfolded in Madrid on Wednesday night. They have once again stole the spotlight from a younger, hungrier team that dared to challenge their self-bestowed sense of entitlement. In conceding the domestic honours to the new kids Bayern have granted themselves a chance to conquer the whole continent. Their biggest problem now is that the club they will meet in the Champions League final might be even more comfortable wearing the mantle of a team of destiny.
The night didn’t start well for the Bavarians as their one goal lead from the first leg in Munich lasted less than five minutes. David Alaba was seen to have handled in the area and the resulting Christiano Ronaldo penalty had Madrid ahead on aggregate thanks to their away goal in the first match. If there is a commonality between these two sides all year, it’s their porous defences. You could make the argument that they possess the two best goaltenders on the planet in Iker Casillas and Manuel Neuer, and that only Barcelona boast a finer group in midfield and up front. After falling behind, Bayern immediately set out to demonstrate just how suspect Madrid’s defending is with a series of golden chances but it was the Spaniards who struck again in the 14th minute.
It appeared to be game over, yet Arjen Robben’s strike midway through the first half against his old club left both tied at 3-3 on aggregate with an away goal apiece. The remaining hour of relegation time was a perfect mix of aggressive football and the biggest of occasions. In front of a frenzied yet nervous Bernabéu the clubs traded chances, last second tackles, yellow cards and trash talking in search for the decisive goal. The pace never slackened until extra time when both teams seem to have accepted penalties as the only possible outcome on the day after fatigue had set in. Advantage, surely, Bayern, as everyone knows that the Germans always win if it goes to penalties.
Not without another helping of high theatrics, not this time. Neuer saves the first two (Ronaldo and Kaka!), game over it’d seem. But Casillas stops Kroos and Lahm’s efforts to put his side back in contention before Sergio Ramos pulls a Roberto Baggio and skies his shot twenty feet over the bar. It falls to Bastien Schweinsteiger, back in the lineup after repeated injury problems this year. Number 31 is the face of Bayern, the club he’s played for since the age of sixteen and there was no way he was going to miss this one. Game over and Bayern will be the only team to ever play a Champions League or European Cup final in their home ground. Dortmund who?
That they will be forced to do so without three of their starters because of accumulated yellow cards through the group stage and knockout round has lit up the talk shows this week, in both Germany and England. Chelsea will also be four players short in the final, although John Terry’s absence is due to the straight red he received for kneeing Alexis Sànchez in the back, perhaps the stupidest gesture on a football pitch since Rivaldo’s near-death experience against Turkey in the 2002 World Cup. In a rare moment of clarity and common sense, FIFA are now clearing the previously incurred cards in the build up to the final match of World Cups, sensibly figuring that the two teams to make finals should field their first choice lineups. That UEFA has not followed suit for the premier club competition in the world leaves everyone the poorer, particularly when three yellows over twelve games is enough to merit suspension. The hue and cry seems to be unanimously shrill enough to demand that this be the last year the rule will be in effect.
The spectacular semi-finals this week, combined with Dortmund wrapping up the league, have had the unintended consequence of making the coming Bundesliga weekend fixtures seem a little lacklustre. But there remains relegation battles to be fought, European qualification places to be settled and managerial jobs to be lost or retained ahead of next year. Not every week can be as gripping as the last.
April 20 2012
Last weekend Bayern’s 0-0 draw versus Mainz more or less conceded the Bundesliga title to Borussia Dortmund and, in so doing, might have given their hopes of lifting the Champions League trophy in May an enormous leg up. The English teams consider winning the Premiership to be the tougher task and greater honour than the continental title, not so the Germans, especially Bayern with an absurd twenty two Bundesliga championships since 1963. A fifth term as champions of Europe would mean a great deal more this season than any domestic success. Their remarkable performance on Tuesday night at home to Real Madrid has got them one giant step closer to realizing just that.
Historically, we should have seen this coming. Madrid have managed just one draw in nine previous visits to Munich, the local press refer to Bayern as La Bestia Negra and Mario Gomez’s 90th minute winner in a cracking 2-1 match showed why. Both sides wasted chances but the difference on the night was the terrible showing of two of Real’s back four, Sergio Ramos and especially Fabio Coentrao, the latter found wanting in Philip Lahm’s sprint down the right touch line to slot a beautiful cross into the box for Gomez to win the match. Conventional wisdom, with a fair degree of statistical evidence to back it up, has it that the hosts of the second match in a two-legged tie have the advantage, so nothing is yet won ahead of Wednesday’s trip to the Santiago Bernabéu, but Bayern’s support will like their chances to advance to the final in Munich’s own Allianz Arena.
Especially with Madrid’s next domestic fixture a trip to Barcelona that could see them all but certain to wrest the honours in La Liga away from their rivals. No luxury of resting some starters before the mid-week clash with Bayern and that is why the Munich brain trust may be quietly content that Dortmund is a point away from their second straight championship. A few first choice players will certainly not be on the pitch against Werder Bremen on Saturday to ensure that all hands are on deck come Wednesday night.
If both Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben get the day off, team management might well insist that they sit at opposite ends of the sub’s bench. Bild reported that the pair came to blows in the dressing room at the interval on Tuesday over Robben’s insistence that Toni Kroos take a free kick in the first half that Ribéry felt should rightly have been his. Their respective match performances suggests that Robben might want to leave the man management on the pitch to his French teammate who was named man of the match while Robben had a terrible game that saw him miss a couple of sitters that might have sealed the victory long before Gomez did.
So with Dortmund having all but wrapped up the league, the bottom of the table and it’s implications for who makes the drop to the 2nd tier next season, starts to look a lot more interesting. Barring a collapse in the three games left this year, both Hamburg SV and tiny Augsburg appear to have put enough space between themselves and the league basement to ensure they don’t face relegation. With Kaiserslautern doomed to the drop, the fight to finish third from the bottom and get the reprieve of a two leg play off against the third place club from the 2nd Bundesliga to stay up next season will be between Hertha Berlin and FC Köln. Köln have much the harder game to deal with this weekend when they host a Stuttgart side that is playing it’s best football of the year and are a lock to qualify for the Europa League. If Stuttgart trainer Bruno Labbadia is to be trusted on the matter, the Europa League is of little or no interest to his club’s support, a refreshing bit of honesty about what is a confused and confusing competition that often seems pointless.
Financially it is nowhere as lucrative as the more glamourous Champions League and in modern football the one million euros or so that reaching the group stage entails will not buy much. Not so the new Bundesliga TV contract announced this week that will see the the league receive 628 million euros per year from Sky Deutschland, up from 412 million in the current contract. Mind you, that is for all 36 clubs in the top two tiers but that is what competitive balance looks like. Avoiding the Spanish model where Barca and Real take care of their own broadcasting deals is commendable and in the best interest of the fans. If Bayern can get a result next week in Madrid they will demonstrate that the German model need not exclude it’s teams from beating the much richer elite sides of European football.
April 13 2012
It’s such a comparatively rare occurrence in the German football that it’s known as Die Englische Woche. With eighteen sides in the top tier, not the twenty found in the other three big European national leagues, there’s four less matches for each team to play in the season. The format of the Cup tournament also reduces fixture congestion through it’s single knock out format with games ending in ties decided with penalties on the night and not replays à la England. Thus an English week, with a full slate of mid-week fixtures, will always feel a little special in Germany, especially when the most hotly anticipated game of the Bundesliga season happens to fall on a Wednesday night under the floodlights.
A win in Dortmund and Bayern would have been gone top of the table, level on points but with a superior goal differential. A win in Dortmund and Bayern would have exorcised much of the self-doubt and confusion that has taken hold of the organization in the New Year. A win in Dortmund and Bayern would be going into next week’s first leg of their Champions League semi-final, against a Real Madrid squad determined to shrug off their Catalan tormentors, knowing that they possessed the drive and guts to win the kind of matches that define both seasons and entire epochs at a club. But with the whole footballing community of Germany looking on Bayern bottled it in the waning minutes of the game and Dortmund now look a lock to repeat as Deutscher Meister.
If the scoreline on the evening was a somewhat prosaic 1-0, the drama in that one goal match more than lived up to the pre-game hype that saw proceedings take place in the presence of the assembled aristocracy of the German game. Le tout Paris and then some. Full value to Dortmund for the three points, if only because of the gorgeous 77th minute backheel from Robert Lewandowski that won the match. Both sides created chances and both sides wasted chances, none bigger than Arjen Robben’s missed penalty with five minutes to play after being needlessly hauled down in the area by Dortmund keeper Roman Weidenfeller. The miss from the spot was only part of what was a nightmarish night for Robben, who was the player that inexplicably played Lewandowski onside for his goal. Worse was yet to come though in injury time when he had a golden opportunity to atone for his bad day at the office. An attempted Dortmund clearance rattled the woodwork and ended up on the Dutchman’s foot mere yards from goal but, in a fitting final act to a tragicomic day, he shanked it far over the net.
So, at six points clear with only four left to play, the championship is as good as in Dortmund’s hands and Bayern must await their revenge as the two clubs next meet in the Cup final on May 12 in Berlin’s Olympiastadion. A big match and a chance for silverware, no doubt, but their minds will certainly be turned to another Cup final a week later in Munich. There’s the not insignificant obstacle of José Mourinho’s Madrid team to overcome and you can’t help thinking that a club that couldn’t handle Dortmund away should be torn apart at the Santiago Bernabéu. And yet, and yet…. Bayern’s best hope over two legs is that Madrid might be get caught looking ahead to a possible final with Barcelona and not give the German side their full attention.
But that’s next week’s concern, the weekend’s fixtures lay ahead of European worries and Bayern’s best hope for getting the chance to catch Dortmund will be on Saturday afternoon in Gelsenkirchen. Schalke have pretty much locked up third place in the table, are out of the domestic and European cups but have one big mission ahead of them—make the title run of their hated rivals as difficult as possible. So much of the mythology of the Revier derby between Dortmund and Schalke is tied up with one side having been the last stumbling block to a championship season and most often it has been Dortmund doing in Schalke’s agonizing hunt for their first ever Meisterschaft, most famously in 2007 when Schalke had led the league for three months only to lose to Dortmund on the second last game of the year. The Veltins Arena faithful would consider a win on the weekend more than ample pay back were it to lead to a late season Dortmund collapse. Unlikely, but possible, just ask Schalke fans.
On the theme of collapses, Köln skipper Stale Solbakken paid with his job for the club’s inexplicable 17 losses this year with the 4-0 at the hands of Mainz the final ignominy. Lukas Podolski was hit under the eye with a coin thrown from the stands, one more reason for him to look ahead to this summer’s Euros and the greener pastures awaiting him afterwards in north London at Arsenal.
March 30 2012
The laurels being pitched in the direction of Athletic Bilbao from all corners of Europe after their two leg Europa League defeat of Manchester United two weeks ago will only intensify after the Basques did a similar number on Schalke on Thursday. It looked to be a very different result for much of the game but Athletic rode out a relentless Schalke attack to run away with the match in the closing stages. That the side sitting in eighth position in Spain look capable of beating anyone on the planet goes no small way towards puncturing the idea of La Liga as a two team competition, at least on European nights. Schalke now have to set themselves to overturning a 4-2 deficit next week in the away leg, something approaching an impossibility if Bilbao’s continental form has at least one more week to run.
The news wasn’t quite as bad for the other meeting of Spanish and German sides, if only because Hannover lost to Atlético Madrid away from home. They so nearly escaped Spain with a draw until midfielder Eduardo Salvio won it for the home side at the death. Hannover have neither the talent nor the depth that Schalke can boast and, if their European adventure ends in these quarter finals the club and their support will be well pleased with a return to a major Cup competition for the first time in two decades. Not so Schalke, who boast some world class players like Raul and Klaas Jan Huntelaar but were forced to start their fourth string goalkeeper. In a year when rivals Dortmund look set to repeat as Bundesliga champions a Europa League trophy might have been the minimum expected to soften the blow of finishing yet again second best in the Ruhr Valley.
But the real story in Europe is, as ever, to be found in the Champions League where Bayern were condemned to taking a back seat Wednesday to AC Milan-Barcelona, the glamour fixture of the quarter finals. Most of the pre-game chin wagging involved Franck Ribéry’s return to Marseille’s Stade Velodrome where he earned his keep for two years before the move to Munich. His performance in Bayern’s 2-0 routine win was far from his best of the season, but Mario Gomez made another case that he may be Europe’s most under-rated offensive threat with his eleventh goal in eight Champions League appearances. When added to his twenty three strikes in twenty six Bundesliga games he might be the most in-form striker heading into the Euros in June.
