Monday Morning Center Back: Bundesliga is Back! Match day 18 in review.

We are not all going to overreact to the small sample size of a single match day just because it was our first Bundesliga action in . . . what? six weeks? . . . are we?

It’s natural to want to read things into the first weekend back from winter break so as to be able to project how things will go over the final months, but “deviation from” and “reversion to” the norm are known phenomena for good reason. We may very well be seeing the surge of VfL Wolfsburg into a serious regular challenger to Champions League placement, the rebirth of Werder Bremen under the continued tutelage of Viktor Skripnik, or the long-awaited collapse of SC Paderborn, but none of them were born of winter training, transfers, and return to action. If those items turn out to be truths, they have been germinating for a while and are far from done developing.

In other words, the sudden return of our beloved league makes everything seem so bright and big and wonderful, but, when you take a step back, you have to recognize that you’ve been here before! You’ve overreacted to any single match day for your club and were sure you knew things had never been better or that disaster was on its way. You may even have been right one of those times, but more often, you likely were not.

So, Bayern is not going from being a team that surrenders four goals per half-season to one that surrenders four per match. Augsburg is not on their way to Champions League. Hertha is not again beginning one of their infamous second-half collapses, etc., etc. . .

Unless they are, of course, but we won’t know until we know.

But, something we already DO know is that the sports realm is no place for sober reality. We love to get lost in the enthusiasm of the whole thing. We ARE Fanatics, for crying out loud!

What was that, then?

“Congratulations to Wolfsburg. My compliments to Wolfsburg. They did it very well, and we did not.”

When you get dump-trucked 4-1 and yet maintain an eight-point lead in the table on the team that did the dump-trucking, you can probably afford to be Arejen Robben-level pithy about your club’s poor performance, not only because you have that lead, but also because Arjen Robben knew when delivering his post-match commentary that Bayern virtually never plays badly.

But we can say that when they do look out of sorts, they look VERY out of sorts.

Even after seeing all the baffled looks on Bayern players’ faces as Wolfsburg continually got behind the defense, though, would you want to be in Schalke’s shoes right now, headed to Allianz Arena as the first post-loss opponent?

This isn’t quite like last season when Bayern took the foot off the gas and were unable to again find a way to accelerate. This was more a wake-up style beat-down delivered at the hands of a capable opponent building in self-esteem. If VfL Wolfsburg were even a little shy about taking on almighty Bayern, that was obliterated completely by Friday night’s finish.

Even so, Wolfsburg knows their place when it comes to the Bundesliga title race.

“We’re not now beginning to dream about the championship,” said Klaus Allofs after the decisive victory. “We are dreaming of Champions League.”

“That is proper.”

Allofs knows that even a perfect Rückrunde would likely not be enough to catch Bayern, and, if it turned out that it might be and Wolfsburg somehow has become that level of juggernaut, then those expectations can be adjusted at the appropriate time.

That time has clearly not yet arrived.

Too bad it’s an English week and Bayern fans don’t have to sit and stew for a full week. Then again, if Schalke can manage even a point . . .

Ha! Fooled ya! Don’t get sucked in, alright?

Was Wolfsburg boosted by a “win a big one for Junior Malanda” team spirit? Maybe, but that aside, Kevin DeBruyne provided a nice reminder or first notice to everyone out there that he is having a very special season. You also got to see that Naldo is more than a goal-scorer as a defender. Rather, the newly minted German citizen has a fair set of defensive skills at his feet, as well.

If you didn’t realize before now that this year’s Wolfsburg side was pretty good, then you know now. If Bayern weren’t such a historic side, they might even be running the league right now. That they just added Andre Schürrle at the transfer deadline would seem to indicate that while Allofs may not be eyeballing the current season title, he’s building the VfL into a challenger of the future.

But, count on Bayern to soon remind everyone why the league title has been out of reach for a few years now . . . or does an utter collapse and a disposal of Pep seem more likely?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

More Explosive Returns

If you knew three clubs would each score four goals or more over the weekend, I doubt anyone would have had Wolfsburg among them, but would many more have picked SC Freiburg and FSV Mainz 05 as the other two?

Even if you pointed out to me that you based your consideration on Thomas Schaaf’s Eintracht Frankfurt being precisely the sort of squad to surrender goals by the bucket . . . even if you are President of a Nils Petersen fan club, who believes fully that Petersen will always manage a hat trick, I wouldn’t believe you had the SCF pegged to get the four goals they scored en route to a 4:1 pounding of Frankfurt.

Because, no matter how explain it, it’s just too ridiculous.

Freiburg had just eight goals from eight home matches heading into Saturday’s return from winter break, and Frankfurt, while defensively questionable, hadn’t allowed more than three away from home, even to much better offenses than the one they were to face at Schwarzwald-Stadion.

