Greetings! My name is Martyn, and I’ll be backpagefootball.com’s once-weekly Bundesliga Mr Mister from herein. The league is one I follow closely and adore, alongside Eredivisie, Serie A, and the three-tiered Football League here in Blighty! I’ll get it out of the way by admitting my soft spot enjoys caressing from Borussia Dortmund. Although I swear if I witness the defence indulging in melina before cueing Owomoyela for a hoof up to whichever one of Valdez or Barrios has dropped one more freakin’ time, I’ll let my allegiance get its tickles elsewhere (not SC Freiburg mind – their passing-round-the-back stoops to new levels of cynicism). Just use Şahin, for crying out loud!!!
Cracking on, I begin this era at Round 23 of the 2009/10 season. Again, German football’s premier division provided a plethora of reasons as to why it’s worthy of the continent’s – nay… the galaxy’s – attention!
Friday evening saw Borussia Mönchengladbach take the three-hour drive down to TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. I’m presuming they didn’t charter an internal flight, given that those pesky pilots at Lufthansa were planning a strike. It’s quite hard to sell this encounter because it defines mid-table nothingness (pre and post-match): not that such insignificance stopped the away side’s front-pairing of Bobadilla and Colautti from hounding and pressing like The Beano’s Billy Whizz (and clone). Die Fohlen took a 2-0 lead courtesy of having a better ball-winning play-bridger in Meeuwis (the home side equivalents Compper and Vorsah were a bit skew-whiff), and as beneficiaries of two contentious decisions. The home side rallied and rendered the final score a tie thanks to goals from Europe’s Greediest Striker™ Ibisevic, and fairy-dust-footed trequartista Eduardo. The result leaves the sides in 10th and 11th respectively, locked on 29 points, 8 wins and 10 losses, and in the improbable position of being sucked into either the relegation battle or European-qualifying mêlée.
One slice of the bread that makes that pairing a sandwich-filling is 12th-placed VfL Wolfsburg. That’s right, the RUDDY DEFENDING CHAMPIONS, 7TH-BOTTOM! Despite netting an admirable 40 goals, not much has gone right for Die Wölfe since last May. I’d say the apogee of rubbishness came when Michael Owen netted a hat-trick past them. Nevertheless, dropping into the Europa League as a result of that treble may just steer Volkswagen’s ship onto calmer seas – if Thursday’s 2-2 draw away at a very wet Villareal is anything to go by. Grafite matched the double he netted in that game with an equally crucial brace to defeat title-challengers Schalke 04. The win was made even sweeter for many at the club given that it came against Felix Magath – he who departed in a pool of celebratory Weißbier during the summer.
Köstner began his reign as Wolves caretaker manager with an unlucky 1-1 draw at Hamburger SV (Trochowski buried an equalizing free-kick with the last touch of the game). At that point, it looked as if the Lower Saxony side were set to continue floundering. But with two big results in such a short space of time this past week, I feel it appropriate to reach for my bag of clichés and pull out the one labelled ‘turning point’. I’ll suffix a question mark to it though, just incase. Meanwhile, the result was Die Knappen’s second loss on the road this season, and their young squad remains in 3rd spot, 4 points behind Bayer Leverkusen.
Speaking of whom, the champions-elect played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at Werder Bremen Sunday teatime. They might’ve bagged all 3 points too had they defended the cross from which Mertesacker equalized in injury time. Leverkusen took the lead after Bremen midfield-man Niemeyer (who’d started the game lethargically and rendered the defence-attack bridge a trudge) tripped Kroos‘s infield-jinx. Derdyiok curled in the resulting free-kick, although Kroos was to later net spectacularly from some distance. On the subject of distance, there was one moment in the game when Vidal – who’d been exceptional in his wave-breaking duties – attempted the outrageous and tried lobbing Wiese from inside his own half. It failed miserably and halted a potentially-probing counter-attack. Vidal continued to impress in his tackling and distribution, but committed another daft error when he over-hastily lunged in on Marin‘s roam from left-flank to ‘D’. Naldo‘s thunderbolt, Pizarro‘s poaching, and an Adler spill combined to make the score 1-1. Two young German midfielders contributing so significantly to a game’s defining moments isn’t an anomaly – there are 366 stutzpunkte (regional centres of excellence) now thriving in Germany, and the average age of domestic-born players in the top flight has fallen from 28.8 to 25.3 in the past decade.
