Wednesday, November 30, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: January 26, 11:04 PM UK
Surprise rise of the Borussias
A few months, even a few weeks, ago, it would have been silly to assume that the game between the two Borussias - Dortmund and Mönchengladbach - on the coming Saturday would pair the league leaders with the runners-up. Too difficult was Dortmund's start to this season, too narrowly did Gladbach avoid relegation in the last season for anyone to predict this match would be anything special.
But the last two matchdays have brought so many unexpected results that, for the second time in only three weeks, the top four teams will be having it out among themselves: Gladbach versus Dortmund, topping the table level on points, and Bayern versus Bremen, one and three points behind, respectively.
The main reason for this surprising turn of events is, of course, that Bayern have suffered two losses in a row, the second of which was probably the shock result of the season so far. The Munich giants followed the narrow home defeat at the hands of Dortmund with a wholly inexplicable showing at Mainz, who are nowhere near the force they were last year.
The amazing thing about Mainz's 3-2 win over Bayern was that it was well-deserved, as the hosts always looked more fluent and dangerous from open play, while the visitors seemed disorganised and only threatened through set pieces. (Both goals came from free kicks, and both were scored by centre-back Daniel van Buyten.)
Television pundit Thomas Strunz, the former international, later argued that Bayern are missing Bastian Schweinsteiger's presence in midfield more than was to be expected and that the suspension of the experienced Anatoliy Tymoshchuk hurt, too, as the pairing of David Alaba and Luiz Gustavo as holding midfielders meant Bayern lacked dominance in the centre of the pitch.
Not quite as surprising but still noteworthy was the ease with which Borussia Dortmund won the much-anticipated Ruhr derby against Schalke. If anything, the 2-0 scoreline flattered the visitors, who normally do quite well in Dortmund yet were this time not only outplayed but also lacked the fire you'd expect from a team playing in the most celebrated derby in the land. "Too many of our men didn't give their all," a fuming Horst Heldt, Schalke's director of football, said after the game. "The longer I think about it, the more angry I become."
But it isn't just the top of the table that has become crowded again following the recent results - teams have also edged nearer to each other in the lower third. History was made in Augsburg, where the hosts won their first-ever Bundesliga home game (against Wolfsburg, who have already lost six away games, the worst record in the league), and also in Hoffenheim, where Freiburg picked up yet another point.
They did so by finding the net in the final minute of regular time, which means Freiburg have now scored a crucial goal in the 90th minute or later in three consecutive games - which is particularly unusual when you consider that this feat was pulled off by a team fighting to stay up (which normally means luck is not on your side) and that it wasn't even Freiburg's one single reliable goalscorer, Papiss Demba Cissé, who found the target. Instead, it was the summer signing Garra Dembélé, who tied the game late with his first-ever Bundesliga goal. That's very good news for Freiburg. The club parted with more money than ever before to sign the Malian striker, supposedly €2 million, mainly to prepare for the day Cissé leaves. This day could be drawing nearer now, as the rumour mill has it that Bayern have renewed their interest in Cissé.
However, once the highlight reels of this season are being compiled, the one moment from the past matchday that most definitely will not be missing from any of them happened not in Augsburg or Freiburg, nor even in Mainz or Dortmund. It was a corner Sérgio Pinto took for Hannover 96 after 79 minutes of their home game against Hamburg with the visitors leading by one goal. Because Pinto did not cross the ball into the box. Instead he sent it into the general direction of Jan Schlaudraff, who was lurking outside the penalty area. Schlaudraff met the ball some 20 yards from goal and volleyed it into the triangle to make it 1-1 - a goal that could have given Eren Derdiyok a headache when it comes to the Goal of the Season votings. (Derdiyok's bicycle kick against Wolfsburg probably still has an edge, but be sure to check out Schlaudraff's goal too.)
Matchday 14 - or, better, the days leading up to this round of games - also brought the first notable transfer confirmation. Bayer Leverkusen announced they have secured the services of Nuremberg's 22-year-old centre back Philipp Wollscheid for next season. Nuremberg will pocket at least €5.5 million for a player whom coach Dieter Hecking called up from the reserve team (which competes in the fourth division) less than two years ago and who only made his Bundesliga debut one year and one week ago.
And yet there will be many Nuremberg fans who only reluctantly call this a great deal. They know that it's this club's fate - for the time being, at least - to find and nurture talent only to see it leave for some bigger club after a few good seasons. It is, of course, frustrating, but as long as the club can continue finding and nurturing such talents, the situation is probably preferable to the days when Nuremberg regularly overreached and overspent. (In the mid-90s, the club were often in danger of having their licence for professional football revoked, meaning an automatic demotion to amateur football.)
Frustration is also the keyword in Dresden at the moment. One month ago, Dynamo Dresden's rather notorious support rioted before and during an away game in the German FA Cup - or DFB-Pokal - at Dortmund. Last week, the DFB announced it would penalise the Bundesliga 2 side by banning it from next season's cup competition altogether. It was an admittedly harsh sentence, but there has been a recent surge in crowd trouble that probably convinced the DFB a signal had to be sent out.
The league and the FA have also set up a 'Task Force for Security', made up of 17 people, five of whom represent the fans. Hendrik Grosse Lefert, the chairman of this panel, said: "At the end of the day, the fans themselves decide whether or not the conditions for people who attend football games in Germany will have to change in the future." By which he most probably meant: get this under control if you want to keep terracing.