Bayern’s biggest problem is one game after what should be a routine home leg against Marseille. Real Madrid needed 74 minutes to finally solve the defensive shell that was APOEL Nikosia, added two more and will no doubt finish off the Cypriots who will pocket their UEFA prize money for reaching the quarters and use it to dominate their domestic league for a generation to come. Can Bayern beat Madrid over two games to get a chance to win the trophy in front of their home fans? This is the best Madrid squad in years but José Mourinho may have built his team around beating Barcelona, full stop. On their day Bayern’s starting eleven can go toe to toe with anybody in Europe but too often this year injuries and lapses in concentration have cost them dearly. They will score goals, whether or not they are capable of preventing their opponents from getting at least one less has been a pressing problem all season. Any team wishing to tighten up their defence could do a lot worse than watch Milan’s magnificent team effort against Barcelona that ended in a scoreless draw. It was the best of calcio on display for the whole 90 minutes and an advertisement for the beauty of defensive football.
There is no must-see marquee game among the nine this Bundesliga weekend but, at this stage of the year, they will all have implications in the table. Much is always made of the fan-friendly nature of the German league—ticket prices, stadium locations and public transport accessibility and whatnot. The apologists for the league in the national press might be surprised to know that only one team, Bayern, has sold out all it’s home games this year, indeed only six have played more than half of those games to no empty seats. But only one club has failed to sell out their home ground all year. Nürnberg haven’t exactly lit up the league this year but have one of the finest footballing traditions in the country, so much so that their nickname is Der Club dating from their dominance in the 1920′s. The town is also home to Kicker Magazine, the Bible of the German game so it is clearly a football town, or at least was. If they don’t manage to fill the joint on Saturday afternoon against Bayern it might be a sign that they are on their way to being the Accrington Stanley or Preston North End of Germany.
March 26 2012
Borussia Mönchengladbach’s fairytale seems to be in the process of unravelling as improbably as it all began at the beginning of the season. With only one win in their past five league matches and knocked out of the Cup in their semi-final against Bayern, the glorious promise of this most unlikely of seasons is foundering because of results like Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Hoffenheim. Although Schalke are only two points ahead of them in third place, the two clubs seem locked into totally different trajectories and Gladbach would dearly like to finish third and avoid the qualification playoff to qualify for the Champions League group stage, and the millions that accompany it. The playoff entails a home and away fixture that could well see them matched up against fourth place sides from England or Spain or third place from Italy and no one would fancy Gladbach’s chances against opposition of that calibre.
Borussia Dortmund took a page out of their rival Bayern’s notebook and stuck six past a hapless Köln, five in the second half after the teams went into the dressing room knotted up 1-1 at halftime. What happened in the 15 minute interval is anybody’s guess, but trainer Stale Solbakken might want to revise his motivational team talks if Sunday was indicative of their effectiveness. Dortmund’s win means that Bayern stay five points behind in the title race despite their 2-1 win at Hannover’s expense. Time, as much as Dortmund, is now Bayern’s enemy and making up five points in seven games will require a couple of significant bad days at the office for the league leaders which might be more than even the most fervent Bayern apologist could reasonably hope for.
The brain trust down in Munich will have turned their attentions to a competition they have a better chance of actually winning. The Champions League quarter final draw was kind to Bayern in matching them up with an Olympique Marseille squad that will need a full fledged miracle to beat the Germans over two legs. Marseille are adrift in ninth place in Ligue 1 and were knocked out of the French Cup last week by Quevilly who play their home games in the cozy environs of Le Stade Amable Lozai, capacity 2 300 souls. I daresay the only way that Marseille go through to the semi-finals is if Bernard Tapie returns to the club and engages in some of the match fixing that saw OM stripped of their 1993 French title but not, scandalously, their Champions League trophy from the same season. I will go out on a limb and say that this is not the year that Marseille will win their second European Cup.
If this was a rare Bundesliga season for competitiveness at the top of the table for much of the year, the race to avoid relegation down at the bottom is even more interesting. Only Kaiserslautern are doomed, at 20 points they are six below the rest of the pack and nothing in their form has demonstrated the slightest hope of evading the drop. Above them things get truly compelling with five clubs separated by two points and some big, rich teams that have absolutely no business slumming it with league minnows like Freiburg and Augsburg. The trinity of criminal underachievers comprised of Köln, Hertha Berlin and Hamburger SV might marshal all manner of excuses for their inexcusable form, but the one constant has been gross managerial incompetence in the front office. Köln’s striker, and one bright spot on their season, Lukas Podolski said this weekend that every remaining game was now a Cup final. Poldi’s not famed for his great intelligence but he got that one bang on. If he is truly off to the Emirates next year, although everyone at Arsenal still denies that anything is definite as of yet, he will not want to leave his hometown club as they got relegated.
Staying up in the 1st league may now be a matter of which clubs have the easiest run of fixtures to close out the season. That news won’t please Augsburg supporters who will be well aware that their team still has matches against Bayern, Schalke and Gladbach as well as mid-table Stuttgart and Wolfsburg. Köln’s run of fixture is not much kinder but Hamburg will like their chances of not being sent down for the first time in their history. Leverkeusen is the toughest team that they will face between now and early May. Unfortunately for Hamburg, they will be without their best player until late April as a result of a seven game suspension after easily the worst foul of the Bundesliga season. José Guerrero has toiled alone and in vain for most of the season, but his insane two footed challenge on Stuttgart keeper Sven Ulreich in early March can not be chalked up to frustration. Given the severity of the foul, Guerrero will count himself lucky to have been suspended for only seven games.
March 22 2012
There are certainly rivalries in the football world that trump the Revier Derby between Schalke and Dortmund for passion and intensity, to say nothing of actual hatred and contempt. River Plate-Boca Juniors, the Glasgow Old Firm or Barca-Real might find the antagonism on show in the Ruhrgebiet decidedly second rate. However, sometimes Germany’s fiercest Derby flexes it’s muscles by showing that it is capable of seriously affecting matches not even involving the two clubs, as was the case on Tuesday in a Cup semi-final that finished with more drama in the 120th minute than had been on display the whole night beforehand.
On paper, Dortmund had no business going into extra time against Greuther Fürth. One leads the upper tier of German football, the other only top of the table of the second league and the gulf of expenditures that separates the two clubs reflects that. When Ilkay Gündogan scored mere seconds before the match was headed to penalties you might be forgiven for thinking that some of the Dortmund squad acted as if they had beat Real Madrid’s 1956 vintage and not a team from the 2nd Bundesliga. At the root of this lack of class was the deep-rooted enmity with Schalke.
In brief, Dortmund midfielder Kevin Grosskreutz acted like a complete twat, particularly in regards to ex-Schalke legend Gerard Asamoah, now finishing out his playing career down in the lower leagues. Arriving in Germany with his parents from Ghana at 12 and capped 43 times for his adopted homeland, Asamoah was an early symbol of the evolution of the German national side over the past decade. His team mate at Fürth, Mergim Marvaj claimed after the match that Grosskreutz’s taunting of Asamaoh was racially tinged. The Dortmund player vehemently denied the accusation but it wasn’t a pretty sight no matter what was said to see him sprinting towards a dejected Asamoah in the centre circle. He then got in Fürth trainer Mike Buskens’ face to add insult to injury. Buskens’ crime? He played 12 seasons for Schalke and to the Dortmund born and bred Grosskreutz that makes him a natural target. It was almost enough to make you hope that Bayern beats Dortmund to the title just to shut that classless arsehole up. Almost, but not quite.
The next night the other semi final saw the selfsame Bayern travel to Mönchengladbach having scored a ridiculous 20 goals in their previous three games—7-1 against Hoffenheim, 7-0 versus Basel in Champions League and then an all-too-predictable 6-0 thrashing of Hertha Berlin. No such offensive pyrotechnics in Gladbach as both clubs couldn’t find the back of the net for the entirety of the 120 minutes of regular play. Both teams converted their first two penalties and then Gladbach self-destructed to set up a final at Berlin’s Olympiastadion between the two dominant clubs of the past few seasons, Bayern and Dortmund.
In the Bundesliga title race Bayern have eight games to close the five point gap on Dortmund and face much the tougher opponent this weekend when Hannover travel to Munich. Emboldened by their surprisingly good form in their latest Europa League triumph, Hannover appear to have found a little of their magic from last year. Or maybe they just started to listen again to their trainer Mirko Slomka, a master tactician respected throughout the Bundesliga. It’s hard to see Dortmund dropping points away to an increasingly chaotic Cologne squad that once again seem in serious danger of having to worry about winning their last few games to avoid relegation. Like the mess in Berlin, Cologne’s problems seem to be at every level of the organization from the parking lot attendants up to the director’s box.
The club most likely to suffer the drop, Kaiserslautern, parted company with field boss Marko Kurz after a nightmarish stretch that has seem them go four and a half months without a win. That last victory came in Matchday 10 and the fact that they were only three points above the drop zone at the time indicates just how dire much of the football at the bottom of the table has been. Three wins and a draw or two for any club in the remaining eight games will almost certainly assure survival in the top flight next year but whether any of the teams have the ability, desire or focus to manage even that is debatable. Conversely, the five teams chasing promotion from the 2nd Bundesliga look far worthier of top flight status, Greuther Fürth’s first class performance against Dortmund on Wednesday was ample proof if any was needed.
March 13 2012
A pair of scoreless draws that came at the hands of unfancied opposition were in stark contrast to the goal fest in Munich over the last weekend. The top of the table didn’t receive a major realignment, Bayern and Schalke will be pleased to have gained a little ground, but the major development might have been the new order of things down in the relegation zone where a small club (Augsburg) has risen above the drop for the time being at the expense of a side (Hertha Berlin) that has no business flirting with a too-quick return to the 2nd tier.
On Saturday afternoon Munich might have paid too stiff a price for it’s seven goal rampage inflicted on a Hoffenheim squad that looked lost from the opening whistle. First off the pitch for Bayern owing to injury was Jerome Boateng who was subbed at the half with his side already up 5-0. Mario Gomez, author of a splendid hat trick on the day, followed just afterwards and Arjen Robben would have followed him to the physioroom had he not turned his ankle right at the end of the one-sided contest. Bayern needed a win this emphatic to remind themselves and the pretenders to their throne just who they were. Their performance in the second leg of the Champions League fixture versus Basel on Tuesday will serve to show if the Hoffenheim match was a return to their usual dominance or a fleeting glimpse of faded glory.
Borussia Mönchengladbach’s record the past three weeks is a bitter disappointment to anyone who was enchanted by their improbable run this season. Two draws and a loss has widened the gap with first place, but that results so tepid and atypical of Gladbach’s fighting spirit have come against the likes of Freiburg, Nürnberg and Hamburg will gall all the more. 0-0 at home to a Freiburg team that all but threw in the towel in the winter transfer window when they let Cissé go to Newcastle has to be seen as proof positive that they don’t have the legs or the heart to offer a serious title challenge to Dortmund. Expectations must be re-calibrated and ambitions dampened to the point where the support will again be satisfied with qualification for a European spot next year, more than anyone would have thought likely or even possible back in August when the season began.
Dortmund had one of their rare stumbles since losing Mario Götze in December and will be thus heartened with recent reports that the 19 year old phenomenom may be back in the squad within weeks. FC Augsburg will be more than happy with the point as reward for the 0-0 draw but Dortmund for once seemed to play as if the victory was already theirs. Trainer Jürgen Klopp has done a fantastic job these past two years at keeping his charges focused only on the next match, every journalist that tries to get anyone at the club to discuss the possibility of a second straight Bundesliga title will attest to that. With nine games to go Klopp must redouble his efforts to make sure that everyone knows that matches are won in the 90 minutes on the pitch and not in the papers the morning of kick off, no matter the opposition.
As is too often the case, though, much of the news the past week involved a spate of off field incidents, some implicating the usual suspects at problem clubs that have a well-deserved rep for sociopathic tendencies. After the melee between fans that accompanied St Pauli’s visit to Rostock in November, local police have tried to prevent Rostock supporters attending the return leg in Hamburg. Similarly, Eintracht Frankfurt will have their away ticket allocation cancelled for the trip to Union Berlin in two weeks in retaliation for the excessive use of pyrotechnics away to Düsseldorf in mid-February. Nürnberg must pay the DFB governing body 100 000 euros as compensation for a segment of their fans invading the away block after a Cup loss against derby rivals Greuther Fürth a few days before Christmas. And on and on and on……It is encouraging to see the DFB take measures to punish not only the perpetrators as the club and the fans as a whole. Self-policing by both the fans as a whole and team management is the only way to deal with this blight. If a small portion of the support is going to threaten everyone’s right to go and see their team play, home and away, week in and week out, then the vast majority of the fanbase will do all they can to ensure that the idiot contingent is silenced in isolation. And the best of luck to them in their efforts.
March 9 2012
The dignity and good name of the Bundesliga was somewhat salvaged in Belgium on Thursday night. What had looked to be an out and out catastrophic week in the European competitions ended as merely worrisome, disaster was averted but not before a truer reading of the relative strengths of the national continental leagues than the ballyhooed UEFA coefficient provides. No sane individual would’ve pegged Bayer Leverkeusen to overcome a 3-1 first leg deficit against Barca in the Champions League, and they spectacularly lived down to expectations, but shouldn’t Hannover and Schalke have been heavy favourites against Dutch and Belgian Europa League opponents? They were not, and the matches provided ample arguments as to why.
