Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Dortmund leave door to title ajar
Here we are, five days later, and people are still talking about the game that opened a tumultuous and momentous matchday 28. On Friday, Dortmund and Stuttgart did not just deliver the "interesting game" we had predicted but probably the most incredible Bundesliga match since Bremen's legendary 5-4 against Hoffenheim in September 2008.
Back then, Hoffenheim came back from 4-1 down in Bremen, went looking for a winner, conceded the fifth, hit the woodwork and lost. Now, Dortmund were two goals up with 19 minutes left, before their defence - until then the best in the league - conceded three goals in eight minutes to fall behind, 3-2. However, it took the league leaders only five minutes to reclaim the lead, 4-3. But deep into stoppage time, Stuttgart scored a deserved equaliser to grab a point. Oh, we almost forgot to mention that Dortmund also hit the woodwork twice, Stuttgart once.
No wonder that this roller coaster ride left everyone reeling. When Stuttgart suddenly scored three to take the lead, even though Dortmund had just brought on the defensively more solid Sven Bender for the more offensive Ilkay Gundogan, one sensed this was the moment they lost the league title. But when they came back and retook the lead three minutes from time, it seemed as if they would now, with a morale like that, surely go on to win the trophy. The final result, though, has most people scratching their heads as regards the title race.
Bayern capitalised on Dortmund's slip-up by winning the Bavarian-Franconian derby against Nuremberg and now all eyes are on the two team's meeting in Dortmund a week from now. Because even though Dortmund still hold a three-point lead, the race appears entirely open.
While mental and physical freshness could be a problem for the Munich giants, who have more games under their belt and also have a spectatcular Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid to look forward to, Dortmund have the more difficult league fixtures ahead of them.
In fact, Olaf Thon - a former Schalke and Bayern star and a 1990 World Cup winner - is not the only expert who predicts that Bayern don't even have to win the game in Dortmund but only need a draw, since Borussia are likely to drop more points than Bayern down the stretch, for instance against local rivals Schalke, Gladbach or a resurgent Freiburg.
However, before one looks that far into the future, there is the not so small matter of the coming weekend to consider, as both title contenders face in-form teams, though Dortmund's task seems slightly more taxing.
The league leaders travel to Wolfsburg, who are not only strong at home (nine wins from fourteen games) and on a good run (four wins in a row), but who also field a player who is red-hot against all odds.
As recently as November, striker Patrick Helmes was so thoroughly in coach Felix Magath's doghouse that he was training with the reserves and playing in the fourth division with Wolfsburg II. (He didn't help his cause by being sent off for violent conduct in a game against St. Pauli II.) Magath, who'd also fined the player a five-figure sum for not putting in enough effort in September, tried to sell the attacker during the January transfer window but found no takers.
In one of those inexplicable Cinderalla stories that football specialises in, Helmes was pardoned in late February, when a desperate Magath tried everything to climb out of the relegation zone. Helmes scored in his first Bundesliga game in almost five months, scored again in his third and found the target twice more in his fourth. He has now come to epitomise Wolfsburg's rise, as another brace at the weekend, against Hertha, helped the Wolves draw level on points with Leverkusen and Bremen, well and truly joining the race for the European slots.
"We're simply on what is called a run," Helmes says by way of an explanation for the team's (and his own) resurgence. "After five games without a defeat, we also have the confidence upfront that you need.
Right now we're very cool in front of the opposing team's goal, that's why we win our games."
This is not exactly the secret of Augsburg's success, as the team would be doing even better if only they would take their chances properly. Still, when we look back on this campaign in May, it's quite possible we'll have to conclude that the story of the season has not been Gladbach, as everyone has been presuming until now, but Augsburg.
The surest relegation fodder since Cottbus in 2000 (who, it's worth remembering, stayed up) are unbeaten since February, have steadily climbed up the standings since the end of the winter break and now find themselves in fourteenth place thanks to a thoroughly deserved 2-1 win against Cologne. Augsburg are exceeding expectations so much that they have all the right in the world to approach even their next game with hope, if not optimism. It's on Saturday. Away at Bayern Munich.
Hope and optimism are words you seldom hear these days at Augsburg's most recent victims, Cologne. On the day following a truly dreadful showing, the local media reported that coach Stale Solbakken had been fired, only to withdraw the news item a few hours later. When chairman Claus Horstmann met the press outside the clubhouse and told them Solbakken would definitely stay on, the fans booed. They do like the Norwegian coach as a person, but he seems unable to turn things around.
When Solbakken's mobile rang during Saturday's post-match press conference, he smiled and said: "That's probably my wife, who wants to hear if I'll still have a job tomorrow." Cologne is a carnival hotbed, but they take their club very seriously there, so one can presume that this joke didn't sit well with supporters who probably feel there is a time for jokes and another time for sobriety.
A man who did lose his job - on April Fools' Day, no less - was Bayer Leverkusen's Robin Dutt. In some way, Leverkusen's performance against Freiburg was even worse than Cologne's showing, if only because the club has more proven (and expensive) talent and has turned it on often enough this season to have the fans conclude it's not the quality that is missing.
Thus, when their team fell behind 2-0 to Freiburg after an hour, they switched to sarcasm mode and did the Mexican wave while cheering on their side's opponents. That, every player will tell you, is a lot worse than being booed and from that moment on, it was clear that Dutt could not be on the bench for the next game.
However, credit where it's due. Dutt, who so often seemed aloof and too smart for his own good over the past months, went out in style. He asked the leading club representatives to be present when they announced his sacking, which is unusual to begin with. Then he said he could understand the club's decision, as his sporting performance had been unsatisfactory, adding there had been many reasons for the team's lack of success, but: "Ultimately, the key was mine."
For the time being, former Leverkusen player Sami Hyypia will be given the key. His job is to reach the team's minimum's goal, qualification for Europe. While now even seventh place is a European slot, there are currently four teams on 40 points, only one point behind Hannover 96 in fifth place. Looks like the race is heating up in every area of the table, not just at the top.