Bayern Munich‘s 1-1 draw with near-neighbours Nuremberg ensured that Uli Hoeneß’s men aren’t going to have things all their own way (…yet) – Neverkusen remain in top-spot by virtue of netting one goal more. The point keeps Nuremberg in penultimate-place, but with the likes of Gygax, Gündogan, Bunjaku and Ottl on the payroll, they do have the ability to clamber out of danger. If they’re gonna, it’ll be aided by Freiburg‘s inability to do, well, anything. Sunday’s 3-0 humiliation at home to Hertha Berlin continued their dire run of form and inability to trouble opposition defences. Dutt’s decision to throw in a stream of youngsters doesn’t seem to be working. Young American Williams offers little at right-back bar safety hoofs up the channel and a decent throw-in, while Cisse does an immense amount of running up-top but rarely threatens scoring-wise (save for Frankfurt’s Nikolov dropping it at his feet, ala Round 22). With previously eminent players like Toprak making mistakes with regularity, and stalwarts like Idrissou throwing toys out of prams, their situation looks bleak.
If the season had begun in January, Hertha would probably finish it comfortably mid-table. They finally look like a team worthy of possessing a genius like Raffael: albeit one that still bizarrely finds a place for a stray-passing, ball-watching, accident-waiting-to-happen Dortmund reject like Kringe. January’s Gekas acquisition seems at last to be bringing the best out of Ramos; a player who embodies the spirit of Jekyll and Hyde. One moment, his attempt to trap the ball will leave you wondering if he’s got wind-turbines strapped to his feet. The next, he’ll stroke it like Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s cat, spin 180° and look an absolute genius! He netted the opener in his side’s victory, so we’ll give him a patronising pat on the head this week. Berlin travel to Portugal to take on Benfica tonight in the second leg (1-1 agg.) of a last-32 Europa League tie. They’re expected to suffer a pasting, but I actually fancy them or their third-string to prevail (incoming egg…. to FACE!!!). This is because the last round in Liga Sagres saw Porto whallop Braga 5-1 – thus making the title-race a three-way battle. Resultantly, expect Benfica to have both eyes firmly planted elsewhere this evening…
Staying up remains the priority for Hertha and SC Freiburg however, and the Round 25 fixture between the latter and Hannover 96 looks like being huge for all three sides. I really can’t encapsulate via words just how badly Hannover have played since the tragic death of Robert Enke. In terms of avoiding the drop, they don’t have a chance. 4 of their last 6 games are against the top-four, and it’s only the super-tight defensive unit of Schalke that they host in that sequence. All the vision and creativity we know players like Štajner and Elson possess is AWOL, and their defence is a joke. Djakpa‘s infamous own-goal is going to be the abiding memory of their 09/10 defensive failings, but for me, Ďurica has to take the largest portion of blame. I estimate that at least 9 goals Die Roten have conceded in recent weeks are a result of his utter uselessness (positioning; marking; passing – you name it). Thankfully, the centre-back is only on loan from Lokomotiv Moscow – but the case of Champions League-spot-chasing Montpellier’s Spahić (a candidate for Ligue 1 player of the season, and a fellow Loko defensive reject) makes you wonder if it was all somehow a comical case of mistaken identity. Borussia Dortmund were Round 23’s punishers, netting 4, and being very grateful that the fixture coincided with their own iffy spot of form (3 losses in 4 prior to this, and Subotic starting to blunder left, right and centre) – nothing says (I’m fiddling in my aforementioned bag of clichés again…) this’ll get you ‘back on track’ again more than a game versus Slomka’s side at present.
FSV Mainz 05 and VFL Bochum have hardly gone in for scoring goals this campaign, so neither were ever likely to find the need for changing the habits of a season when they met at the weekend. The home side are coasting along until the inevitable summer departures of Amri (insert big-name club here, alongside the tag ‘bench-warmer’) and Bance (“my agent says Chelsea, Arsenal, Brazil etc want me”. And so on, until one of the Russian sides snaps him up), compounded with a severe bout of second-season-syndrome that coincides with Müller‘s loss of superhuman abilities (how he’s even got this far with his hopeless kicking ability is a mystery), and Ivanschitz being carried by the team sans the glorious assists and thunderbolt-strikes (after Tuchel spends his entire transfer budget buying him outright). Bochum will stay up now and next season, because even when they’re naff, they’ve got their own assist-man and set-piece expert in Fuchs to bail them out.