Pity any club fated to having to go to the Nou Camp and overturn a 3-1 first leg deficit. A near impossible assignment for the Man U’s and Real’s of this world let alone Leverkeusen. Last weekend’s 2-0 win over Bayern domestically meant the Germans came into the fixture on something of a season high, but daunting wouldn’t begin to describe the monumental challenge ahead of them. For twenty minutes they gave rather a good account of themselves, for twenty minutes they played like a side that kept their shape and defended well enough to hope to steal a goal on the counter and, then, who knows, just maybe it might be their lucky day. It was not their lucky day.
Lionel Messi has now officially put the world on notice that he is playing not against the opposition on the day, but against himself and history. The fact that he put five past Leverkeusen keeper Bernd Leno wasn’t the real story, how he scored them all is what unleashed a wave of huzzahs that went beyond admiration for the man’s talents to a general admission that we are watching the greatest of all time. An Argentinian win in Brazil in 2014 and that argument becomes almost irrefutable, Messi will be 26 at that tournament, the same age as Maradona in 1986. All of which might well have been running through the minds of the Leverkeusen players and staff as they limped home to Germany after the match, no doubt thankful that it wasn’t worse and well aware that they will all tell their grand kids one day that they had the singular honour to be carved open by a man who will have passed into mythology by then.
So, if Leverkeusen was over-matched from the get-go in the Champions League, Schalke and Hannover had a much greater hope of victory in the Europa League on Thursday. Both clubs were on the road for their first leg fixtures, Schalke against Dutch title contenders Twente and Hannover against Standard Liège of Belgium, a team that they already played twice this season in the group stage of the tournament where the results weren’t kind for the Germans– a scoreless draw at home and a 2-0 loss in Liège, and the lion’s share of the play on Thursday should’ve meant another setback. Liège dominated play but had to settle for a 2-2 draw thanks to Hannover taking full advantage of the few chances they created and some timely saves from Ron-Robert Zieler when they needed them most, particularly in a last second goal mouth scramble that saved the single point for the visitors who will be relieved to take two away goals back to Hannover in anticipation of next week’s return leg.
Schalke were also outplayed but might have also escaped with a draw but for Twente’s second half penalty. Steve McLaren’s back in charge at Twente and, unlike the fans in Wolfsburg or indeed those of his native island, the Dutch fans hold him in the highest esteem. Twente’s only title came under McLaren’s charge two seasons back and the club have responded well to his return, they are in the pack to win another championship and further progress in the Europa League at the expense of a faltering Schalke looks very likely. The wheels have seemed to have fallen off the Schalke express the past few weeks, their run of positive results the past few months were widely seen as being more smoke and mirrors than true quality, an opinion that the team has done little to dispel the past three weeks.
March 6 2012
The Bundesliga leads world the in average attendance per match but should the 2nd league continue as it has all season, that distinction may become a thing of the past next year. Two of the top three teams best positioned for promotion next year are surprises and their puny home grounds attest to their underdog status. The north Bavarian side SpVgg Greuther Fürth and SC Paderborn 07 from the northern Rhine region will be the smallest clubs to make the jump in a long time if they keep pace with their form thus far. Both sides play in 15 000 capacity venues but, worryingly, are playing to crowds that hover around the 10 000 mark.
Will that change much if the fans find their team playing in the top flight next year? No question that sell outs will be more common but in such comparatively small arenas the seats that might have been sold might be as important as the ones that are filled. This year’s smallest stadium in the 1st league is Freiburg’s Mage Solar Stadion at 25 000 capacity, far bigger than those of either Fürth or Paderborn. The Bundesliga might want to investigate minimum stadium guidelines, à la UEFA and FIFA for major competitions, to safeguard their position atop the attendance rankings worldwide. Anyone wishing to keep these minnows out of the top flight might want to throw their support behind some of the other clubs with promotion in their sights. Fortuna Dusseldorf and Eintracht Frankfurt both play in cavernous venues that hold in excess of 50 000 fans.
The biggest ground in Germany is, of course, in Dortmund but it’s still far too small to accommodate all those who might want to get in on the party that the rest of the season is looking to be. The gap between the league leaders and second place Bayern is now a commanding seven points which looks almost insurmountable given the defending champions form in the New Year. The man of the match honours seem to get passed around from week to week, one of the surest indications of a team intent on winning trophies. More of thesame this week against Mainz to make it ten straight wins in all competitions and in a month they have effectively shrugged off the clubs emboldened enough to think they had a chance to challenge for the title.
First Schalke slipped, then Gladbach stumbled and now Bayern have skidded to a halt. Saturday’s 2-0 loss to Leverkeusen means attention in Munich turns to ensuring the club wins at least one of the other trophies they are still in contention for. The German Cup would be little consolation for losing the league, and having drawn Mönchengladbach away, that will be a devil of a challenge regardless. The Champions League could soften the blow and they have another week to prepare for the crucial second leg at home against Basel after losing 1-0 in the first match. The squad that was recently bleating about being possible treble winners this year now look confused and panicked, riven by doubt and insecurities on and off the pitch. This is not how Bayern are supposed to conduct themselves when the heat is on—that they are tells maybe more than team management would have liked to reveal about the health of the entire organization just now.
Borussia Mönchengladbach had their worst outing of the year on the past weekend but were still unlucky to have lost. The only goal against Nürnberg came in the 87th minute, but Gladbach rarely threatened to score themselves so the loss was fair reward for their mediocre showing on the day. Schalke lost and now seem a dispirited side, it may get worse very soon. Leverkeusen are only four points back of them and play Barcelona on Tuesday night in the Champions League. No one is expecting them to win, but a good showing in defeat might energize the team to make a final push for fourth place and the Champions League berth next year that accompanies it. They might like another shot at the knock out stage where they don’t draw Barcelona in the first round.
The upset of the week was in Berlin where Hertha BSC shocked the home fans and horrified the opposition by beating Werder Bremen thanks to a goal completely against the run of play. After seven straight defeats this little 1-0 win will calm nerves in the capital. Next week they can do themselves an even bigger favour away to Köln who sit only two points ahead of Berlin. A win and Köln is leap-frogged, the talk of certain relegation subsides, stability reigns in the boardroom, on field results improve and the biggest running soap opera of the season has a happy end. Or a brief respite at least.
March 2 2012
The winter transfer window closed a month ago in the Bundesliga, yet the lion’s share of talk this week has revolved around who’s going where, when and for how much. That some of the biggest names in German football will almost certainly be sporting different colours next season only heightens the frenzy of speculation. Köln’s topsy-turvy season on the field, in particular, is in the process of becoming a mere side show to the nonstop chin wagging over where Lukas Podolski might be playing next year. So much so that trainer Stale Solbakken has been forced to remind all parties that Poldi will be finishing the year at his hometown club and requesting that the striker concentrate on the eleven games left in the season whether or not he’s already signed to one of the clubs he’s been tipped to join.
That list has expanded this week with both big Milan clubs throwing their hats into the ring, but, if both the English and German press are to be believed, a deal with Arsenal is only awaiting the appropriate signatures. Schalke have let it be known that they are prepared to offer him 6 million euros a year, but no one is expecting him to stay in Germany such is his allegiance to the city and fans in Köln. One thing is certain, the team will have a very tough time replacing his offensive output next year even were they to invest every red cent of the transfer fee in bringing new talent to the banks of the Rhine. Fifteen goals in nineteen games is most impressive for a player who has seemed disinterested, distracted and disappointed all year.
Schalke will be in even bigger trouble should they fail to sign both of the big guns in their lineup. Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Raùl have tallied twenty nine times between them, so the news that Huntelaar has made noises the week that he is open to a contract extension that would have him stay in Gelsenkirchen will calm nerves amongst Schalke’s fanatical following. Last week’s 2-0 loss to Bayern might have sounded the death knell on their title hopes this season, getting the horses lined up for next year’s run at the elusive championship has become a priority earlier than anyone would have liked.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Arjen Robben has said that he’s considering leaving Bayern Munich and it’d be hard not to agree that it would be a good move on the Dutchman’s part. A pair of goals at Wembley on Wednesday in the Netherlands-England friendly served as a giant finger to the chorus of negativity directed his way. Bayern trainer Jupp Heynckes and president Uli Hoeness have been moved to defend Robben, but that didn’t prevent him from having a back handed go at Heynckes. Speaking of Dutch skipper Bert van Marwijk, he said, “It was wonderful to work with a trainer who gives his players confidence and lets them work in peace”. The dots connect themselves with regards to his current management team in Munich. Whether or not this will only add to Robben’s growing reputation as a selfish player is probably little concern of his by now.
Of the big four clubs contending for the honours this year, only one will be playing opposition that look like capable of pulling off an upset. Bayer Leverkeusen have been one of the most bipolar teams in Europe the past few months—unlucky to have drawn Barcelona in the first knock out round of the Champions League, they will still be pleased to have gotten out of the group stages. They host Bayern Munich and, although, the betting line says otherwise, Leverkeusen seem capable of surprising the visitors who seem increasingly in disarray. Were it not for the superhuman work rate of Franck Ribèry the season would be already as good as lost. Dortmund are at home to Mainz 04 in what should be a cakewalk, Gladbach are in Nürnberg for a tougher match-up and Schalke are fortunate to be playing the worst team in the Bundesliga, Freiburg. That’s right, even worse than Hertha Berlin.
King Otto’s return to the managerial ranks in Germany was applauded up and down the country and that Berlin’s first match under his stewardship was against lowly Augsburg had all and sundry, myself included, handing the game to Rehhagel’s squad. No one told Augsburg that they were supposed to roll over, though, and a disastrous second half left Hertha 3-0 losers and mired ever deeper in a slump for which solutions seem less and less likely. Werder Bremen visit the Olympiastadion on Saturday and they are a much stronger team than Augsburg, any early sign of trouble and the fans will probably be lost for the duration. This has the potential to get truly ugly, and very quickly, a win is needed to throw a little sanity into the mix, if only for a week.
February 27 2012
It has unfortunately been a constant theme this year in European football and Germany has not been spared it’s stain. There was a certain smugness in the German media vis à vis the high profile Luis Suarez and John Terry incidents this season in England but what transpired at a training session on Sunday in Kaiserslautern is proof positive that the right wing element within the fanbase is not confined to the poorer east of the country. Far too often the mainstream media, overwhelmingly based in the western part of Germany, tries to paint racism in football as exclusively endemic in towns like Dresden, Rostock and Leipzig yet a thing of the past in the enlightened West.
No question, the Kaiserslautern fans had every right to be pissed on Sunday, a day after being humiliated 4-0 in Mainz. The two cities are little more than a half hour from each other, so this is a proper, old-time derby which must have made the short train ride home on Saturday evening all the more difficult to bear. Kaiserslautern is not a big town and has always punched above it’s weight in German football, justifiably claiming to be the big club in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz even if Mainz is the bigger and better known city. A group of supporters, less than 10 according to Sport Bild, decided to take it upon themselves to show up at the team’s training facilities on Sunday to manifest their displeasure at both the thrashing in Mainz and the overall performance in a season that has them marooned in the relegation zone.
This is a very common occurrence around the football world, fans feel a sense of entitlement with their club and consider it as natural to throw brickbats when things are going bad as it is to proffer kudos in the good times. But that the group stood outside the facility and Seig Heil’ed the team while amusing themselves with a generous lashing of tried and true antisemitic BS seems a rather odd way to let the squad know that the club’s support demands better results for the rest of the season. Unless, of course, this was all for the benefit of striker Itay Shechter, an Israeli international whose play all season has been as suspect as anyone’s on the team. Ironically, Shechter tops the club in goals this year, but when that team leader has three goals to his credit the problems aren’t hard to identify.
The fact that the Israeli has been sidelined for two weeks with a calf strain, and thus had no impact whatsoever on Saturday’s loss, seems not to have occurred to the gang of idiots. Perhaps they were merely cognisant of the simple yet sad fact that the one surefire way to get yourself in the papers in Germany is to raise your right hand in the air, little matter the cause being espoused. If they were looking to expand on their repertoire of inanities to apportion blame for the humiliation on the pitch, they might have been better served picking on Mainz’s Egyptian forward Mohamed Zidan. He added another goal, making it four in four since returning from stints in Dortmund and Hamburg.
On the weekend Dortmund started to put some separation between themselves and the pack of three chasing them for the championship. Borussia Mönchengladbach were left deeply regretting that they couldn’t protect their one goal lead against Hamburg. Mike Hanke notched his sixth of the year in extra time of the first half to go into the dressing room at the break with a lead to protect but it lasted only ten minutes after the restart. A single point means they drop a further two behind Dortmund who won versus Hannover in the steady fashion that is becoming the hallmark of the defending title holders. Hannover never really threatened to take the game to the opposition and Robert Lewandowski’s two tallies once again allowed Dortmund to ride out the absence of Mario Götze, injured since December and not expected back in the lineup until mid-March.