But is it somehow possible that the Breisgau Brazilians are again launching a significant improvement from first half of the season to the second?

Sure, that’s reasonable. After a 14-point Hinrunde in the 2013-14 season, Freiburg compiled 22 points in the final 17 matches to remain just out of reach of the relegation fight.

Christian Streich has seemed to be able to get just enough out of what he has available to him. The arrival of Petersen, a striker, provides Streich additional options in attack, where he’d been forced to use left-wing Mike Frantz with Admir Mehmedi not yet showing his form of last season which led to Freiburg making him their all-time biggest purchase to make his loan permanent.

Streich is the last person who will confuse Petersen’s hat trick for a sign that he’s going to be a reliable goal source, but even the possibility of pairing Petersen with Mehmedi, while moving Frantz back to the left side, allowing Jonathan Schmid to go back to his favored right side . . . well, things would look a lot less patchwork.

Of course, the bugaboo for Freiburg has been the concession of last-minute equalizers. Whether Streich has found a resolution for that remains to be tested.

You wouldn’t think of Mainz has having been quite as troubled as Freiburg on the offensive front, but they’d actually managed one fewer goal from their first eight home matches (7) than had Freiburg. Mainz had also arrived to their home match with SC Paderborn on a run of nine matches without taking all three points.

Yet, Mainz got two from Yunus Malli while also keeping Paderborn off the score sheet entirely en route to a 5:0 spanking.

Mainz fans will, of course, be happy to have shed the winless streak, but maybe more crucial for Kaspar Hjulmund’s squad is the promise of a scoring threat beyond Shinji Okazaki.

The FSV’s Japanese striker had been the single clear threat for Mainz, but his name is as absent from the scoring credits as anyone from Paderborn’s side of the ledger. Rather, it was Malli and Pablo de Blasis doing most of the heavy lifting, with the duo teaming-up on each of their club’s first three goals. Sami Allagui got in on the action by heading home a great Pierre Bengtsson free kick and then forcing a dangerous tackle out of Stefan Aigner to put Johannes Geis at the spot to cap the scoring.

Meanwhile, Paderborn . . . look out below!

Breitenreiter’s guys didn’t remotely resemble the bunch who sat atop the table early in the season, going unbeaten in their first four, with clean sheets in three of them. They are now on a run of eight matches without a victory and appear to be on the verge of being sucked into the thick of the relegation battle.

The last time Paderborn took such a beating, losing 4:0 at Bremen, Breitenreiter thought some of his players had gotten a bit too big for their britches, maybe forgetting they were still underdogs. They responded a pair of draws to Freiburg and Wolfsburg. With the league’s worst offense next up with Hamburger SV coming to Benteler Arena Wednesday, Paderborn may be facing a critical chance to get things righted.

Same ol’ Dortmund?

Are we really at a point with Borussia Dortmund where we have to speak of the moral victory of getting a point at Bayer Leverkusen?

The single point was not enough to keep the BVB from again taking possession of the red lantern as the 18th placed club.

Battling a team as offensively tough as Leverkusen to a scoreless draw will go down as a positive only if the Black-and-Yellows can consistently collect points from their next four opponents (Augsburg, Freiburg, Mainz, and Stuttgart) and build positive momentum going into the rivalry battle with Schalke at the end of February.

What hasn’t changed for Jürgen Klopp is the need to juggle personnel due to injury. Lukasz Piszcek and Ilkay Güngogan will both be unavailable for Wednesday’s home match with FC Augsburg due to thigh issues. Jakub Blaszczykowki, who has been ill, appears also to be a non-factor for the mid-week match.

Klopp should have Erik Durm, Shinji Kagawa, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at his disposal, however, to go with the confidence of facing one of the only two clubs to allow Dortmund more than two goals in the Hinrunde . . . until you remember that Markus Weinzierl’s club is having a club-record season, having just knocked off Hoffenheim 3:1 in their continued assault on the European spots in the table.

Augsburg has ten wins already. They do not draw. Don’t even think about trying to draw with the FCA. They’re an all or nothing sort of squad this season, and generally they take “all.” Only Bayern and Wolfsburg (you’ve heard about their remarkable seasons, have you not?), have more victories.

I’m not going to sit here and fawn all over Augsburg and Weinzierl and how they’ve seemingly done everything in a respectable way to move from relegation-fight regulars to surprise European threats.

I will say that I do have some fear of Augsburg making it to a mid-week competition before their bank account is quite ready for it. They’ve already been victimized by squad-raising from bigger clubs. If they continue the way they have been, it could be not only players but the head coach who will suddenly have truckloads of money backing up to his front door in an attempt to lure him to a more-prestigious job. Even without such problems, the additional matches and split focus can cause problems for any club.

