Wednesday, October 8, 2003
This season's dark horses
Nine days ago, Stuttgart had a little training exercise officially known as a league match at 1860 Munich.
Yet again, coach Felix Magath pencilled in the 19-year-old Philipp Lahm as the left-back, despite the fact the kid is right-footed and was signed to be the stand-in for Andreas Hinkel on the right side.
It was just that Lahm was doing really well and that it would have been grossly unfair to keep him on the bench only because his natural position had already been filled, you know.
That's not saying Magath is always fair: Against 1860, he had the Hungarian Imre Szabics (22) partnering Kevin Kuranyi (21) upfront, even though new arrival Cacau (22) had looked fine in his five matches so far, scoring twice.
In any case, Lahm made Stuttgart's first goal, Szabics won the penalty that led to the second, then Aliaksandr Hleb (22) added a third with forty minutes to go. The Swabians knocked the ball around a bit, created a few more scoring opportunities, then ran the clock down. Piece of cake, 3-0, first place in the league.
After the match, a reporter approached Felix Magath and said: 'Don't you think it's time you do something to dampen the enthusiasm around here? All that success could go to people's heads.' Magath eyed the journalist for a few seconds, then he replied: 'No. Not yet. I will have to do something after we have beaten Manchester United on Wednesday.'
Magath isn't a braggart, far from it. He's a clever, very considered man, a chess fanatic since 1978, when he went down with hepatitis and whiled the time away immersing himself in the mind game between Karpov and Korchnoi, who were contesting the World Championship at that time. And Magath isn't a joker, either. He's got a sense of humour and a nice, mischievous smile, but he takes football very seriously and won't fire off one-liners just for the heck of it.
What made him boldly predict a victory over United is difficult to say. Maybe he sensed his young squad was in awe of the upcoming opponent and needed a boost or a jolt. More likely, however, is something else, namely that it's just the way things are at Stuttgart at the moment. The club is on the up, the team is on a roll, the coach can do no wrong. Self-confidence breeds on itself.
Stuttgart followed their 2-1 over United with a scoreless draw at home against Cologne, but even that slightly meagre result could be and was sold as a success: 'We just couldn't put the ball away', said Magath, 'and these things happen. The fact that we're still unbeaten, despite the euphoria that followed the Manchester game proves we have a firm and resolute character.'
That was no empty rhetoric. I don't think I have ever seen a league leader grind out a 0-0 at home against the last-placed team and still being cheered by a sell-out crowd of 52,000. Of course that was largely because, with 69 minutes gone, the scoreboard informed the supporters that goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand had just set a new league record by going 804 minutes without conceding a Bundesliga goal, surpassing the mark Oliver Kahn had set only last season. (The last man to put one past Hildebrand in the league was Giovane Elber, on May17.)
Needless to say, Stuttgart have also set a new record as a team by going the first eight matches of the season without allowing a goal. However, that's already old hat, because the former record was only a silly four matches. (Even United's goal, you may recall, was scored from a penalty, and a soft one at that.)
I shall not bore you again with the story about Stuttgart's very unlikely rise from the doldrums despite a severely weakened bank account, as I have already done that back in February.
That was when I argued Magath should have won the 'Coach of the Year' award instead of Klaus Toppmöller. Well, he finally did that a few months later, but I'm not here to say 'I-told-you-so', I'm here to say 'how-could-I-have-known'...: Like many others, I was fairly sure the Swabians' fairy-tale would reach its final chapter sooner rather than later.
For instance, after Dortmund had gambled away their second place in the league on the last day of the season, there was a theory that said this was a much better outcome for German football because star-studded Dortmund stood a far greater chance of surving the qualifying round for the Champions League than inexperienced, overachieving Stuttgart. Yeah, sure.
The idea was that, first, Stuttgart would not again surprise any opponent with their youthful exuberance and what-me-bother attacking football.
Second, Aliaksandr Hleb would replace the retired Krassimir Balakov in creative midfield, and while Hleb is a marvellous dribbler, he is no playmaker.
Third, the double strain of Champions League and Bundesliga would prove too much for Stuttgart's youngsters.
However, the problem with this sensible theory was that Magath had something else in mind. For the first game of the new season, his team went to Rostock to stun everyone.
To begin with, the new man in the hole was the veteran Horst Heldt (33), while Hleb wasn't even on the pitch. Then Stuttgart used a diamond formation in midfield, with Zvonimir Soldo (35) as the holding player.
When the opposition had the ball, Jurica Vranjes swiftly dropped back to play alongside Soldo, and instead of youthful exuberance there was an impenetrable fortress. Rostock ran themselves ragged for an hour, then Magath brought on Szabics, who scored twice. And that was that.
I can't tell you how Magath managed to smoothly move from one style to another, because footballers, especially young ones, aren't chess pieces that will play any opening your will dictates.
All I can say is that if Stuttgart still have a clean sheet after their next game (away to Bremen, who have scored 21 goals in eight games), then I will no longer put anything
beyond this team.
Uli's history of German football, Tor!, published by WSC Books, is available through Sportsbooksdirect.
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