The most anticipated game of Matchday 23 saw Schalke travel to Munich knowing full well that anything other than a win against Bayern would see them slip farther back into fourth place with no realistic hope of winning the Bundesliga. Thus, the 2-0 loss leaves them eight points out of first and their sights must be re-calibrated to ensure that a Champions League berth doesn’t next slip from their grasp. The result will go no small way to calming nerves in Munich, on the heels of their shocking loss to FC Basel last week in the Champions League anything other than a victory would not have been tolerated and there would’ve been some players with gaudy reputations and even gaudier contracts riding the substitutes bench in the coming weeks.
February 24 2012
Betimes farce, but often pure poetry, this Bundesliga season to remember has continued it’s frantic pace the past two weeks. I’ve been otherwise distracted with getting myself from Berlin back to Canada for a stretch and haven’t been able to keep this page up to date, but there has been no shortage of interesting developments in the interim. Befitting it’s status as capital city, politically if not in football terms, Berlin has managed to push the ever shifting race for the championship off of the front pages for weeks now. For all the wrong reasons, though.
As predicted back in early February, Hertha Berlin trainer Michael Skibbe had to either win one or both of the matches against Gladbach in the DFB Pokal or Stuttgart in the league to save his job. He managed to lose both in rather spectacular fashion and was shown the door after only five matches at the helm of Die Alte Dame. Under his stewardship, the club was outscored 12-1, surely some kind of modern record for futility and the hunt was back on for someone who could salvage a season that looked increasingly doomed to relegation. With René Tretschok in charge on an interim basis for the fait accompli that was a loss to Dortmund, the speculation over who would be the new boss grew.
But of all the names put forward, of all the candidates thought likely, of all the potentialities deemed suitable, no one in Germany got this one right. The collective gasp of disbelief when Otto Rehhagel’s name was announced at the press conference was palpable, so left field was the decision. Known primarily to international fans as the man who led Greece to their miracle win at the 2004 Euros playing the most boring football seen since the term catenaccio was first coined, Rehhagel might well have been the most inspired choice that Hertha management will ever make. A proven winner, a legend in Bremen for his two titles with Werder and at Kaiserslautern for their only one ever, he is perhaps the ultimate pragmatist who will exploit any and every scrap of talent at his disposal in the name of results. Expect Hertha to easily handle Augsburg on Saturday, the new boss is 73 and has little too lose in alienating any player not seen as pulling their weight. Could it be that the suits at the Olympiastadion have finally done something right?
If so, it would stand in rather stark contrast to goings on down in Munich where they almost always get things right but are now running the risk of ending what was supposed to be a treble winning campaign empty handed. Third place in the league, a Cup semi-final date with their new nemeses from Gladbach in March and, now this week a shocking defeat to FC Basel in the Champions League. It is only first leg, only a goal down and the home game is yet to come, but in a year when the Allianz Arena will be hosting the final in May, to go out to a Swiss team might lead to big changes in Bavaria. They host Schalke on Sunday, lose and they will sit fourth in the table, lose and the vague disquiet of the past few weeks becomes a full blown existential crisis, lose and the overbearing Uli Hoeness might well find himself relieved of duties as club director. I think I join most folk of good faith and reason in wishing Schalke 04 the best of luck this weekend, nothing would be nicer than to see that arrogant blowhard out of a job.
The last word of the week belongs to the darlings of the Bundesliga, every neutral’s new favourite team, the magnificent Borussia Mönchengladbach. Undefeated since early December in all competitions, Gladbach are the best defensive team on the continent this season. On the continent. This season. Although it’s the attacking prowess of Marco Reus, Patrick Herrmann and Mike Hanke have yielded the lion’s share of headlines this year, it is the stellar collective work in their own end that have the club three points behind leaders Dortmund at the top of the table after conceding only thirteen times all year. Lucien Favre’s work with the team this year when absolutely nothing was expected of them, should see him already pencilled in as coach on UEFA’s team of the year. The biggest shame is that Reus has been signed by Dortmund for next season so Gladbach’s European run next year will be without the player who has been the discovery of the year in the Bundesliga. It could have been worse, Reus in black and yellow is far more preferable to the red and white of Bayern. There may well be a seismic shift underway in the power structure of German football and it has made for the best season in a decade or more, may it continue apace.
February 6 2012
The disgust is palpable here in Berlin, directed more at the suits running this dog and pony show then the players out on the pitch. If Leverkeusen could have managed to beat Köln at home on Sunday evening this week’s table would have featured Hertha BSC sitting third from the bottom, as it is they are a mere two points clear of the relegation zone ahead of next week’s visit to Stuttgart and you’d be hard pressed to find a single fan in this city who doesn’t foresee the capital being without top flight football again next year. Unless, of course, the plucky club in the east end, 1 FC Union Berlin, pull off a miracle and climb the table from their current 7th place spot to qualify for promotion.
Michael Skibbe is now three games into his tenure after the soap opera involving old trainer Markus Babbel’s exit and he’s yet to get a point from any match. His job is already in serious jeopardy but on Wednesday redemption, and a little breathing space to boot, is possible though not likely. Mönchengladbach visit the Olympic Stadium for a Cup quarter final match up and if Skibbe can somehow conjure the necessaries to shock the whole nation and win the game he may last long enough in his post to avoid the drop to the 2nd Bundesliga. It would be just shy of miraculous, but the cold snap that has most of Europe in it’s grip might turn out to be Hertha’s twelfth man on the night. Expected game time temperature is -14 Celsius and Gladbach’s one touch football will certainly suffer, the conditions even out the obvious gulf in talent, whether it can do the same for the psychological chasm that now separate the clubs is another matter.
But, as always and ever in German football, the real story lies outside of Berlin. Dortmund threw down the gauntlet on Friday night in Nürnberg by notching two goals in the second half and thus put the other three teams in the leading pack on notice that wins were the only way to keep pace with the new league leaders at 43 points. And, with the weekend’s action done and dusted, they are now alone at the top looking down because the rest of the competition all drew their games.
Schalke will be happy with the single point, for a good part of the afternoon even that seemed improbable. Mohamed Zidan’s return to Mainz was the focus on the day, and, when he scored a blinder fifteen minutes in, it appeared that the force of a good headline for the next morning’s papers was stronger than Schalke’s ability to come back. Their breakthrough finally came in the second half with the equalizer but were unable to add another to continue their run to six straight wins in the league. They lost ground in the hunt for the title, but given that Mainz were clearly the better club, the point will be adequate compensation and indeed more than they merited.
The Saturday evening kickoff was in Hamburg and the later start time and winds from the Baltic meant it was probably the coldest ground in the country this week. Bayern had other reasons besides the weather to fear this encounter, HSV have been steadily climbing the table and have shaken off the last remnants of the nightmare start to the season. Man of the match was unquestionably keeper Jaroslav Drobny who stoned Bayern at key moments time and again, it is Drobny’s misfortune to share the same homeland as Peter Cech or he would be a far more well known member of the goaltender’s fraternity. It was a very frustrated Bayern line up that walked off the pitch after the one all draw. Their taunting of Dortmund and Gladbach of late (Schalke aren’t even deemed worthy of dismissal) is starting to sound less like the swagger of champions and more like false bravado, so much whistling in the dark.
Mönchengaldbach will be left regretting that they didn’t make more of their superior play in the first half at Wolfsburg and had to settle for a goalless draw that leaves them still in fourth place with the gap widened from one point to three. They host Schalke next weekend and can not allow golden opportunities to go wanting as they did so often on Saturday past, the finishing that has made Marco Reus, Patrick Herrmann and Mike Hanke three of the discoveries of the year in Germany can not desert them once again. They have a very nice cushion of eight points separating them from Werder Bremen in fifth place, but every neutral wants this fantastic story of the scrappy underdogs in black and white to keep going. Holding on to a possible Champions League berth next season is nowhere near the epochal event that a title would be, especially for the older fans who remember Gladbach representing the antidote to big, bad Bayern with five championships between 1969 and 1977.
February 2 2012
They’ve been christened Die Fantastischen Vier (The Fantastic Four) and last weekend all members of the quartet lived up to the handle. Bayern, Dortmund, Schalke and Mönchengladbach all added three points to their season total and it’s starting to seem as if no one can afford not to take all three points from each match without running a serious risk of dropping out of the race for the championship. These four are so far ahead of the rest of the league that the head to head games among them will most likely end up deciding who takes the title.
The closing of the winter transfer window is not quite the TV frenzy here in Germany that it is in the UK, but the German speaking outpost of the Sky hype machine is starting to pick up a thing or two from their British counterparts about how to package what was more or less a non-event as if it were V-E Day and 9-11 combined. Only Wolfsburg altered their team in a significant way, easily leading the league in spending almost 30 million euros of VW’s money in an attempt to affect a return to the heady days of spring 2009 when they won their only German championship.
The most dramatic transfer will be sorely rued by the fans down in the south west of the country when Freiburg accepted Newcastle’s offer of 12 million euros for their one and only asset, Senegalese striker Papiss Cissé. With this move the club occupying 18th and last place in the table essentially told it’s fans that it is resigned to relegation next year. Expect a good chunk of the support to act accordingly, the club gave up on the season, the fans can’t be blamed for giving up on the club.
Other notable moves were relatively thin on the ground, but a few bear mentioning. Egyptian international Mohamed Zidan returns to Mainz from Dortmund where he only appeared in two games this season, his near namesake might have something of a tough time cracking the Dortmund lineup. Expect him to regain some of the form that he showed in a half a season with Mainz in 2007 when he scored 13 times in 15 games. Another foreign international on the way out of the Bundesliga is Pavel Pogrebnyak after a rather disappointing year and a half in Germany. A key part of Zenit St. Petersburg’s UEFA Cup winning side in 2008 that also brought Andrei Arshavin and Anatoliy Tymoschuck to prominence, like Arshavin he has more disappointed than delivered since that night in Manchester.
So that’s that, everyone stays put until July 1st when the speculation and rumours shall begin anew. One player who can’t see the summer come quick enough is Michael Ballack who is being forced to endure a fate unbecoming the greatest player of his generation in Germany. Bayer Leverkeusen President Wolfgang Holzhäuser publicly said last week that Ballack’s signing had been a mistake and with only two goals to his credit in 31 league games it’d be hard to disagree. He had more lucrative offers two years back but chose to head back to the club where he kick started his meteoric rise to international recognition. He handled his forced retirement from the national team badly and is now pouting about riding the bench at Leverkeusen, but nobody wants to see things end like this. Ballack was the public face and captain of the German team that hosted the 2006 World Cup and led them to an improbable third place finish that captivated the entire country, not only did the team greatly exceed expectations they did so playing a lovely brand brand of football far, far removed from the stereotypical Teutonic performances of yesteryear. The latest rumour has him setting off for Chicago of the MLS after this season and not a moment too soon for all concerned.
With all four of the leading clubs scheduled to meet teams in the bottom half of the table this weekend in Match Day 20, it might be a good time to lay on a tenner down on a repeat of all four walking out winners. Speaking of the bookies, there is absolutely little doubt who they are tipping to be the last team standing in May. William Hill has Bayern as prohibitive favourites to win the league at 1.53, Dortmund at 3.00, Schalke at 9.00 and poor little Gladbach, who can’t seem to get respect from anybody, at a very lucrative 13.00. The fans have definitely all won this year in what has been a highly entertaining championship race that lends credence to Goal.com’s recent study of Europe’s top five leagues. To nobody’s surprise the Bundesliga is the tightest of the lot, followed by Ligue 1, Serie A, La Liga and the Premiership. That the Bundesliga manages to hold off Serie A as the third most powerful league on the continent while remaining more competitive is a great credit to the game in Germany.
January 25 2012
Five weeks of sitting around and waiting for this weekend’s return to Bundesliga action were amply rewarded up and down the fixture list. When the final whistle blew on Sunday evening’s late game the landscape was altered significantly and the shifts of momentum among the league leaders were palpable to anyone with the most casual of interests in the German game. No matter how things pan out over the coming months and no matter who ends the campaign as title holders, we are now being treated to a season that could see four clubs go into the final weekend with a chance to reign as champions.
No team more embodies that spirit than the surprise club of the year anywhere in Europe, and yes, that includes Udinese’s improbable occupation of third place in Italy, Borussia Mönchengladbach. 54 000 fans packed their sold out stadium to witness their side see off Bayern Munich with a measured 3-1 performance for which the league leaders had no answer. In a remarkable repeat of the first match of the season, Manuel Neuer made another uncharacteristic blunder that led to the first goal of the game, and, as in the August meeting, his counterpart, Marc-André ter Stengen, was much the better keeper on the day. When the home side netted their third unanswered of the day, Bayern were in serious danger of not only losing, but being embarrassed to boot. It was perhaps no small consolation, then, when Bastien Schweinsteiger celebrated his return from injury with a goal that saved his teammates further blushes.