Concluding this round-wrap are two Saturday fixtures. A lacklustre Hamburger SV were held to a goalless draw by (is it fair to call them a…) surprise-package Eintracht Frankfurt. Mr Labbadia was satisfied given that his team had faced-off against a zesty PSV Eindhoven side in the Europa League just 40 hours previously – “Credit to the lads. You wouldn’t have guessed they only played 40 hours ago. We did well at the back and didn’t let them hit us on the break. The only negative is that we didn’t take our chances. Two or three chances should be enough to win a game like that”. That he expresses surprise at Berg‘s profligacy does make you wonder if he’s actually watched his side this season: in 22 appearances, the Swede has managed 30 shots but merely 4 goals. By way of comparison, bottom side Hertha Berlin’s Ramos is a player of similar mould, but has bagged 7 goals in 4 less appearances and with 3 less shot-attempts. Nevertheless, Labbadia’s correct in drawing attention to the financial-city side’s propensity for lethal breaks – as Dortmund supporters will testify after the recent 3-2 home defeat. Altintop looks to have been a great bit of business by Skibbe, complementing the distribution of Ochs, the timed-runs of Meier and the bubbliness of Köhler.
And last, but very much not least, we have the class clowns that are FC Köln and VfB Stuttgart. The only difference being that after their parents threatened to halt pocket-money payments, the latter has begun to knuckle down and achieve the results it’s clearly quite capable of – the 5-1 win in this fixture being a case-in-point. Köln on the other hand continue to revel in being sent to sit at the teacher’s desk every lesson – it’s all worth it for a few stifled giggles at a silly prank you see. They need to be careful: there will reach a point when even Bash Street School would lose its tether and expel the errant miscreant. Yesterday, Raphael Honigstein used his weekly column in The Guardian to analyse the ludicrous enigma that is Podolski.
While I agree with the majority of what the correspondent noted (greedy; arrogant; needs guidance/discipline), the most interesting point raised by Honigstein is that of his side’s exposure on the flanks. Not only does this issue highlight his team’s shortcomings, but also offers the most telling reason as to why Podolski is failing so horrendously. With Podolski nominally out left and Chihi nominally out right, both players are given freedom to come infield and roam. However, with the ageing pair of Maniche and Petit to accommodate, and the lack of energy the likes of Wome and Brecko have offered from full-back, it’s left for Pezzoni to cover every inch left vacant. The other issue is that all 5 of Die Geißböcke’s midfield men like to do their own thing on the ball – and lone forward Novakovic is more often than not dropping to receive. As a result, this can leave the team with no outlet in the final-third, and too many chefs trying to infuse the recipe with their own ingredients. Podolski suffers and sulks as a results of this, hence his paucity of goals and much else.
Poor old Markus Babbel. He left the Stuttgart bench really rather nobly after his side won just twice in their opening fifteen games – they even lost at home to Köln! Now, Die Schwaben sit second in the form table (6 wins and 1 loss in their last 9 games). Even losing a key striker (Marica) fails to hamper their progress – the replacement just comes in and nets 4! Cacau was the man in question, and his contribution settled what was actually an even contest. Possession, pass completion and chance ratio-wise, the sides were matched. Yet chance-creations came from more than just the wingers (Tosic and Chihi) for the away side, and the distribution of these was overwhelmingly lethal – as the scoreline indicates. Credit must also go to Träsch who did a splendid job threading together the team’s positional banks and passing moves. Gross’s side have the daunting prospect of tackling Barcelona in the Champions League this week. But with everyone writing them off before the first leg has even commenced, I wouldn’t call the tie concluded just yet. Bar the usual suspects one could identify as causing Barca problems, look out for the understated Pogrebnyak causing strife amongst a depleted backline (and as he showed for Zenit against Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup semi-finals a few years back, he has a knack of scoring in important games), and Molinaro striding forward to curl in with that deadly left foot of his as Messi focuses on pinning Celozzi back.