April 23, 2017

MMCB 22: Who wants to go on a Europapokal anyway?

For a moment, it seemed as if the top six clubs in the table were simply going to float away from the lower twelve and sort the Champions League and European spots among themselves.

And while the names among the top six have yet to change, the gap between those clubs sitting in European spots and their would-be usurpers has gotten again tight enough to say the race is far from decided.

Places one and two are all but settled. Bayern ran away with the title before Christmas. Despite what the Kevin DeBruyne’s of the world think, there will be no challenger.

But it’s not the fault of KDB’S side, who are looking very, very dangerous at the moment. It’s more that FC Buy’em has a huge lead and is unlikely to face a team as highly motivated and talented as the Wolfsburg side that beat them at the start of the Rückrunde. As KDB’s boss, Klaus Allofs, has said, the VfL is playing to secure a Champions League spot, which they’ve virtually done.

It’s those next four clubs — Schalke, Augsburg, Mönchengladbach, and Leverkusen — who are keeping things interesting by letting the pack make up some lost ground. Over the last three match days, while the top two collectively dropped zero points, the next four clubs collectively won two matches. That’s no way to present yourself as a contender.

Meanwhile, there is action coming from below, particularly from a well-known European regular having an infamously bad season, and another club whose short-lived Europa League run this season probably portented the coaching change made last week.

Let’s start with those, shall we?

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear

It’s easy enough to temper the excitement over Borussia Dortmund’s three-match winning streak that has probably assured they’ll not again hold the Rote Laterne anytime soon.

The run started with an 0:3 at Freiburg, against whom the BVB generally has their way, even when the SCF are not experiencing their own struggles.

The home win over Mainz the following Friday had a feel of catharsis, but Mainz had been struggling for a long while, and coach Kaspar Hjulmund was shown the door in the wake ot the FSV turning an early 0:1 advantage at Signal Iduna into a 4:2 win for the BVB.

A second-consecutive Friday night match saw Dortmund continue the misery of last-place Stuttgart, who had not scored at home their prior six matches. The penalty surrendered to give the VfB the chance to break that dry spell should have also seen the home side take a personnel advantage, but as poorly as Stuttgart defended, it’d be difficult to say that the erroneously not-given red card would have put the brakes on BVB.

The thing is, though, that the Hinrunde version of Dortmund found ways to lose those matches. You can’t be too psyched about the way they conceded that late goal off a corner in Stuttgart to make it 2:3 at the end, but most concerned are not yet ready to worry about the goal differential just yet. The point column is the only concern right now . . . aside from the fact the hot streak goes on the line against hated rival Schalke Saturday in the Revierderby.

Extend the win streak at home against Schalke, and now you’ve beaten a strong (if not completely on-fire) opponent in your run. Draw and keep let the run slide to an “unbeaten streak,” and you can live with it, assuming you don’t blow a lead in the dying minutes. Lose? Well, that might not quite signal that the major problems remain, but it would be a bit of a buzz-kill, wouldn’t it?

Slightly less buzzy is the one-week turnabout helmed by new Mainz boss Martin Schmidt.

You don’t want to overreact to a single result, but Schmidt’s presence already has people referring to him as being “like a 12th player on the field” and “Thomas Tuchel-like.”

Whatever his mojo has been over a single week, the results from it could not have been more well-timed. With Dortmund, Mainz was among the only two clubs in the table’s very close bottom half to produce victory over the weekend, which took Mainz and Dortmund from 14th and 15th, respectively, to eleventh and twelfth, respectively.

Dortmund had been struggling at the bottom for nearly the entire season and had been trending upwards. Mainz started the season with an eight-match unbeaten run, but followed that with a nine-match run without a win to head straight toward the bottom. Mainz started the year strong with a 0:5 at Paderborn, but took just one point from Hjulmund’s final three matches.

Mainz would seem to have enough talent to be at least a mid-table side. Hearing Schmidt at press conferences before the match made him seem a compelling choice; the results on the pitch seemed to confirm that. Mainz were simply quite good in outgunning Eintracht Frankfurt 3:1, even having surrendered the opening score.

Seeing Schmidt connecting with his clearly proud father in the stands after the match, you had to feel good the guy.

See also the sensational free kick goal Johannes Geis used to give Mainz their first lead. The Bundesliga YouTube channel didn’t have it among their top five of the week and are assuring that no video of it exists on Vine or YouTube, but it was a delightful direct attempt from an awkward angle.

Ah, someday . . . we shall all be free to enjoy the entire palate of pleasure the Bundesliga provides . . . even legally!

Free to Good Homes: European Spots

There’s a river born to be a giver
Keep you warm, won’t let you shiver
His heart is never gonna wither
Come on everybody time to deliver

Referencing the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ classic (Damned right I said ‘classic’!) “Give it Away” might be a bit much for what the aforementioned flailing quartet in the European positions have been doing recently, but they’re at least opening the door to disaster by limping through February.

