Tuesday, September 25, 2012
A rundown of runs
On the Bundesliga's fourth matchday of the new season, the second-longest unbeaten run in league history finally came to an end. It happened entirely unexpectedly, as is often the case when runs collapse, though the setting was very fitting indeed.
Reigning league champions Borussia Dortmund, undefeated since losing away at Hannover 96 on September 18, 2011, were beaten by a Hamburg side that had lost every competitive game this season. The result means that Dortmund's run of unbeaten league matches was stopped at 31 and that they won't have a shot at the record. This record, set between January 1982 and January 1983, stands at 36 games and is held by... Hamburg.
Another run continued during this game, though. No Bundesliga tie has produced more goals than Hamburg versus Dortmund. The tally stood at 319 before Saturday's game kicked off and it's now 324, as the home side prevailed 3-2 in an entertaining, though unusually error-strewn, game.
Unusual for Dortmund, that is. While this wasn't the first match in which Borussia wasted a plethora of chances (Hamburg's in-form goalkeeper Rene Adler was clearly the man of the match, so much so that he could figure in the Germany set-up again soon), it was the first in a very long time in which the entire backline, including goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, gave the impression of not being totally focused.
Dortmund's weakness, however, was not the reason why Olaf Thon, a 1990 World Cup winner, said: "Although the season is still young, I think I have seen the new league champions: Bayern Munich." Rather, it was Bayern's strength. Away at Schalke, the Munich giants accomplished a potentially tricky task with such ease and elegance that you have to wonder what could stop them this season.
Probably not injuries, considering how many options coach Jupp Heynckes has and how much faith he obviously has in every squad member: against Schalke, Bayern were without Franck Ribery (and, of course, Mario Gomez, who has been out since August but hasn't been missed so far) and could afford to bench Javi Martinez, yet the team was just as solid and easy on the eye as they had been on Wednesday, when Valencia were convincingly beaten in the Champions League.
Speaking of the Champions League, while all three Bundesliga sides won their games, they also each missed a penalty. This strange run continued on Thursday in the Europa League, when Gladbach wasted a penalty deep into stoppage time and thus dropped two points. And it was still very much alive on Sunday, when Leverkusen failed to crown a good performance against Gladbach by bagging all three points because an otherwise much-improved Andre Schurrle only the hit the post from the spot and Bayer had to content themselves with a 1-1 draw.
The best penalty taker over the last few seasons, incidentally, has been Hoffenheim's Sejad Salihovic, who converted 14 of 16 spot-kicks in the past four years. This season, though, it seemed as if the Bosnian wouldn't get too many chances to improve these figures. He didn't seem to feature in the plans coach Markus Babbel has for a new Hoffenheim and was used only as a sub. To add insult to injury, he also set an embarrassing record three weeks ago, against Frankfurt, when he came on after 66 minutes, was booked three minutes later - and booked again only 60 seconds after that.
On Sunday, Salihovic came on again deep into the game - but this time he made his presence felt in an entirely different way. With eight minutes left, his header gave Hoffenheim a deserved 2-1 lead against a Hannover 96 team that seemed tired or uninspired or both. Hoffenheim went on to win 3-1 and earn their first three points of the season. It was not only an important win for the club and for Babbel, it was also a good first proper day on the job for Hoffenheim's new general manager - Andreas Muller.
The former Schalke player and business manager took over this post last Wednesday - from Babbel. In Germany, it is unusual for someone to work in the English style, as both coach and general manager, which is why the term "manager" is not used in Germany for the person who stands at the sidelines - he is usually the "coach". Felix Magath, however, is a prominent exception to the rule and Babbel had been another one since March, when Hoffenheim fired business manager Ernst Tanner.
After the terrible start to the new season, though, Babbel told the club early last week that he'd like to concentrate on his coaching job and asked Hoffenheim to find a manager type. This man is Muller, who was Schalke's business manager between 2006 and 2009 but hasn't worked in football in the past three years.
He's got his work cut out for him, as Hoffenheim's problems on the field have been accompanied by an unusual debate about the power supposedly wielded by the agent Roger Wittmann (Mario Basler's brother-in-law). Former coach Ewald Lienen has criticised the fact that there are too many players represented by Wittmann in Hoffenheim's squad (Salihovic, incidentally, is one), calling this situation "unhealthy".
It's not the first time this issue has been raised. Ten years ago, there were no fewer than ten players represented by Wittman's company Rogon in Kaiserslautern's squad, which supposedly caused a rift first in the team and then in the club as a whole.
We started this rundown with a few runs and that's how we should end. Fortuna Dusseldorf drew 0-0 with Freiburg to become the first promoted team not to concede a single goal in their first four matches. And Eintracht Frankfurt won a fine football game 2-1 away at Nurnberg to become the first promoted team to win their first four games.
Which means that, all of a sudden, Tuesday's game between Eintracht and Dortmund in Frankfurt looks like a very interesting match in which the visitors, given their current form, are not necessarily overwhelming favourites. Yes, Tuesday's game. There is a midweek matchday in Germany - an "English week" as it's called here.