Friday, September 28, 2012
A class above?
Form beats class, they say in Germany. On a wild fifth matchday which produced almost four goals per game, this was proven right, with a slight twist - form snatched a point from class.
This was particularly true of the game between promoted Eintracht Frankfurt and league champions Borussia Dortmund. On Tuesday, we said that Dortmund wouldn't travel to Frankfurt as clear-cut favourites because Eintracht were in excellent form. The first half put the lie to this prediction, as Dortmund raced into a seemingly unaissalable two-goal lead at the interval.
After the restart, though, the supposedly uneven match turned into the best of the season so far. There were stretches of end-to-end action that seemed like a throwback to the 1970s, only played at a much higher tempo, and the final scoreline of 3-3 only begins to describe how entertaining the match was.
Unless, of course, you are Coach of the Year Jurgen Klopp, who will have to find out why his Dortmund team, renowned for being particularly good and aggressive when the other side has the ball, have already conceded eight goals this season, no less than six in the last two games.
Three of those goals, you may recall, were scored by Hamburg - who underlined how much they have improved since Rafael van der Vaart, Milan Badelj and Petr Jiracek joined some three weeks ago by drawing 2-2 away at Borussia Monchengladbach. So drastic has been Hamburg's upturn in form, though, that the club must consider sharing the spoils a disappointment.
Going into stoppage time, a great van der Vaart volley and a Badelj header gave Hamburg a deserved 2-1 lead against opponents reduced to ten men. But then Gladbach managed to equalise from a set piece, which was particularly annoying for Hamburg because they had earlier missed a golden opportunity to put the game beyond doubt, when van der Vaart became the latest player to miss a penalty for a German club. Schalke's Jefferson Farfan bucked the trend by converting from the spot against Mainz, but Bundesliga teams have now missed six of their last seven penalties.
A club that has both, form and class, are Bayern Munich, of course. "I have never seen Bayern that aggressive," Wolfsburg coach Felix Magath said after his side had lost 3-0 in Munich. What he meant was that Bayern have totally shed their tendency to slow down and knock the ball around for parts of the game, instead they come at you all the time, looking for goals.
And getting goals. After five rounds of games, four different Bayern players are among the league's top ten scorers. One of them is holding midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. It's amazing because two of his three goals so far have been headers. It's also surprising because he could have even more goals. For instance, he hit the post twice against Wolfsburg. And finally because there had been serious worries about Schweinsteiger, who was visibly shaken by Bayern's defeat in the Champions League final and was below par at the Euros. But just like some of his team-mates who struggled during that tournament, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller come to mind, he looks all but rejuvenated and is in excellent shape.
If only that could be said of VfB Stuttgart, dismantled at home by Hoffenheim, 3-0. Stuttgart have two points from five games, the worst start to a league season in the club's history. Whenver reporters point this out the reply is that playing abysmally at this time of year has almost become a VfB tradition. And it is true that the Swabians have usually started slowly in recent years and have often been forced to sack a coach shortly before the winter break.
But if you look at the past ten seasons and then do some calculations, you'll find that Stuttgart have, on average, collected 7.1 points from the first five games. Which quite simply means that Stuttgart are not just having one of their usual bad starts right now. It means that things are really, really bleak.
And yet it could have been very different, as on the very first day of the season, Stuttgart were awarded a penalty at home against Wolfsburg in the 88th minute of a scoreless game. But then Vedad Ibisevic not only had his spot-kick saved by Wolfsburg's goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, he also miraculously managed to put the rebound wide of an open goal from six yards. Seconds later, Bas Dost scored at the other end to give Wolfsburg the win.
Stuttgart fans will often look at the past these days, remembering better times. And they weren't so long ago. In 2007, the club won the league. And a few years earlier, in 2003, VfB set a record by going the first eight games of the season without conceding a goal.
It's still early days, but an unlikely candidate is making a run at that record. Fortuna Düsseldorf won the clash of promoted teams 2-0 away at Fürth and still haven't conceded a goal after five games. Fürth, meanwhile, became the first team to fail to score in the first three home games of a season.
On Friday, Schalke will try to break that spell and put one past Fortuna's goalkeeper, Frank Giefer. The young man joined Düsseldorf from Bayer Leverkusen in June and since Fortuna won their first round DFB Pokal tie 1-0 he still hasn't conceded a goal in a competitive game almost four months after signing.
The Schalke game will be the first time he plays in front of a full home crowd. That's because Düsseldorf weren't allowed to have more than 25,000 of their own supporters through the gates for their first two home games as a penalty for the pitch invasion after the promotion play-off against Hertha. Those two matches have been played, which means Fortuna will finally enjoy a sell-out home game in the Bundesliga.
Against old rivals Schalke. Under floodlights. With a team that may not have the class of some others but is certainly in fine form. It can't get much better than that.