Now, there was no way both Bayer Leverkusen and FC Augsburg were going to win over the weekend, seeing as they faced one another, but the road point for die Werkself has to feel more like a gut-punch loss, with the deciding goal of the 2:2 draw come via a pirouetting Marwin Hitz, the Augsburg keeper who’d come up for a corner piece four minutes into added time.

It was probably the moment of the match day, unless you’re among the Leverkusen faithful who probably felt good about the end of the brief losing streak when Stefan Reinartz delivering the lead in the 84th minute.

Hitz’s memorable moment not only offset a few dodgy moments in his first match back from injury, but turned what would normally be an acceptable result (road draw at a club above you in the table) into a bitter pill.

Poor Bayer fans!

Eric, by the way, is a member of the must-listen Neverkusen Podcast. If you dabble in the Bayer football, you should probably click that link if you’ve not already done so.

Hitz also was inspired by his momentous goal to drink, saying with a wide grin seemingly cemented onto his face, that though there were no incentive in his contract for scoring goals, he would nonetheless celebrate . . . by opening a bottle of red wine with his wife.

Perma-grin . . . how I look AFTER a bottle of red, not before!

Again, FC Augsburg brings you the sort of off-pitch look at club football you can’t help but cheer.

Really, it is hard to say anything negative about an underdog side like the FCA when they’re patrolling top-six territory rather than the relegation zone, where many people had them headed before the season started.

Yet, the three matches since the heavily celebrated win at Dortmund have brought FCA the fewest points from any three-match stretch this season, and getting even that second point required the aforementioned last-gasp goal from their keeper.

Augsburg do not quite look as if they are fading, but if they want a chance to see whether their sustainability model can survive a season in Europe, they’re going to want to prove something in Berlin Saturday against a struggling but desperate Hertha BSC. Otherwise, surging Hoffenheim and Bremen may be soon be standing on their front porch with bad intentions.

Both Schalke and Mönchengladbach also had their weekend contests flipped on late goals, also with each club coming away feeling slightly differently about how those matches ended.

Schalke is definitely looking at having dropped two points when Werder Bremen defender Sebastian Prödl found a Zlatko Junuzovic free kick with his head and put it over the challenge of young keeper Timo Wellenreuther for an added-time equalizer.

With as hot has Bremen was coming into the match, a 1:1 might seem respectable; nobody else had taken even a point off Werder. Even so, Roberto diMatteo has organized his operation to be the type to defend a one-goal lead to the death, which is why the Royal Blues are feeling a bit deflated with little time to rue the result with rejuvenated Dortmund awaiting them this weekend in the hotly anticipated derby.

Mönchengladbach was coming off a dramatic three-pointer in their derby with Köln last weekend, but was unable to use the emotion to springboard into a strong showing at Hamburger SV, instead going without a goal for a full 90 minutes for the fourth-consecutive match (counting their midweek 1:0 at Sevilla FC in Europa League).

But, like last weekend when Granit Xhaka delivered in extra time, die Fohlen got some late magic, this time from Branimir Hrgota, to snatch a point in a 1:1 affair at Imtech Arena. The point allowed ‘Gladbach to maintain their two-point gap above Schalke and Augsburg in third place, but considering the HSV’s struggles, the result necessarily highlights a failure of a well-armed offense to take charge of the race for the last guaranteed Champions League group spot.

Then again . . .

It’s not as if the teams just below the top six are feasting on the opportunity to play catch-up.

We all knew Bremen wasn’t going to simply win every match they played, and they did well to get a point from a defensive Schalke side despite falling behind. Their first dropped points of the season did not remotely indicate that Werder has gone from lower-table scuffler to legitimate threat to a European spot. Their new-found mettle and seven-match unbeaten home run will get its sternest test the next two weeks with Wolfsburg and Bayern coming to town, but as the no-longer-new coach who’s overseen the run recently noted, they are “young enough to be optimistic.”

Don’t bet against Bremen for the time being.

Hoffenheim is also right there with Bremen at 30 points, just three behind the struggling Werkself, but have taken just four points in 2015, with the fourth coming Saturday from a 1:1 at SC Freiburg.

Markus Weinzier’s side dropped three consecutive to open the year. An added-time goal last weekend (Yeah, they come in drove! How do you not love this league?!) lifted them to a home win in Stuttgart, but their goal-differential edge over Bremen remains more the result of that season-opening run of nine without a loss than of any look of danger they’ve shown this year.

The puzzling thing for Hoffenheim has to remain the 3:0 in Wolfsburg two weeks ago. In many measures, they outplayed the red-hot Wolves on their own turf, but the VfL converted at high rate, while the many TSG chances led to a goose egg on the scoreboard. The talent and ability remains much like the club’s table positioning, a lingering presence that does not feel like the threat it might otherwise.

