Das Eisen schmieden, solange es heiß ist. The famous proverb – make hay while the sun shines – aptly applies to several clubs aiming to strip Bayern of consecutive Bundesliga titles, its 22nd in waiting. Wolfsburg, Hamburg, Hertha and to a lesser extent Stuttgart harbour title hopes in the most exciting Bundesliga season, and perhaps the most captivating league in Europe .
After last year’s dominance by Bayern Munich – aka the Toni & Ribery show – many, if not all, expected the Bavarian giant to strengthen its hold on German football, and with the arrival of former national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann, the odds for another league crown were firmly in Bayern’s favor. However, in what can only be described as a cataclysmic series of unfortunate events, the Klinsmann era has been, for lack of a better word, SHIT!
Klinsmann’s club/managerial debacle has given heed to a crop genuine title challengers; the surprising (Hertha) and the not so surprising (Wolfsburg & Hamburg), who either have a massive amount of luck (Hertha), talent (Hamburg) or both (Wolfsburg). Hoffehneim, shocking Bundesliga supremos of the first half of the season, have tailed off since the beginning of new year with just a win in its past 10 games and find themselves 6th in the table, four point adrift of Stuttgart for a Europa league place.
Ralf Rangnick, club manager, has attributed the decline of his squad to the season ending injury to hitman Vedad Ibisevic and the slowly but surely ever growing inflated ego’s of his squad. “The boys have been hyped-up like pop stars for the last three months and are being asked about everything, not just football. They are only human and it’s no surprise if they sometimes believe they are little Riberys,” said the Hoffenheim coach when asked about the team’s run of disastrous results. Yup, its the same Frank Ribery; the newest addition to German footballing hyperbole.
Hoffenheim’s fairly tale season has been replaced by Hertha Berlin, the Tottenham of the Bundesliga — figuratively, not literally. Despite being based in the German capital and one of the founding members of German football, it’s been 77 years since Die Alte Dame (Old Lady) won the Bundesliga. Self acclaimed “sexy-chest” footballer Andriy Voronin, on loan from Liverpool, has been a revelation for the Berliners. His double against Bayern Munich in fixture 20 lifted the club to top spot and his hat trick against 3 weeks later gave Hertha fans unexpected title hopes. Since his 11th league goal against Bayer Leverkusen three weeks ago, the club has lost 3 straight games and have dropped to 4th place, 5 points behind Bundesliga table toppers Wolfsburg.
Surprise league leaders Wolfsburg, — not in a fairy tale “Hoffenheim” way but in a rather ” f***!, we actually are this good” — have been blessed with the league’s best strike partnership. Former Le Mans striker Grafite hasn’t stop scoring since his move to the Bundesliga side last year and Bosnian youngster Edin Dzeko is nailed on as the Bundesliga young player of the year. Grafite’s 20 goals along with Dzeko’s 16 have propelled the Wolves to 9 straight league wins; the 5-1 demolition of Bayern Munich producing the GOAL OF THE SEASON.
Under the stewardess of the “Quälix” (torturer) , sporting director, CEO and club manager Felix Magath’s winning mentality from his championship seasons as Stuttgart and Bayern Munich boss has provided much needed balance to a side that narrowly avoided relegation in the 2005/06 & 2006/07 season. In his first season, Magath revamped the squad with over 20 new signings, most importantly the additions of the aforementioned Grafite and Dzeko, veteran defender Ricardo Costa, highly rated youngsters Marcel Schafer and Christian Gentner and former Freiburg midfielder Sascha Reither. Last summer’s coup d’etat of Palermo’s defensive duo, Andrea Barzargli and Christian Zaccardo, along with the capture of Bosnian playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic has molded last year’s UEFA cup participants into a major title threat.
However, the Quälix’s master stroke was the recruitment of Sao Paulo’s Brazilian holding midfielder Josue. The unsung hero has been the club’s “Makalele”. He has shored up its defensive frailties, and thus provided much more freedom for the club’s attacking threats which has resulted in the concession of 33 goals – second only to Schalke’s 27 – and a league’s best 60 goals. Magath’s men havent’s lost since the second week of November and remain the league’s only unbeaten home team with 12 wins and a draw.
The big fella has worked wonders since his arrival at Bundesliga Dinosaurs Hamburg. With the imminent departure of former coach Huub Stevens to PSV, deposed Tottenham manager Martin Jol took reigns in the summer hoping to steer the club into a possible champions league spot. Armed wtih the “Red Shorts” cheque book, the Dutchman has added depth to a leaky, vunerable defence with the signings of Alex Silva, Dennis Aogo and Marcell Jansen. Thiago Neves, fresh off from leading Fluminense to the final of the Copa Libatadores, joined the club along with €5 mil goal poacher Mladen Petric. The team has overcome the loss of influential playmaker Rafael Van de Vaart to Real Madrid with Piotr Trochowski taking over creative midfield duties. While Jol still suffers mildly from the “no plan B” syndrome – a la Sven Eriksson, – he has been lauded for his non “gung ho”equilibrium style of play which has helped a goal shy team keep pace atop the table. Hamburg missed a chance to stay on level points with Wolfsburg last weekend with a 1-0 loss, courtesy of over-rated striker Mario Gomez, whose €20mil price tag is jaw dropping.
Hamburg face EUROPA League hopefuls Dortmund and Leverkusen in the run up to the climax of the season. Martin Jol’s title credentials will be heavily tested at an away tie against Werder Bremen in round 31, their most important game of the season. Should lady luck smile on Hamburg, they will relish their final three fixtures against teams with nothing to play for. Wolfsburg, unlike Hamburg, have a tougher fixture list with matches against next season’s European football hopefuls Hoffenheim, Leverkusen, Dortmund and Stuttgart. On the last day of the season, Wolfsburg host Werder Bremen. The result of that game might decide the Bundesliga coronations.
Worringly for both Hamburg and Wolfsburg is Bayern’s relatively easy end of the season matches. Klinsmann’s men face a trio of relegation candidates (Bielefeld, Mönchengladbach and Cottbus), have a home date against an out of form Schalke side. On the slightly gloomy side of things, Hoffenheim and Stuttgart are Bayern’s last two opponents of the season; the former on a free fall, the latter rather unpredictable.
Truth be told, the Bundesliga crown is there for the taking and this might be the best chance Wolfsburg and Hamburg have to knock Bayern’s off its perch. Magath may find it incredibly hard to hold on to his beloved Dzeko who has been heavily linked with Arsenal and Villareal. Barzargli continues to rebuff rumors linking him back to Italy by underwhelmingly declaring he’s happy in Germany. Martin Jol is set to lose Ivica Olic to Bayern next season and €10 mil summer signing Thiago Neves hasn’t settled in Germany and has thus been loaned back to Fluminense till kingdom come. Even if Bayern lose Ribery in the summer, the addition of Anatoliy Tymoshuck (Zenith St. Petersburg), Ivica Olic, world class defenders not named Van Buyten or Demicheles and maybe a change in management will make Bayern far too strong for its peers in the years to come.