Injuries have blighted Bayern’s season thus far. In addition to Schweinsteiger’s prolonged absence, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery have also been away for long stretches, Ribery’s creativity in midfield was sorely missed on Friday, but it was due to suspension rather than any physical ailments. After the final whistle, reports surfaced that fullback Daniel van Buyten suffered a fractured foot. Having lost home and away to Gladbach, Philip Lahm was heard to claim that BVB Dortmund were the true threat to Bayern’s title hopes. It came across as a healthy dose of wounded pride if not outright gamesmanship.
There is however a far greater sense of menace about this Dortmund squad and Sunday’s 5-1 domination of Hamburg SV was a clear warning to the whole league that they are returning to the form that saw them woo the loyalties of neutrals throughout Germany. After sputtering at times through the first half of the season, scoring five away from home against a team that had seemed have shaken the nightmarish start to the campaign these past ten games should definitely make Lahm et al nervous. But Dortmund are a known quantity, there’s another team in the country that is at 37 points who have had nowhere the ink as potential champions.
Schalke 04 have been under the radar all year and that may well suit them just fine. Most of the press involving the club has centred around whether Raul would resign after this summer when his contract expires as the team have quietly strung together results in the manner of Saturday afternoon’s 3-1 victory against Stuttgart. You would be very hard pressed to find a soul in Germany who thinks that Schalke will be leading the pack when time is called on the season, but in this year of upsets, surprises and unexpected occurrences week after week, a long-awaited Schalke championship almost seems in order. They have never won the Bundesliga since it’s 1963 inauguration, and to wrest the title from their hated rivals in Dortmund would make it all the sweeter.
If there is one club that has to be wondering what happened to all their early season promise that looked to continue or even improve on last year’s surprising form, it’s Hannover 96. Saturday’s scoreless draw in Hoffenheim was an all too common sight this year, Hannover having racked up more drawn matches than even Hertha Berlin, and will need to start turning some of those singles into three points. Losses can be absorbed, Bayern have been defeated five times already this season, but not by drawing too many other games. Too many more, and their already thin prospects of finishing in line for a lucrative place in Europe again will have disappeared by mid February.
January 14 2012
Their sense of entitlement is the stuff of legend in the German game, a sense fulsomely earned but grating nonetheless. With better than half of all Bundesliga championship titles since the league’s inception in 1963 Bayern Munich do not like sharing the headlines with any club that dares impinge on it’s God given right to dominate football in this country. It was thus entirely predictable that a spat has broken out the past week after defending winners Borussia Dortmund signed Mönchengaldbach wunderkind Marco Reus for next season, the big team had their sights squarely trained on Reus and are none too happy that the upstarts in yellow and black walked away with the hottest available player in the country.
Damned near everyone in the organization got in on the bitch fest, from Sporting Director Christian Nerlinger on down to the members of the squad themselves. The one constant was a thoroughly unconvincing attempt to convince the public that they never wanted to sign Reus anyway, and it was Bayern legend and current CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who fired the first volley a few weeks back. The pressure at clubs like Gladbach or Dortmund was nowhere near that Reus would have to deal with in Bayern, he said, and that factored into his decision to turn a deaf ear to their overtures. No doubt true, but under the circumstances it betrayed a certain churlishness that is unbecoming a club that should be above this sort of thing.
But the ink on the deal was barely dry on the transfer the first week of January before the bad mouthing began in earnest, with claims from all corners that Reus was neither mentally or physically made of the kind of stuff that Bayern requires of their players. The most ridiculous statement of this whole sorry affair came courtesy of defender Holger Badstuber who insisted that Marco Reus was too young to play for a team with the depth of the Bavarians, a patent absurdity given that Badstuber is only two months older than Reus. The twice-weekly Bible of German football, Kicker Magazine, ran a report this week that negotiations with Bayern broke down when the player’s agent asked for assurances that his client would be guaranteed playing time if he signed with the team, no such promise was forthcoming and Reus is now Dortmund-bound next season.
Reus himself hotly denies this and, as luck would have it, next weekend’s fixture list affords a chance to settle some scores while the mud slinging is still fresh in everybody’s mind. Friday night’s first game after the five week lay off for the winter break sees Bayern travel to Mönchengladbach and would be a perfect opportunity for one side or the other to make a point—if Badstuber were to shut Reus down it would lend considerable credence to his comments. If, however, the opposite takes place Gladbach move to within one point of league leaders Bayern and management will certainly lament the one that got away, one of the few players who’ve been courted by the nation’s biggest and most glamourous side but chose to ply their trade elsewhere. I don’t think I’ll be alone in hoping for at least one Reus tally in a winning effort that will not only tighten the title race, but might also shut a few mouths down south that have been due a healthy dose of comeuppance for far too long.
January 3 2012
With little other than transfer rumours to sustain the country’s footballing interest in the winter break, maybe Fabio Capello deserves some credit for supplyi different talking point this week. If summer is known as the silly season in media circles, the England skipper may have gone a long way to ensure that the Christmas-New Year holiday may rival the warmer months for sheer stupidity in the sports pages. His comments this past Friday at a conference in Dubai have pipped all other contenders for the most asinine opinion of the year, a mere two days before the New Year.
Is it lingering resentment for the German dismantling of his side at the last World Cup after Frank Lampard’s strike that would have knotted the match at two all was farcically disallowed? A residual cultural perception stemming from being raised in a country where “There are no black Italians” is still a common enough terrace chant, Mario Balotelli and Fabio Liverani be damned? A misguided attempt to get in on the racial debate that has dominated the British sports pages of late? Whatever the reason, Capello not only came across as petulant and deeply mean spirited, but hypocritical in the extreme.
The main thrust of his speech was that the rich European clubs can not be allowed to poach academy talent from the smaller clubs that developed them when they are still too young to have to pay much, if anything, in the way of compensation. A fair comment and one that anyone who wishes to avoid the increasing hegemony of the handful of teams that are able to spend almost unlimited resources could only applaud. In an aside, though, the Italian pointed out that national teams also do the same, using the Germans as his example, gobbling up players that could qualify to play for smaller countries that lack the fiscal or structural clout of the DFB.
In the 2010 World Cup the 23 man German squad featured six players born in Germany to ethnically mixed parents (in all six cases the mother is German) and five others born in other countries. Of those five, only Cacau didn’t arrive as a very young boy, he acquired citizenship after playing here for eight seasons. Fair enough, Fabio, there is something of a new tradition starting wherein every nation in central and eastern Europe must field a naturalized Brazilian, but to compare Cacau with Lukas Podolski or Marko Marin (a refugee from the Balkan civil wars for Christ’s sake) who both arrived with their families at the ripe old age of two is ludicrous.
But it is nowhere near as offensive as somehow suggesting that Mezut Özil, Dennis Aogo, Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira, Serdar Tasci or Jerome Boateng should be sanctioned for playing in a German shirt. What unites this six from varying ethnic backgrounds? The fact that they were, to a man, born in this country and in a couple of sentences Capello has doing nothing short of line himself up with the far right in this country, with Le Front National in France or the BNP in the UK with their constant bleating about how their national sides are now a disgrace to their respective societies.
But perhaps the ultimate insult to the injury of his comments is the blanket hypocrisy they reveal about his own position as England manager. Is Capello so out of touch with the team he is in charge of that he could be unaware of how many players, past and present, are in exactly the same situation as the German eleven? John Barnes (Jamaica) and Owen Hargreaves (Canada) both only came to England as grown men, but the list of players who could play for their immigrant parents’ nations is much longer and includes Wayne Rooney, Theo Walcott, Ashley Cole, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ledley King- each has been capped by Capello at the helm of the English side.
There is a very well done DFB ad on German TV during national team matches in which the multi-ethnic parents of all the players get together for a BBQ while waiting to watch their boys play. As the family members gather in front of the TV the camera cuts to the stadium where the squad is linked arm in arm for the anthem. It is quite moving and the biggest symbol of how Germany may be, officially at least, coming to terms with being a nation of immigrants. It is essentially unthinkable that team boss Joachim Löw would make a similar statement to Capello’s, and as we weigh both Luis Suarez’s suspension and the ongoing criminal investigation into John Terry’s on field comments to Anton Ferdinand, can only conclude that English football has nothing to teach Germany about racism in the sport. Nor, if Fabio Capello is any indication, does Italian.
December 26 2011
Last week’s round of sixteen cup games featured a genuine upset that is a nice reminder of how the continental cup competitions can inject a little a little romance back into the game. It also provided a very stark example of the gamesmanship so common in the sport that values results over all else, honour and sportsmanship included. But that, no matter what the professional nostalgists might claim, is no different today than it ever was before.
Holstein Kiel play their home games in a 10 000 capacity stadium that usually is much less than half filled for matches in the Regionliga Nord, the fourth tier of the German football pyramid. It was packed on Wednesday night, though, for the round of sixteen visit of 1st Bundesligists Mainz and everyone there will have a story to tell for many a year to come, a story of the team’s greatest ever victory. Gifted an early advance when Mainz striker Ujah headed into his own net, Kiel lengthened their lead on the 64th minute and their keeper preserved the two goal cushion with a save of a Mainz penalty 7 minutes later. It was only a matter of waiting a half hour to see the quarter final draw live in TV to find out who their opponents would be next, to see what chance they might have to keep this improbable run going for another round.
Unfortunately, beating Mainz is one thing, besting BVB Dortmund a whole other consideration, they will be left to lament that the luck of the draw didn’t see them matched up with 2nd division side Greuther Fürth, a far easier proposition than finding a way past the defending Bundesliga champions. It will undoubtedly be a thrill for the fans that the game is in Kiel, an opportunity to see the likes of Mario Götze and Mats Hummels in such an intimate setting might take some of the sting out of what will surely be a loss for the home team. The bookies only have Kiel as 10-1 underdogs, I would’ve thought 35-1 to be a more likely line given the enormous disparity between the two sides.
Current Cup holders Schalke are out and deservedly so after a rather shameful incident against Mönchengladbach. If the match can be reduced to a duel between Jermaine Jones, Schalke’s American midfielder, and Marco Reus, his counterpart with Gladbach, then the latter came out on top, and that by a wide, wide margin. Reus scored a pair in the game, the difference in a 3-1 scoreline, Jones distinguished himself only by stirring things up at every opportunity and was rewarded for his petulance throughout all 90 minutes by getting sent off in extra time with his second yellow card and creating quite a ruckus in leaving the pitch. Schalke had already played a man down thanks to Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s ridiculous expulsion from the match for arguing with the linesman over an out of bounds call at the very start of the second half. Not the greatest of crimes, but his mocking of the initial yellow earned him the second and possibly cost his team the match.
As stupid as all this was it pales in comparison with the true lowlight of the night, not noticed by the referee at the time but now subject to a disciplinary review that will surely see Jones with a much longer winter break than his fellow Bundesliga players. A little scuffle in the 6th minute involving the players and the referee led to Jones sneakily bringing the full weight of his studs down on Reus’ left foot that is still nowhere near a hundred per cent after a break that saw him sidelined repeatedly. A reprehensible gesture from a player whose actions left even his coach unable to muster much of a defence of his player. A bad night for Schalke all around, only three points from top of the table they might have expected to enter the break in a better frame of mind.
It’s something of a mug’s game trying to pick a definitive team of the season through the first half of the campaign, a point illustrated by Goal.com’s choice of Bayern’s Manuel Neuer as the starting keeper of their European team of the season. Hard to argue with a player who has little trouble fitting in at Munich after a high profile move from Gladbach in the off season, but why then does the same website opt to pick Tor Stenger as their keeper for their Bundesliga team of the first half. Surely if Neuer is the continent’s best he must be the best in Germany. The only certainties with this sort of thing is the players who would make every list and this year that would have to include Mario Gomez, Toni Kroos, Marco Reus, Mats Hummels and Franck Ribery. These five have been the undisputed best at their positions this year, everyone else is a matter of some debate.
December 20 2011
They just never seem to do anything right here in the German capital when it comes to football, at least with the biggest club in town. The rather tepid aura that surrounds Hertha Berlin is amply reflected this season by the fact that they are level with Hannover for the most draws in the Bundesliga with eight in seventeen outings. Neither good nor bad, neither loved nor hated, neither feared by opponents nor capable of generating much optimism in the fanbase. Year after year the ham-fisted manner in which the club goes about it’s business paints a very unflattering picture of a management team that appears unable to inspire confidence in their on or off-field acumen. With that in mind, the events of the past weekend had a depressingly familiar tone.
A last minute goal for the Berliners meant they managed to get a 1-1 draw away to Hoffenheim and avoided ending the first half of the season on a losing note. Reason to, if not celebrate, then perhaps to extract the positives from both the match on the day and the season thus far. Instead the fans are left to try and figure out who is lying—sporting director Michael Preetz or newly unemployed coach Markus Babbel. Preetz pulled the plug on the Hertha career of the man who got them immediately back up in the 1st Bundesliga, only one season after having been relegated, after a farcical war of words that was conducted entirely through the willing accomplices of the media.
