Wednesday, February 1, 2012
ESPNsoccernet: February 8, 2:00 PM UK
Taking the middle ground
So far, almost all of these weekly reports from the Bundesliga have dealt with teams in the title race or a relegation fight. Which is only natural, as mid-table mediocrity rarely makes for heated debates. Sometimes, however, being average can be interesting.
Hoffenheim, for instance, are suddenly being talked about precisely because they have become strangely faceless. It would be taking things too far to say that some people had forgotten they are in the league, but the days when everybody had an opinion about this club are long gone.
Hoffenheim, one should briefly explain, were never liked by the majority of fans, who regard them as an anomaly, a club lacking tradition and having bought their way into the limelight. (Whether this view is correct or not, is a different matter, of course.) They were also never particularly popular with their peers, with Dortmund's CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke one club official to point out that the fundamental difference between teams bankrolled by patrons or companies and teams earning money due to their performances or through their fan base.
Casual fans, on the other hand, both home and abroad, were enchanted by the Cinderella story of a village team suddenly playing with the big-city boys. And professional observers, writers and reporters also had some sympathy for the club because it was run by smart and honourable men and, especially, because the team played good football and was exciting to watch.
But this is now the third season in a row in which Hoffenheim win some, lose some, draw some, and only a few people now care. Yet now there has been an interesting development. Instead of buying a few new players to turn things around, Hoffenheim are apparently trying to achieve this by getting rid of anyone who was any good, all the heroes of the Cinderella tale.
The Brazilian Carlos Eduardo was first, sold to Rubin Kazan in August 2010 and replaced by Gylfi Sigurdsson. Demba Ba was next, joining West Ham in January 2011. In December, the Nigerian Chinedu Obasi was loaned out to Schalke, and a few days later Sigurdsson left for Swansea. And last week, the Bosnian Vedad Ibisevic was sold to Stuttgart.
In a way, owner Dietmar Hopp was just doing what he had he would do: recouping at least a little bit of his investment and forcing the club to stand on their own two feet. But when a club that scores few goals to begin with offloads an entire forward line, the mood seldom improves. And it didn't help very much that Hopp
announced: "I hope we don't go down in Dortmund on Saturday. Because then it's going to be shaky. The distance to the relegation zone isn't comfortable. I'm worried about that."
These words of warning weren't unfounded. His team didn't really "go down" in Dortmund, at least not in terms of the eventual 3-1 scoreline, but only a great goalkeeping performance and the fact that Dortmund took their foot off the gas after their third goal stood between Hoffenheim and a potential debacle. And the gap to the relegation zone was reduced to five points.
But of course manager Holger Stanislawski - signed, ironically, to improve the atmosphere and the club's image - couldn't allow the most important man at Hoffenheim to prophesy doom and downfall. "I've got the impression the club has already perished," he angrily said before the Dortmund game. "If you look at the mood here, you could be forgiven for thinking we don't stand a chance and have already been relegated."
Stanislawski also lobbied for the signing of striker Srdjan Lakic, unwanted at Wolfsburg, but on Monday, Hoffenheim's business manager Ernst Tanner said: "We cannot sign the forward for economical reasons." One day later, though, just before the transfer window closed, Hoffenheim surprisingly announced Lakic had been signed after all. "We're convinced he can fill the gap Vedad Ibisevic has left,"
Stanislawski said. Whether this really helps the mood remains to be seen on Saturday, when Hoffenheim host Augsburg. If they don't win this game, Hopp's fears about being drawn into a relegation battle will probably come true.
Ibisevic, meanwhile, may have jumped from the frying pan straight into the fire. Like Hoffenheim, Stuttgart appear to be in that part of the table where you harbour neither hopes nor anxieties, but this impression is misleading. The Swabians have lost four league games in a row, and five of the last six. The one they didn't lose was a disappointing draw with Cologne at home.
On Ibisevic's debut, they looked decent for large periods of the game - and yet lost 3-0 at home to Gladbach. Yes, Gladbach are very good this season, but they normally hate trips to Stuttgart, where they hadn't won in 17 years and conceded seven goals last year.
None of which bodes well for VfB, whose fans will also remember that this is a club of streaks: in the past years, VfB usually botched the first half of a season and were then suddenly unstoppable after the winter break. If they are doing it the other way round now, there will be some difficult weeks ahead for Bruno Labbadia's team - starting with a tricky away match at Leverkusen on Saturday.
Leverkusen, finally, are another club that appears to be neither fish nor fowl and yet find themselves in the headlines. And that's because of Michael Ballack. When manager Robin Dutt took him off after 60 minutes of the Mainz game ten days ago, Ballack walked past him without giving him a glance, let alone the customary handshake.
Bayer's fans, most of whom regard Ballack as a living club legend and have never warmed to Dutt, were equally annoyed.
It was a situation that called for the club officials to take sides and they did so in no uncertain terms. Asked what he thought about Ballack being substituted, director of football Rudi Völler said: "I would have taken him off at half-time." Asked whether he regretted the Ballack transfer, CEO Wolfgang Holzhäuser said: "If I had known then what I know now, I would have thought about it very hard." Dutt then benched Ballack in Bremen, where Bayer earned a creditable draw.
Matthias Sammer, the German FA's director of football, commented on this highly unpleasant situation thus: "If you still got a bit of a player in you, you must immediately leave Bayer Leverkusen. Michael cannot win in this debate and then something will be cemented that can only be bad for Michael. He has to think of his future." As the transfer window closed, though, Ballack was still at Leverkusen.