Until recently, unpredictability probably wouldn’t be the first word fans would associate with the 2. Bundesliga, the top of the table having, with exceptions, rotated to fit with the varying peaks and troughs of German football’s yo-yoing sides. But this seems to be changing. The Bundesliga has welcomed a brand new member, FC Augsburg and SpVgg Greuther Fürth, in each of the last two seasons, the latter doing so on a small budget, while Fortuna Düsseldorf put some recent lows behind them to reach the top-tier for the first time in fifteen years.
In keeping with this, and on a much deeper level, the 2. Bundesliga has built itself a growing reputation for unpredictability in recent years, one which based on providing lots of goals, a randomness of results in places and some new faces at the top of the division. The early signs are that 2012/13 may be no different.
We may be only three weeks into the new season, a period which is not nearly long enough to gauge a league’s development. But the 2. Bundesliga has already gone against early expectations, and continued in its now characteristic vein.
The best way of illustrating this point would be to look at this coming Friday’s clash at the Rhein-Energie Stadion between 1. FC Köln and FC Energie Cottbus. It’s a battle between a side just relegated from the Bundesliga, an expected promotion contender, and a side who were in danger of relegation from the second tier until the final day of last season. It’s also 2nd top vs 2nd bottom in the table, but not in the way recent history would suggest. A fine start sees Cottbus one spot off the top, while the Carnival club are still looking for their first win.
Indeed, it’s been a terrible start to the season for Holger Stanislawski’s new-look Köln. A 1-1 draw at home to SV Sandhausen, Germany’s smallest professional club, was sandwiched in the middle of away defeats at Eintracht Braunschweig and Erzgebirge Aue. It’s clear that the Billy Goats lack the quality even of the side which nose-dived to relegation last season, having lost the likes of attackers Podolski and Novakovic, midfielders Riether and Lanig as well as captain Geromel at the back. Stanislawski has, perhaps forcibly, turned to youth in order to rebuild at the Carnival club. The side which was so dismally beaten in Aue last week had an average age of just 23.66, the youngest Köln team in over 30 years. Three matches into the season, there’s no need for fans of the FC to panic just yet. But the former Hoffenheim coach has a tough challenge on his hands to live up to the club’s expectations of competing at the top of the table with his current squad.
On the other hand, FC Energie couldn’t have wished for a better start. Rudi Bommer, a coach under reasonable pressure after a disappointing end to last season, has had his side play attractive and cohesive football in their first three matches, and are unbeaten. New striker Boubacar Sanogo has hit the ground running with three goals in his first three matches, while the creativity of promising new signing Marco Stiepermann and the presence of Daniel Adlung have ensured the absence of Leonardo Bittencourt hasn’t been felt too strongly so far. Cottbus should expect a much better campaign after last year’s struggles, but few would have seen this excellent start coming.
Eyebrows have been raised all across the league so far. The early table-toppers are Eintracht Braunschweig. The only team still with a 100% record, Braunschweig’s victories have come in impressive fashion, defeating Köln, before a good performance at Union Berlin and a home win against SC Paderborn, a team who are also looking strong. Promoted last year and finishing in a solid 8th place, the primary objective for the new season for Braunschweig will have been avoiding relegation. Retaining the talented likes of Dennis Kruppke and Dominick Kumbela was a huge bonus for them in the summer, but this start will also have gone against expectations. Can Braunschweig continue their progress, upsetting the odds to push for promotion?
If the club from Lower Saxony don’t manage to maintain their fine start, who will be challenging at the top of the league? While there have been a few indications as to which clubs look fairly strong, early results notwithstanding, it’s hard to tell at this point who the main promotion contenders will be. None of the relegated sides from last year’s Bundesliga have made an especially good start. As well as Köln’s dreadful opening, Hertha BSC have endured a tough few weeks. A hard-fought first win last week against Jahn Regensburg followed a late draw at home to Paderborn and a defeat at FSV Frankfurt. After much transfer activity in the summer, both in and out, Hertha may take their time to gel under new coach Jos Luhukay, hence their stuttering start. But given the strength of their squad, anything other than a promotion challenge would be a disappointment for die Alte Dame. Kaiserslautern, meanwhile, are unbeaten, having been involved in a thrilling 3-3 draw against Union Berlin on the opening day. Both Kaiserslautern and Hertha have been badly exposed defensively in the early weeks of the campaign.
As for the promoted clubs, in keeping with the early surprises, VfR Aalen and SV Sandhausen find themselves in the top 5 of the table. Interestingly, the two sides have brought opposing styles up with them. Aalen enjoyed a rampant debut, trouncing MSV Duisburg 4-1 away from home on the opening day, and producing a thrilling performance of passing and counter attacking to shock the hosts. Sandhausen, meanwhile, led by the methodical coach Gerd Dais, base their game around tactical discipline and safety first. But their attritional style means they will be difficult to beat, as Köln and Union Berlin have already discovered.
There is another side to this league’s early unpredictability than just the early league positions. The other is the continued inconsistency of many of the sides within the division, something else for which the league is building itself a reputation for. VfL Bochum’s start provides an extreme snapshot into this trend. They were one of the most impressive sides on match day one, dispatching a Dynamo Dresden side who also played well. The 2-1 victory involved a dominant second-half performance, showcased a lively and creative midfield and, most promisingly, an exciting attacking force of Alexander Iashvili and Zlatko Dedic which has great potential. A week later, however, Bochum were abject, thrashed 4-0 at Paderborn, and then suffered another defeat at newly promoted Aalen. Similarly, FC Ingolstadt, tipped by some as a potential dark horse after a summer of investment, showed signs of promise in their opening two fixtures before a surprise defeat at home to FSV Frankfurt, who unexpectedly find themselves in third place at present.
A mad first few weeks is not necessarily a precursor to the entire season. As the dust settles, the true strengths and weaknesses of the 18 teams in this division will be fully tested and evaluated, and the table will probably start to take a more familiar shape. By this time, we will be able to gauge the promotion contenders, relegation battlers and, sure enough, the wildly inconsistent ones in between. For now, at least, fans of the 2. Bundesliga will continue to expect the unexpected.
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