Preetz had been answering questions about the contract status of his coach that made it seem as if Babbel was stalling on saying yes or no to an extension beyond this season. Feeling he was being cast as the villain by management, he went public with the revelation that he had long since informed the team of his intention to move on after the close of this season and that Preetz was lying to the media, full stop. The director fired him on Sunday, lawsuits are rumoured to be in the offing from both parties to this foolishness and the newest member of the Hertha Circus, Michael Skibbe, will be presiding from the bench in the Wednesday night DFB Cup match against Kaiserslautern.
It cost the club a quarter of a million euros to get Skibbe out of his contract in Turkey and, if he gets results, expect him to last a year at the most, that’s been the precedent of late in the job. Lucien Favre miraculously gets the team to the verge of a championship in 2009 and gets the sack the next autumn after a few poor results. Babbel is hired to get them back up in the 1st tier after the ensuing relegation, does it in fine style by winning the 2nd division and setting an attendance record for that level on the way (over 46 000 per game!) and is now also gone mid-season. It matters not a whit who is telling the truth, what matters is that Hertha continue to demonstrate to one and all that they are a second rate organization which can only hurt their chances of attracting first rate talent to Berlin.
Could anyone imagine Raul having signed with Hertha? No, and although Schalke are not quite the European glamour side the Spanish legend is accustomed to playing for, they are competently run by a group of people who consistently try and put the best interests of the team first. It paid off in spades on Saturday evening when they demolished Werder Bremen 5-0, Raul making life easy for his teammates by netting the first three goals. That’s the sort of quality that a bit of class, and buckets of money obviously, can buy and it’s a lesson that someone in the west end of Berlin should be heeding.
Schalke’s emphatic win was typical of how the other two squads above them in the standings performed with Bayern sending a message that the title of first half champions was fully deserved by shutting out Köln 3-0 and Dortmund coasting past Freiburg 4-1. Gladbach, thus, needed to win on Sunday night to keep pace with the pack, and scraped by as 1-0 winners, the scoreline telling the story of a game that was lacking both lustre and intensity. Four points separate first from fourth, and it is unquestionably a four horse race at the halfway mark. Bremen sit fifth and, with more goals conceded than scored, they have more in common with the mid-table clubs than the top four.
Mid-week DFB Cup ties will be the last action before the winter break and the fixture list promises a pair of encounters that might make for memorable nights under the lights in the round of sixteen. Greuther Fürth aim to take advantage of the dismal form of their bigger neighbours Nuremberg in the Franken Derby and Gladbach host Schalke. Schalke won the Cup last year but Gladbach must feel their one realistic chance at a trophy this year is in this tournament, home side wins 2-0.
December 13 2012
Mainz’s visit to Köln scheduled for three weeks ago finally took place on Tuesday. If we were spared the off-field dramatics that led to the original cancellation, the attempted suicide of the referee on the morning of the game, we were also spared any real on-field drama. Until deep in the second half the match was played between the boxes and the odd scoring chance was more the result of a defensive lapse of judgement or out and out mistake than any display of offensive engagement in either team. Mainz struck first in the 70th minute and the home team were left to wonder what had happened to the attacking instinct that had put four past Freiburg on just three days prior.
Or, more specifically, whither Lukas Podolski, responsible for more than half his side’s goals this season, easily the single most valuable contributor to a team in the Bundesliga this campaign. Five minutes from extra time he found the net for the fourteenth time in sixteen matches to salvage a single point from a game played by two teams that provided ample demonstration of why they both sit mid-table and should harbour few delusions of rising any higher this season.
Indeed Mainz are equal on both points and goal difference with the first half’s resurrection story par excellence Hamburger SV. HSV dug themselves a very deep hole in the first eight weeks of the year and have done a great job at righting the ship since bringing Torsten Fink on board. They aren’t yet out of the woods, being still only three points above the relegation zone, but compared to how things were looking in early November no one at the club or any if it’s fans will be complaining.
A lot of old HSV greats of the past got a chance on Tuesday to make some money for charity and show that they still had a bit of game left in the legs. If names like Beinlich, Zé Roberto, Cordoso or Yeboah don’t exactly register for non-German football fans, perhaps the Hamburgers opposition on the night will be a little more familiar—Ronaldo, Zidane, Hagi, Figo, Nedved, Makelele, Macmanaman, Pires and many other world legends lined up against the locals and raised a quarter million euros for an anti-poverty drive. A lot of the talent on the pitch looked easily capable of cracking the starting eleven of almost any club in Europe…..and then there was Ronaldo, who looked up to the task of cracking a couple of beers in the changing room after the game and precious little else. Much as how, during his playing career, the constant talk of his weight problems never stopped him finding the net on a consistent basis, so Tuesday he scored once to prove that great strikers are born and not bred.
It was particularly nice to see Didier Drogba turn out for the All-World squad one night after having played all 90 minutes of Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Manchester City. Drogba legitimately seems to make it something of a mission to be a decent human being and pops up regularly all over the world devoting his time to causes both worthy and commendable. Too bad he plays for Chelsea.
The shock result of the past weekend’s slate of matches in the Bundesliga was undoubtedly Mönchengladbach’s defeat at the hands of lowly Augsburg that lifted the winners out of last place for the first time in almost two months. You know that the result would be very different had Gladbach being able to pencil Marco Reus into the lineup. He’s the only player who could be said to rival Podolski as a “most-valuable-to-his-team” candidate in the first half and on matches where Mike Hanke is unable to supply the finishing they lack in Reus’ absence, Gladbach can’t win and won’t win. They now sit fourth with one match to play to close out the first half of the season and, though only four points from top spot, the slippery slope is beckoning and it would be a shame to see the end for this year of what has been the Cinderella story of the Bundesliga thus far.
Second place Dortmund could only manage a draw at home to Kaiserslautern and that means Bayern come out the big winners on the weekend having beat Stuttgart without much fanfare or panache on Sunday evening. They have thus widened the gap at the top of the table from one to three points and next week will represent the last chance the pack chasing the leaders will have to hope the frontrunners slip up. The five weeks of the winter break will go a lot easier for the players who know their teams didn’t drop points in the matches they should have won in the weeks leading up to the interval. Dortmund and Gladbach can ill afford, psychologically more than anything, a repeat of last weekend’s unexpected stumbles against inferior opposition.
December 9 2011
It is usually left to Michel Platini to defend the manner in which the Champions League goes about determining it’s winner over just shy of eleven months. Every year in his capacity as UEFA president, he must constantly parry accusations that the world’s premier club tournament is little more than a bloated and ungainly excuse to enrich the governing body. The chorus of negativity is always met with the same response—that allowing so many teams to qualify increases the likelihood that one of the smaller clubs will defy the odds and go on a run of giant killing that even non-football fans will get excited about.
Well, chapeau, Monsieur Platini, it just so happens that this week you were bang on. APOEL of Cyprus, with a squad valued at around 18 million euros, is going through while Manchester City, who spent more than a half billion euros compiling their team, are not. Their hometown rivals, United, go to Switzerland needing all three points from a win and are denied even a draw at Basel. With both CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg qualifying for the knockout stages in February, the Russian Premier League has precisely as many representatives as it’s English namesake.
Some similarly shocking results from the three German teams that were in the group stage. Bayern, naturally, won their group but their Bundesliga nemesis of late, Borussia Dortmund, managed only four points over six matches. Fourth place in their group means they won’t even get to drop down to the Europa League as the eight third placed finishers will. Bayer Leverkeusen, whose domestic form this year has been nowhere near Dortmund’s in consistency or winning intent, will get at least one more home and away fixture come the New Year.
In this weekend’s coming 16th Matchday maybe the biggest worry for any of the clubs with designs on ending the season as titleholders is medical rather than sporting. A flu bug has struck a number of Bayern’s first choice eleven and there’s no guarantee that the four starters given Wednesday night off in Manchester will be sufficiently recovered to make the trip to Stuttgart for Sunday evening. Seeing as the two clubs one point off of Bayern’s pace are playing bottom of the table opposition this weekend, an away game against a team like Stuttgart, who have shown some flashes of excellence this campaign, would not be left to the reserves. Particularly if their collective performance against City is any indication. The only player given a rare run out who distinguished himself on the night was the one who had the most to fear from City’s peerless offensive bite. 37 year old Jörg Butt will not get much time on the pitch this year backing up Manuel Neuer, but the keeper was easily Bayern’s man of the match.
Neuer will play in Stuttgart and if Mario Gomez, Toni Kross, Thomas Müller and the recently returned Arjen Robben indeed all miss the match because of illness, he will have to bring his A game. Stuttgart have a couple of players, Cacau and Pavel Pogrebnyak chief among them, who have thus far disappointed and will be well aware that there’s no bigger stage in the country to emphasize a return to form than a game against a half strength Bayern.
The winter transfer window opens on New Year’s Day and the media are already being used as a tribune by both players and clubs to air their grievances. Last week Lukas Podolski for the first time indicated his desire to again leave his hometown in search of European football. Köln have never been able to string together more than a few promising matches and Poldi’s obviously had enough, but will probably have to cool his heels until the summer before moving. Schalke’s the newest rumoured destination but Köln would most likely rather see him playing in another country where they won’t have to worry about facing him at least twice next season, Italy would fit the bill for both player and club. Wolfsburg will almost certainly sign Bayern’s under utilized Croatian forward Ivica Olic next month but the Bavarians already have their eye on a replacement rear end to spend most games sitting on the bench in the person of Olympique Marseille’s André Ayew. Schalke’s offer of a contract for no more than one year may cost them the services of Raul, who, should he leave the Gelsenkirchen miner’s team, might well avail himself of some of the Al Fayed family fortune in a move to Fulham. The five week winter break in German football makes transfer speculation the national sport in the New Year.
December 5 2011
For anyone who’d hoped to see Bayern kept from the top of the table it was a bad weekend. Of all the scenarios that could have resulted from the two big Saturday games, this was the worst—a draw in Gladbach and a win in Bayern. For much of the action on the afternoon it seemed like a kinder fate was in store for all those who wish to see someone, anyone, but Munich take yet another title south. In a football season around Europe that has seen more than it’s normal share of surprising early championship contenders, Bundesliga fans can only hope that Matchday 15 will not be prove to be the weekend when Bayern shrugged off the pretenders to their throne and began the run toward their 22nd Meisterschaft.
At around 5:00 PM Central European Time it all looked very different. Dortmund were a goal to the good against Mönchengladbach and Bremen had just equalized at Bayern. If everything would’ve stayed as is for another 25 minutes Dortmund would’ve been top with 32 points and both Gladbach and Bayern would have finished the day on 29 points. But, in quick succession, Tim Hanke’s superb strike for Gladbach knotted it up at one each and Bayern began a rampage for which Bremen had no answer besides fouls in the box that gifted the home side two penalties.
Jupp Heyneckes opted to go with the same eleven who had been upset last week in Mainz and his gamble paid off wonderfully, but it was the 60th minute substitution that changed the course of the game. Arjen Robben came on for only his second appearance in the red and white in two months and imposed his considerable will and imagination on proceedings within minutes. Franck Ribery and Robben are as good a one-two midfield pairing as exists on the planet. Nicknamed “Robbery” by the German press, their symbiotic ability to continually supply Thomas Müller and Mario Gomez with opportunities up front will give all domestic and European opposition headaches for a long as they both stay healthy.
In Gladbach the home team will be quite happy with the single point in a game dominated by stellar defensive work from both squads. Rarely has the Borussia Derby (Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach) seemed such a significant part of the Bundesliga calendar. By the by, Borussia is a rather recent Latinism to mean Prussia, it was fairly commonly used when naming sports associations at the turn of the century as part of a post-unification wave of pan-Germanic sentiment. Lucien Favre’s standing as something of a miracle worker on the bench will not be dented because Gladbach didn’t take all three points. The Swiss coach managed to get Hertha Berlin within two victories of the league title a mere three seasons back and his work since taking over in mid-February last year has been little short of remarkable. The team were mired in last place at the time of his appointment, clawed their way up to third from the bottom to stay up in the top tier through a relegation playoff and have easily been the talk of German football this season. Hertha are assuredly regretting his dismissal.
