What has following Borussia Mönchengladbach been like of late? Well, as they say, when it rains, it pours. That’s if the cliché had a more positive equivalent obviously; the club have raced into the Champions League spots thanks to the incredible job done both on and off the pitch by pretty much everyone involved with the club in recent years, off the back of some seriously impressive form since the turn of the year and some incredible scalps too. It’s nothing new – Favre’s men have impressed almost non-stop for four years, and for some of the league’s relegation-stricken clubs, Lucien Favre’s men might even be a bit of a beacon of hope for the future, given that their incredible story really began with those late-season heroics way back in 2011.
However, that’s history. What about the past few weeks, prior to Gladbach’s smash and grab against Leverkusen Saturday? A relatively drab stalemate in Frankfurt – the first goalless draw Eintracht coach Thomas Schaaf had been involved in since sliced bread, according to most reports – may have left a slightly sour taste in the mouth of Foals across the realm, as their side were somewhat outplayed by a team who, had they not missed their top scorer Alex Meier, might have managed to trouble Yann Sommer, but since then there’s been zero room for complaint. A last-gasp win against Wolfsburg, which featured Max Kruse’s first goal from open play since that drubbing of Hannover in October, set the tone for more to come, as Borussia secured their spot in the Champions League and began to push their arms race with Bayer Leverkusen for third place, and thus automatic qualification for the group stages, right to the wire.
The win over Wolfsburg was potentially one of the most masterful performances of the season, as an attack which had at times been free-scoring earlier in 2015 were limited to a handful of half chances for the creative force of Kevin De Bruyne and, erm, Nicklas Bendtner. Other than that, the traffic virtually travelled all one way as die Fohlen pushed, pressed and pried for a winner. The usual suspects proved vital – a Borussia win without a lung-bursting run from Patrick Herrmann, a series of swooping passes from Granit Xhaka, and a collective of tricky touches from Raffael isn’t really a Borussia win, these days – and Max Kruse may have a lot of explaining to do to future colleagues if he indeed signs for that day’s opponents, especially if Wolfsburg contrive to present Borussia with a second placed-finish. It could happen.
Why? Well, Gladbach didn’t stop there. Late heroics were the name of the game again in Berlin, as Ibrahima Traore’s curled strike finally beat Thomas Kraft in the Hertha BSC goal after 84 minutes of a frustrating game of football. While the nature of the win was nowhere near as dramatic, the Foals would likely have dropped points in a similar game a few years ago – probably even last season – having thrown away an early lead almost as soon as it was opened. Kruse netted his second goal in about fifteen minutes of football (and that’s even counting the injury time against Wolfsburg), before Valentin Stocker bundled home for the host. The fortitude will serve the team well next season, whether in the top-of-the-table clashes they’ve enjoyed so much this season, in the far-flung stadia of Europe, or, barring another disaster in the cup next season, in cup competition. In fact, the game served almost as a reminder of how nice it is to win in Berlin in May. Curses, Bielefeld!
Pal Dardai’s Hertha are a good outfit, hardworking off the ball and assured on it, and one would quite reasonably assume they’ll stave off relegation this season, even if mathematically a return to the 2. Bundesliga is still a possibility. However, it’s also quite reasonable to assume that Borussia would turn over an outfit not quite as talented as them, given the form the team are in at present. The real test – the game, indeed, which would prove Favre’s men’s credentials for third – was still to come, and so, on Saturday, die Fohlen hosted Bayer Leverkusen at Borussia Park.
A bit of background. Borussia hadn’t beaten their guests at home since 1989, with probably the lowest point in clashes between the sides coming in 1998 with an 8-2 drubbing at the old Bökelberg. The club’s Twitter accounts enjoyed a brief sparring session in the run up to the game, with neither the clear winner in cyber-space. And it’s almost needless to say that Leverkusen are not exactly a favoured opposition for die Fohlen, and with Leverkusen coming off of a magnificent 2-0 win over Bayern’s kids last week, Borussia’s long unbeaten run – stretching back in the league to early February and that loss to Schalke – was probably about to meet its biggest test in a while.
Fortunately, Borussia did what they do best in big games and created acres of space on the break in which to damage Leverkusen, and probably should have found themselves a few goals up at half time, had Max Kruse or Patrick Herrmann found their shooting boots before the interval. It must be said that Leverkusen weren’t exactly docile – they were one of the more dangerous outfits to turn up at Borussia Park in a while, and the likes of Calhanoglu, Bellarabi and Son are always menacing to defences – but for vast swathes of the game, Borussia looked the better team and the creation of chances tended to come from players in white rather than red.
Kruse applied a neat finish to a Herrmann cross after the break – something of a theme recently, one may posit – before Herrmann smashed home the decider with roughly ten minutes left, with his final touch of the game. His replacement, Ibrahima Traore, proved that he’s aware where the goal is – scoring another impressive curling effort in the latter minutes of the game – as die Fohlen secured a drubbing over an Angstgegner. Every series reaches its end, and as the clubs later noted on Twitter in a slightly less banterous exchange, Borussia were good value for their win.
And that puts us where we are now. Third. Two points from the remaining two fixtures are all that’s required to confirm the ridiculously large achievement of Champions League group stage football next year – the first time that’ll have happened since 1978 – and if Wolfsburg drop points again there’s a reasonable chance that die Fohlen could finish close to a title-winning Bayern for the first time in a similarly long time. If that happens, Eberl and Favre should probably be unanimously deified by all religions. For the next couple of weeks, the Borussia faithful will have to do.
On a final note, what of the themes interlinking the past few weeks from a Borussia perspective? Well, it appears that Favre’s coming close to finding his favoured eleven – with a very consistent team appearing over recent weeks, including Johnson and Herrmann on the flanks – but this has largely been constrained by injury to Martin Stranzl (out for the season) and Alvaro Dominguez (out for a bit). Seeing as two stalwarts – Christoph Kramer and Max Kruse – are seemingly off after two more appearances in the kit of Borussia, this probably isn’t that important, but finally being able to settle into the rhythm of playing with a similar team every game – rather than seeing five or six rotations – has certainly helped in the tougher games recently. Other than that, it’s as you were: Xhaka ready for war, Raffael good as before, Kruse certain to score. Perfect.