And we all want Augsburg to stick around a while, don’t we? It’s refreshing to see a club managing their resources wisely and finding a measure of success, especially as the bigger clubs with more-famous histories and larger bankrolls mismanage their way into competitive problems. Augsburg is good for the soul.

Two Champions League Slots, Four Clubs

I’m going to go ahead and set aside the top two places in the table for the clubs I expect will maintain them from now until season’s end. I’ve been calling the title race over for Bayern for a while now, and Wolfsburg’s death-grip on second place doesn’t seem under any more threat than is Bayern’s on first.

After that, though, things are really interesting.

Leverkusen spent winter in third place, but plunged to sixth after the clubs seated in spots four, five, and six each won their Rückrunde openers and used the three points to leapfrog Bayer and their single point from match day 18.

Augsburg is the party-crasher here. They nearly got into the European race last season, but they were one of three clubs level on 27 points at the mid-way point of the season. Their Sunday victory helped them move into fifth.

Borussia Mönchengladbach became the latest to overtake third place, riding a Max Kruse goal and a bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort to a 0:1 win in Stuttgart. Die Fohlen have spent eleven match days in the top four and have managed the task while also capably juggling Europa League duties. Lucien Favre seems to have his club ready for the next step.

FC Schalke, while Champions League regulars, emerge into the top four for the first time all season, having recovered from yet another slow start. The 1:0 win over Hannover was far from spectacular, but they managed to do it with their back-up keeper Fabian Giefer, who showed he was ready for the task.

Geifer will have to do it again Tuesday in München, with usual number one Ralf Fährmann not expected back until the weekend.

Not coming back for a little while is primary goal-source Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who received a six-match ban for his needless tackling-from-behind of Manuel Schmiedebach.

Schalke still has Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, so they’re not without goal-scoring options, but EMCM and the Hunter are a formidable pair of offensive weapons. Nobody else on the Royal Blues’ roster has more than two goals, so the next month-point-five might be a good time for a new hero to emerge in Gelsenkirchen, lest Roberto DiMatteo see his squad’s fortunes trend back the other way. (Paging Max Meyer!)

Two Ships Passing in Opposite Directions

We should probably exercise caution in assessing Werder Bremen right now. They did finish the Hinrunde in spectacular fashion by beating Dortmund at home. And while they looked impressive in their 2:0 Rückrunde opening victory over Hertha BSC, the bigger story from that match might necessarily be that the Berlin side is about to launch yet another second-half collapse.

Hertha has been pretty poor for a while now, though, so it should not be too surprising they have become just the second Bundesliga side to compile double-digit losses (Dortmund being the first). Jos Luhukay’s squad have now conceded nine goals since they last scored. They are maybe a Herculean effort from Thomas Kraft and another few minutes for Alex Meier from being on a six match losing streak.

Werder, on the other hand, got a brace from Franco DiSanto to extend their unbeaten home run under the Skripniker to five and reach the 20-point mark just one match past the half-way point.

Hertha has yet to dip into the bottom three in the table, while Werder had spent 12 of the past 13 match days down there.

Bremen can probably be cautiously optimistic about their survival chances, or at least in the knowledge they have a team that can scrap to avoid it, but Hertha fans are probably very alarmed right now as they see the table bottom rushing up at them from below.

And for good reason.

Homer Corner

The 1. FC Köln arrived in Hamburg Saturday without any new additions to their squad, despite negotiations with Rubin Kazan over Carlos Eduardo and having brought Philipp Hosiner all the way to the Domstadt for a physical. In fact, the Billy Goats were down a man after striker Simon Zoller requested, and was granted, a loan back to 1. FC Kaiserslautern until the end of the season.

Slawomir Peszko emerged as the big winner of winter preparations and made a start for Köln against the HSV. Their hosts countered with Ivica Olic, who had returned to his former club as a veteran solution to their goal-scoring issues.

Hamburg ended the match with the same number of goals as it had entered, though, as Marcel Risse did all the scoring in Köln’s 0:2 victory, keeping them the second-best club in the away table and further building a case for maintaining their spot in the league.

Sporting director Jörg Schmadtke did eventually acquire Brazilian striker Deyverson to replace Zoller in the squad, but the search for a true 10 yielded no results.

This will not stop Köln fans from looking up at the European spots in the table rather than down at the relegation battle, because that’s how the EffZeh fans roll after a victory.

By the way, did we mention that we won the inaugural Florida Cup? There are 18 clubs in the Bundesliga, but only one to have secured a title in 2015.

Come on EffZeh!

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.

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