Friday’s highly anticipated draw for the groups for June’s European Championship must be seen for the farce it is. Seeding the two host nations in the first pot has resulted in an absurd imbalance between the groups that make a mockery of any UEFA claims of fairness. Compare Group A (Poland, Russia, Greece, Czech Republic) with Group B (Holland, Germany, Portugal, Denmark)!?! An obscenity, plain and simple, and a stain on any claim that Europe’s governing body would give an equal sporting chance to all countries. Poland and the Ukraine have qualified for the Euros a total of one time between them and, while it is obvious that they should be given a free pass in the interest of creating the best possible atmosphere for the tournament, seeding the two countries in the first pot along with Spain and Holland, the top two ranked team countries on the planet, is madness incarnate and a better solution must be found. Rank the hosts according to their UEFA positions, not as equals with the world’s best teams and you avoid any hint of grievance that the Danes, Croats, Irish or Swedes are quite legitimately feeling just now. We used to decide matches after extra time with a coin toss and got rid of that bit of ridiculousness. Michel Platini seems a reasonable man with the best interests of the game that has been his life near to his heart, especially when compared to his concurrent at FIFA. Surely he can find a way to ensure that this summer’s tournament will be the last to foist such a travesty on football.
December 3 2011
With a game yet to be played in the group stages, both German sides in the Europa League are assured passage to the knockout rounds. Hannover will go through as second place in Group B despite losing 2-0 in Liège and having a game left to play, thanks to Copenhagen’s inability to earn anything more than a draw in the Ukraine on Wednesday. As per usual with the group stages, win or draw at home and pull off one surprise result away from home and you will advance. Hannover’s win in Copenhagen last month sealed the Danes fate and mean Hannover get one more home and away fixture in February in their first return to Europe in more than two decades.
Schalke didn’t require backing into the knockout stages via the back door, and having picked up points in every match so far, are comfortably top of their group with only the visit of Maccabi Haifi to be decided. The Israeli club goes through with a win in Gelsenkirchen, and will be keen to continue in the Europa League. With 194 clubs involved in the competition it’s easy to forget that in the smaller UEFA associations this is still a shot at continental glory, just ask Greek side PAOK who went to White Hart Lane and beat Spurs this week.
But Bundesliga took pride of place in the media, mid-week European football had no chance to wrest even a bit of the spotlight from the coming weekend’s slate of matches. This will be the most important Saturday of the first half of the season thanks to a couple of 3:30 kickoffs. In Möchengladbach the top two teams face off while in Munich third plays fourth. Any number of permutations and possibilities for the top of the table await the final outcomes Saturday evening, teams that may sit top of the league could equally find themselves fourth depending on how they perform. It’s more the pity that both games are at the same time, both should be worth seeing in their entirety.
Most appealing of the pair is Dortmund’s visit to Gladbach, the guests ahead of their hosts owing only to their superior goal difference. Mönchengladbach has been narrowing the gap considerably of late, though, outscoring their opposition 8-0 over the past two matches. Don’t expect such a gaudy scoreline this time around, more for an absence in the Gladbach squad than for the stinginess of BVB’s defensive play. Unfortunately the players not on the pitch seem likely to influence the outcome as much as the players that will be suited up, most significantly Marco Reus and his broken toe. There had been noises from within the Gladbach camp this week that their star striker might be able to take part, but that was perhaps more wishful than realism and it is now confirmed that Reus will be watching from the stands. BVB fans might counter that they will also be missing key contributors and, with Never Subotic and Sven Bender unavailable for the contest they’d be right, but Reus has been the engine of Gladbach’s remarkable form this season and he probably means more to his team than any other single footballer in the Bundesliga this year.
BVB are heavy favourites, even as the visiting club, and two things have to happen for the home team to triumph and be improbable league leaders for at least this week. Mike Hanke notched a pair for his team last week and needs to have a similar performance to compensate for the lack of firepower that Reus’s absence entails and Lucien Favre has to win the coaching duel with his opposite number Jürgen Klopp. Another of the Bundesliga’s most regarded tacticians, Thomas Tuchel, last week showed just how fulsome a contribution can be made from the sidelines when Mainz flummoxed the superior talent of Bayern and won 3-2.
Bremen thus now know that Bayern are beatable, and if they can pull off a Mainz-like (Mainz’ish, Mainz-esque?) upset who knows how the fans in Munich will react to being mired in fourth place. The Munich faithful will not take a fifth loss in fifteen matches lightly, questions will be asked, questions that management might not have an easy time answering. For a club like Bayern it’s not good enough to say that they miss the crucial presence of the injured Bastien Schweinsteiger. A team that only one week ago was being talked up around Europe as the most likely candidate to break the Spanish hegemony of Barca and Real should be bigger than one player and maybe they are. After all, if they beat Bremen and the Dortmund-Gladbach game ends in a draw, Bayern will be back top of the table on Saturday night, and many would claim that that’s the way German football was always meant to be.
November 28 2011
The gauntlet was thrown down in the first match of the weekend Friday night. Borussia Mönchengladbach went into Cologne and came out dominant 3-0 winners to await results from the Dortmund and Bayern games later in the weekend. The best news for Gladbach on the night was perhaps not the result itself, but the manner in which it was delivered. After an entire season relying on Marco Reus to score the lion’s share of the club’s goals, ex-national player Mike Hanke had a break out game with two tallies. It bodes well for their chances of maintaining this pace deeper into the season, up to now shut down Reus and you’ve shut down the team, now there’s options out on the pitch. Awaiting the Saturday 3:30 kickoffs, then, Gladbach were top of the table.
It was not to last, though, and Dortmund will take extra delight that the three points that took them top came at the expense of hated rivals Schalke. The 2-0 scoreline probably flattered the visitors, at no point did Dortmund seem at risk of losing control of the game, the result seemed a fait accompli from the opening whistle. Up front Schalke appeared particularly lost, none of their strikers or attacking midfielders had an answer for the home side’s back four all afternoon. At close of play Dortmund were equal with Gladbach at 29 points but in first place on goal differential, it was their turn to await the next day’s action to see if they would stay top.
Dortmund fans would be forgiven if they weren’t overly optimistic that Mainz would do them a favour Sunday and deny Bayern the victory that would restore them to the top of the league. Even at halftime, with Mainz ahead 1-0, a betting man would’ve wagered that Bayern would get at least a single point to remain league leaders on goal difference. For once, though, Bayern’s perennial knack of last minute heroics deserted them and it is now apparent that the broken collarbone that Bastien Schweinsteiger suffered against Napoli earlier in the month will loom large in this year’s title race. Without the player who controls play and distributes the ball from deep in their own end Mainz were able to smother Bayern’s forays, and when that failed Mainz ‘keeper Christian Wetklo turned in his performance of the year.
Away from this season’s big three, for the second straight week Hertha Berlin had no idea how to deal with an early two goal cushion and had to settle for a single point from a draw. The four points they inexplicably threw away the last two weeks are the difference between their current position in the middle of the pack and 6th place with it’s accompanying Europa League qualification next season. They have never found a replacement for the departure of Arne Friedrich for Wolfsburg and miss his steady stewardship of the defence. That’s the problem with getting relegated, a national team mainstay like Friedrich is not going to stick around for a stint in the 2nd tier, even, as was the case with Hertha, they were right back up in the top flight after one season. His back problems led to an amicable parting of the ways with Wolfsburg, if he can regain fitness in time for the winter transfer season maybe he could be enticed back to the capital city to show them how to hold a lead, they need all the help they can get.
The British betting concern William Hill has sponsored an award for the best sports book of the year for more than twenty years now. It is the most prestigious such prize in the world and a football book has walked of with the laurels only five times, including such classics of the genre as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch and Simon Kuper’s Football Against The Enemy which can claim to have single-handedly invented modern football writing. The winner this year was announced this past weekend and in a remarkably macabre coincidence top honours went to Shaun Whiteside’s English translation of Ronald Reng’s Ein allzu kurzes Leben, A Life Too Short: The Tragedy Of Robert Enke. Watching a devastated Shay Given line up for Aston Villa in Swansea on Sunday for a minute of silence for his ex-Newcastle team mate Gary Speed was to wonder how he could even get through the game. Craig Bellamy couldn’t and was given the day off by his Liverpool skipper. For weeks I’ve been wondering, often in this space, about why the German game has seemed so rife with these incidents the past few years. Speed’s apparent suicide has now tragically demonstrated to the English speaking world the degree to which Enke’s suicide in the autumn of 2009 shook the German football fraternity from the most casual fan to the highest echelons of the sport’s movers and shakers. Given, to his eternal credit, had a magnificent game for Villa, a fitting tribute to his former teammate.
November 21 2011
On a Saturday that saw a couple of very dramatic matches in Munich and Mönchengaldbach, the cancellation of a relatively low-profile game in Köln hogged the headlines. Justifiably so in a nation that is still coming to terms with the passing of Hannover 96 and national team goalkeeper Robert Enke by his own hand almost exactly two years ago. Thirty minutes before the scheduled kickoff time of 3:30 an announcement was made at RheinEnergie Stadion that the match had been cancelled. No reason was given, thus avoiding the potential embarrassment of having the supporters already in their seats booing the attempted suicide of the referee scheduled to work the match.
Dr. Theo Zwanziger, president of the German governing body the DFB must be getting mighty adept at these sorts of press conferences of late. Two hours before game time the day’s referee, Babak Rafati, had still not arrived at the venue, a call was made to his hotel room and, with no response received, league officials with hotel staff went to the room. They found Rafati in the bathtub with his wrists slashed, yet another instance of the real world elbowing it’s way into the sports pages. Enke’s suicide, Schalke skipper Ralf Rangnick leaving his post owing to the undue stress of the job, Bayern’s young Brazilian Breno’s arrest for burning down his own house after a rash of injuries had left him depressed this season, is there something in German society that makes the pressure that comes with top flight sport harder to bear than in England, Spain or Italy?
This is the country that invented psychology, that gave the lexicon of the world the term angst, that has been engaging in a sort of collective analysis long before anyone had heard the name Oprah. Perhaps the outlets for the pressures of football at the highest level that exist in other leagues in other countries with other value systems allow the players and officials to blow off steam a little easier. Drugs and alcohol, WAG culture, a permissive celebrity lifestyle that is not present in the German game? This remains, at the core of it’s beating heart, a very collective society, one in which the expectation that one must work well with others does not always translate to an acceptance that an individual can reap the rewards that comes with being first among equals. Rafati left messages in his hotel room that might go some way to explaining why he felt compelled to commit such a dramatic act, perhaps it had little or nothing to do with football, we must wait and see.
The entire league has reason to toast Dortmund’s 1-0 victory in Munich, even Schalke fans will have to tip their caps to their hated rivals for reopening the chase for the title. Both teams were tactically superb throughout the game, Dortmund in particular giving the hosts no space on the pitch, content to wait for any slight chance to put one past Manuel Neuer. It eventually came in the 65th minute, Boateng lost sight of the ball for a split second in his own area, and that was enough for BVB’s wunderkind Mario Götze to slot it home. Almost all five of Bayern’s goals against this season have come on rather freakish bounces and errors against the run of play but they all count. The relief at the result was palpable across the country, a glance at the standings shows why. Five points separate fifth from first and both Dortmund and Gladbach are now only two points behind the leaders.
Mönchengaldbach have a stellar performance against fifth place Bremen to thank for their place in the table. An emphatic 5-0 manhandling of the visitors, including a hat trick for Marco Reus, has now put paid to any thoughts that their fine form this season has been other than fully merited. The wait-and-see vis à vis Gladbach was understandable given they only stayed in the top flight after a playoff against Bochum at the end of last season but the work of coach Lucien Favre combined with Reus’ break out campaign surely means they are for real. They also have the luxury of not having to deal with rotating their squad for European fixtures like the rest of the contenders, both Leverkeusen and Dortmund travel to London for Champions League matches on Wednesday, versus Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. Both clubs won’t like their chances of progressing beyond the group stages with two matches left unless they can manage an upset this week against far stronger opposition, and you can’t help thinking the clubs could well do without the distraction and would be fine with being able to turn their full attention to winning the domestic honours. Bayern seem certain to top their group and should handle visitors Villareal with ease on Tuesday night.
November 19 2011
So what exactly happened to the Dutch in Hamburg on Tuesday night? Were they bested by a German team that has hit it’s stride? Was the absence of the likes of van Persie, van der Vaart and Robben from the squad too much to expect to shrug off? Just an off night? Sifting through the tea leaves of a performance that saw the home side dominate from first to final whistle, the German media have not been altogether sure how to interpret the 3-0 manhandling of a team that was a game away from being crowned world champions a year and a half ago.
Everyone seemed to agree on only one point–the defensive quality was a marked improvement from the match against the Ukraine and against a far better team. That alone will go along way to steel the nerves of anyone who cares to see the team make it at least as far as the semi finals next summer. Miroslav Klose’s goal in the 26 minute on the night takes him within six of Gerd Müller’s record 68 goals for the national team and, with Klose showing absolutely no sign of slowing down, smart money would be on him surpassing Der Bomber’s tally by the end of next summer. Only the least charitable would point out that Müller needed only 62 games to achieve the record and with 112 caps already to his credit Klose will most probably retire from the national team with at least double the appearances in his career. All in all, Joachim Löw and the rest of the brain trust will be very pleased with how their charges handled themselves in Hamburg.