But you shouldn’t ever underestimate them, when they have guys like Kevin Volland who are fully capable of things like this.

Speaking of non-threatening . . .

My god, Stuttgart, you’re terrible. Please do not blame the coach this time. This collection of players has been consistently bad, regardless of who has been steering the ship. Granted, the defense looked really, really poor Friday night with Dortmund dancing through it somewhat unchecked, but is that really new under Huub Stevens?

Then again . . . Robin Dutt . . . Good luck!

Same for you, Hertha BSC. I don’t know if Pal Dardai has the goods or not, but we can all see that Thomas Kraft is the only player on that roster (well, maybe Julian Schieber) keeping this from having been a season of abject misery. Look at the turnaround in form of Valentin Stocker, though, to see that maybe Dardai could eventually do something. There may not be enough here to get out of this situation anytime soon, but take a good inventory of what’s going on there in Berlin before you do anything rash, okay?

And Paderborn . . . we all know you are a small, newly promoted side, and we all know that a visit from Bayern is often just a day of sacrifice to the tiki-taka gods (I know that Bayern pundits LOVE when you mention tiki-taka with this club . . .), but could you maybe pretend you’re in it to win it? Even just for the sake of dignity?

Coach Andre Breitenreiter went into the match with a “hey, if we don’t take ourselves too seriously, maybe something magical can happen” attitude and then left it with a “Wow! What an honor to be allowed to take a complete ass-whipping from such a great team! Thank you, Pep! Thank you!”

Now, if this was Breitenreiter being a complete smart-ass in pointing out the absurdity of the disparity between the well-moneyed and the more-traditionally financed clubs, then I fully salute this conduct. Basically saying that clubs like Bayern don’t deign to actually compete with clubs like Paderborn can also be seen as a giant Stinkfinger to the wealth gap and those who use it to beat all opposition into submission.

If Breitenreiter was 100% without irony . . . maybe like the fans who stayed singing in the stands until the lights were turned out on them . . . then it’s just embarrassing, unless it somehow allows your players to not allow the 0:6 pasting to undo the work done to keep the SCP out of the bottom three all season. With Hertha BSC and SC Freiburg within easy striking distance and consecutive matches against top-six clubs coming, we’ll see pretty quickly how that works out.

But, you know . . . it’s not like you’re an Oscar nominee that just heard you didn’t win the award nobody expected you to win. You earned your place in the league. Act like you belong?

Not threatening to ever again take three points from a home match is 1. FC Köln. Only due to Stuttgart’s overwhelming ineptitude is Köln’s eleven-match home record of one win and five goals not the league’s worst.

Granted, the Billy Goats did score a goal to equalize an early score by Hannover’s Joselu, but with the road trip to Bavaria coming Friday, Köln can’t be too excited about being undefeated in 2015, especially with Dortmund and Mainz both leap-frogging them in the table. Even worse, Köln fans found themselves rooting for Mönchengladbach Sunday to keep Hamburger SV from also pulling in front of their club in the table.

If that doesn’t signal some sort of desperation in the Cathedral City . . .

Obligatory Bayern update . . . plus Bas Dost

They scored six and surrendered zero sending Erfolgsfans into giddy glee while pointing fingers and laughing at fans of lesser clubs.

14 goals to none the last two weekends. You want more, look around. No German club gets half the virtual ink that Bayern does. I’ve done my bit.

Slightly less boring is VfL Wolfsburg. The Wolves won again, this time 2:1 over Hertha BSC, making it five wins from their last six, reaching back into the Hinrunde. The Volkswagen macrobus is putting distance between themselves and the rest of the league, much as Bayern did earlier in the season, but because the gap is so large, it similarly lacks drama.

Not so the story of Bas Dost, though.

The lanky Dutch striker struck again . . . twice . . . to give the once-forgotten man a tally of nine goals and one deadly reputation in 2015.

If he’s honest, Dost will note that he’s getting some outstanding help via the efforts of deBruyne and newly arrived Andre Schürrle, but Dost should also feel free to honk his own horn, too. Goals are goals, plus his 74th minute game-winner came because he continued to run and follow play when BSC defender Jens Heleger did not. Finishing touch is one thing that is often in short supply, so you don’t look down on that, but when  you see Dost being as active and attentive as he’s been, you have to wonder what was going on when he was largely an afterthought the first fourteen match days of the season.

I would apologize for putting the big boys last, except I’m not even a little sorry. Y’all get plenty of coverage all over the place. This space here is all about my love for the broader narratives of the Bundesliga.

But, here, I’ll give you video of Bayern doing the slap-and-tickle in yet another waltz through the park. Happy?

Peace!

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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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