Now to await the draw on December 2nd and hope that being seeded in Pot 2 will not lead to a fiendish group that will allow no room for error. In their wisdom, UEFA has seeded the host nations in the 1st pot, great if you end up in a group with Poland or the Ukraine, but potentially disastrous if you don’t. The luck of the draw, literally, will determine a great deal this summer. By way of example, the Germans could be in a group with the Ukraine, Greece and Czech Republic and would advance to the knockout rounds with ease. But they could also end up in with Spain, Portugal and France, and which two teams would be sent home after the three group stage matches would be anybody’s guess in a group like that.
Now with the last international break over with until early February, attention returns once again to the Bundesliga. It might well not be that much of a stretch to say that the season hinges on the outcome of Saturday’s late game in Munich. Dortmund are not being given much of a chance by the bookies (5.5-1 to win as opposed to Bayern’s 1.57-1) but the football fans of the nation seem to feel differently. Very differently in fact. Kicker Magazine’s online poll this week got over 20 000 votes and just shy of 50% of those responding said Dortmund will win the match.
Anyone looking for a competitive campaign this season can only hope that the voice of the people is more than wishful thinking. Bayern have a five point lead on Dortmund, Gladbach and Bremen, so a home win on Saturday and Dortmund will lie a full eight points off of the pace. Gladbach and Bremen play each other and a draw, a very likely result in a match where both teams will be far more worried about losing than risking too much for a win, would mean they were in turn both seven points off the top of the table. Giving Bayern a seven or eight point lead thirteen games into a season is to gift them the title, they don’t drop enough points for anyone to catch them, especially when they’re averaging an absurdly stingy goal conceded every three matches.
Conversely, a Dortmund win in Munich and the gap narrows to two points with the added psychological advantage that last year’s champions will have gone south to Bavaria and won on the road. That could have huge implications in the return leg five weeks from the end of the season. I will not be alone, then, in wanting to see an emphatic Dortmund victory, not from any great allegiance to the yellow and black, but purely in the hope of seeing the title race stretch as long as possible.
The other matches of most interest will serve to show if either Schalke or Hannover have the legs to be in the mix in May, if not realistically for the championship, then for one of the four Champions League places next year. Hannover travel to Wolfsburg for the Niedersachsen derby against their second most hated club (Eintracht Brauncshweig are far and away their biggest rivals) while Schalke host Nuremberg. Pick of the week? Schalke wins by two goals.
November 14 2011
It was one hell of a night around Europe this past Friday. The four Euro 2012 qualifying matches took pride of place, as is right and proper, but some of the weekend’s friendlies were a significant step above the usual meaningless 90 minute glorified training match. Germany’s trip to Kiev, by way of example.
In the absence of captain Philip Lahm anchoring the defense on the night, national trainer Joachim Löw opted five minutes before kick off to try out a three man back line but, if Saturday night was any indication, it is highly unlikely that he will be so adventurous again any time soon. All three starting defenders had frequent lapses of judgement in their own end and porous would be nowhere near strong enough a word to describe their collective effort through the whole 90 minutes. Mats Hummel in particular must be worried for his position in the starting eleven, rarely impressing in any of his starts with the national team. Excuses could be made for Badstuber and Boateng that their below average performances were something of an anomaly for players who could feature on almost any club in the world.
The optimists in the German camp will point to the fact that, in spite of half the squad simultaneously turning in the worst game of their national careers, the Mannschaft could have come out winners on the night. An uncalled Ukrainian hand ball in the penalty area, a misplayed header that sat on the goal line for seconds, wasted chances in a wild last ten minutes when the two teams traded opportunities, yes, the result could have ended in Germany’s favour. The pessimists, or realists if you prefer, could justifiably say that the game could have easily ended 6-3 for the home side so profligate were both the Ukrainian forwards and German defense that gifted them a clear path to Ron-Robert Ziegler time and again.
Bad introduction to international football for Ziegler, Hannover 96′s star keeper, although a couple of brillliant stops will go a long way to ensuring that the German braintrust remembers that the debutant was hung out to dry by his own teammates all night long. Manuel Neuer returns to the lineup on Tuesday night against Holland and Ziegler will be left wondering when he will next get an opportunity to show that he belongs ahead of Bremen’s Tim Wiese as second choice ‘keeper.
Expect less positional tinkering in Hamburg on Tuesday night in what will be a far greater test against one of the best sides in the world, and one that the Germans could reasonably expect to meet in the knock out round come late June. First off an almost certain return to a four man back line, this time with Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker and Schalke’s Benedikt Höwedes getting the call in the perennial search for a winning defensive formula.
What is clearest is that the embarrassment of riches that Germany can call upon at midfield and up front does not extend to their own end of the pitch, particularly when Philip Lahm is unavailable. The diminutive Bayern stalwart is the only world class defender for the country and there is a good chance of the talented Dutch running through, over and around the Germans all night long on Tuesday. If they do, then there is only the friendly against France in February left before the Euros to attempt to come up with some solution for keeping the ball out of their own net.
But, as I said at the top, England besting the Spaniards at Wembley, Croatia routing Turkey in Istanbul, the Irish doing the same to an Estonian team that looked like it had no business whatsoever this deep into qualifying, a lot of other games had more to recommend them than the inaugural match at Kiev’s new national stadium. Same thing Tuesday, where the Bosnians must pull out all the stops to build on Friday’s 0-0 draw when travelling to Lisbon in the only qualifier that seems yet to be decided. The pick of the friendlies has to be Uruguay in Italy where a rampant Luis Suarez will try and build on his remarkable four goal night against Chile. Unbelievably, this was a qualification match for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, still a good deal more than two years away. Another win against the Italians would serve notice that the South Americans are well and truly back among the world elite after decades in the wilderness.
November 11 2011
A weekend of friendlies sees Germany complete their visits to the two hosting nations ahead of next summer’s Euros. The last friendly was a courtesy call to the Poles in Gdansk that ended in a last minute draw that broke the home sides’ hearts. Friday night in Kiev will give the national team a chance to inspect the facilities at a stadium they hope to be visiting again for a much bigger occasion. If all goes as it should the national side will be standing on the same pitch for the Euro 2012 final on July 1st so this match will be a chance to kick the tires of a brand new venue and see if there isn’t some small advantage to be gained from having made an earlier appearance. Peculiarities of the pitch, lack of hot water in the showers, the vagaries of the local cuisine, whatever. With their normal thoroughness Joachim Löw and his staff will have gleaned any benefit there is to be had from this friendly against the Ukrainians on what should otherwise be a low key match with little for either side to play for.
Club managers for the most part will rest easy this week, safe in the knowledge that their charges away on national duty will not be subjected to too many hard tackles or exhausting games that leave them overly vulnerable to injury or fatigue. Across Europe national teams are almost all involved in matches that serve little purpose beyond filling the coffers of the governing bodies and on occasion giving an untested youngster a game on the big stage. Thus, unless the likes of Scotland-Cyprus, Albania-Azerbaijan or Belarus-Niger gets your heart a-pumping, most fans on the continent can afford to give this slate of games a miss and go to the movies, talk a walk with a loved one or, in general, do something besides watch football.
For eight European nations, though, it’s an entirely different matter. Indeed, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Estonia people are gearing up for the biggest matches in their history, a two game chance to get to a major finals for the first time. No small matter and entire nations will be willing on their sides in the knowledge that this may be the best chance they ever have in their lifetime to see their country run out against the giants of world football. The four fixtures on Friday night are Bosnia-Herzegovina vs Portugal, Turkey vs Croatia, Czech Republic vs Montenegro and Estonia vs Ireland. The underdogs have got to like their chances in a few of these match ups and to see Estonia or Montenegro advance would not be the earth shattering upset you might expect.
That has as much to do with the singularly mediocre performances by the bigger sides thus far as it does with the surprising form shown by the debutantes in even getting this far. The Czechs are a shadow of their former selves, the team that looked within a whisker of being one of the continent’s best sides ten years ago has had no answer for the retirement of a generation of players that shone for both club and country. Likewise the Irish and their inscrutable play through the qualifiers, if they break Estonian hearts it will most likely come in spite of the leadership of legendary coach Giovanni Trapattoni, not because of it. It would be foolish to write off any club that counts the likes of Ronaldo or Nani in the starting eleven, but the Bosnians, a mere French penalty 12 minutes from time away from automatic qualification, have the potential to upset the Portugeuse. The pick ‘em fixture is undoubtedly Turkey-Croatia and Friday’s first leg in the cauldron that is Istanbul’s national stadium will be crucial for both clubs ahead of Tuesday’s rematch. Croatia’s talisman, coach Slavan Bilic, will be eager to walk off the pitch with at least a point to take back to Zagreb and restore momentum to a team that was the talk of Europe only two years back. Turkish skipper Guus Hiddink however may be the finest in the world at getting underachieving teams to exceed their capabilities.
So, as much as the local press may devote untold column inches to the fact that captain Philip Lahm will not be playing in Kiev, that Hannover’s Ron-Robert Zieler will get his first cap in goal in Manuel Neuer’s absence or the ongoing tinkering of the back four in an attempt to find the right combination that’ll minimize the one glaring weakness in the German squad, I will be watching the other matches, the ones that mean something. The matches that could potentially result in the next version of Greece in ’04, Denmark in ’92 or Czechoslovakia in ’76, giant killers that came from nowhere to reign four years as unlikely champions of Europe. My pick? Look for Montenegro to handle the Czechs this week and then finish second in their group in June.
November 7 2011
It was a weekend marked by stand out individual performances. Gaudy contributions to the score sheets abounded so little wonder that two of the more notable stars from Week 12 of action in the Bundesliga have started to appear on the radar of the biggest European clubs. Marco Reus has been imperious all season, the biggest factor in Borussia Monchengaldbach’s dream start to the season. As goes Reus, so goes the team this year and every time he has failed to be the best player on the pitch the squad has come away losers on the day. Foreign teams are lining up to express interest in paying the 15 million euro price tag that is seen as the minimum amount that will convince Gladbach to let him go, including Arsenal, Man City, Inter and Juventus, but it is Bayern, naturally, that are expected to sign him come the opening of the winter transfer window. Many more outings like his pair of goals against Hertha in Berlin on Saturday afternoon and the asking price might creep up towards the 20 million mark.
That would place him close to the value of the most coveted player in Germany the past year, so coveted in fact that Dortmund issued a statement on Monday to the effect that Mario Götze will be going nowhere until June at the earliest. That they managed to stave off all the teams brandishing chequebooks this past summer was difficult enough, it is impossible to imagine they could do it again a year later given the 19 year old’s continuing ascent. A fixture in the national side and all but guaranteed a place in the starting eleven in the European Championship, his two goals as part of a 5-1 shellacking of Wolfsburg can’t help whet Arsène Wenger’s already piqued interest in seeing Götze setting the table for Robin van Persie with Arsenal next year. He does seem to be a very good fit to replace the departed Fabregas at the Emirates and the expected 25-30 million euro price he will command is much less of an obstacle in the Premiership than anywhere else.
The victories by Gladbach and Dortmund were part and parcel of a weekend in which all the clubs that were expected to win did so but the most significant was likely Werder Bremen’s comeback at home to Cologne. Down by a brace at the interval to the visitor’s that seem perenially on the verge of taking their place in the upper echelons of the standings, the second half became the Claudio Pizarro show and the ageless Peruvian’s hat trick single-handedly secured Bremen the three points necessary to keep them one of three clubs four points from first. His performance was recognized with selection as player of the week and his production of a goal per game is the only thing keeping Bremen afloat with what is otherwise an very ordinary side that would hope to finish mid-table at best.
The two German representatives in this year’s Europa League faced off in the early game on Sunday and they could not have been more evenly matched. A Schalke own goal spoiled what should have been the coming out for their wonderfully named young Finnish striker Teemu Pukki who netted both his club’s goals in the 2-2 draw in Hannover. The 96′ers will count themselves lucky not to have surrendered three points at home to Schalke and their lack of offensive production is reflected in a -1 goal differential. Sixth place, and the accompanying last qualifying spot for Europe next season, flatters a club that almost certainly lacks the strength to keep pace over a whole season must be seen as a testament to the tactical work that coach Mario Slomka has done.
Next week German football fans will have to content themselves with a pair of friendlies involving the national team and Bundesliga trainers will have an extra seven days to prepare their charges for the last five matches before the annual winter break lay off until January 20 of the New Year. The Ukrainian and Dutch friendlies will be no match in intensity for the eight nations involved in the four home and away play offs for a place in the Euros next summer, but will give Joachim Löw a chance to rest some of the first choice squad and blood some younger players. Marco Reus won’t be among them though despite his stellar form this year. With only two caps to his name, he’d be a lock to get at least one start but a stomach virus means he will not even make the trip to Kiev for Friday’s game and is doubtful for the arrival of the Dutch in Hamburg a week from Tuesday. If he does make the move to a bigger club in the upcoming transfer season, perhaps a more opul