August 23, 2017

MMCB: VfL Wolfsburg Emerges as Last Unbeaten in 2015

Sidebar: I don’t know if it’s even allowed to start with a sidebar, but I’m going to do it anyhow and ask that you pretend I have awesome photo-editing skills and put Bas Dost’s face on Connor MacLeod’s in the header of this story.

Another Sidebar: If you haven’t seen Highlander, some of the references to it and its theme, as sung by Queen are going to be lost on you, but that’s your fault for not having caught up on a classic cult flick.

“Here we are, born to be kings, Princes of the universe!”

There can be only one.

Depending on your perspective, that one is VfL Wolfsburg, which used a trio of second-half goals to overcome Werder Bremen in a battle of the Rückrunde’s last unbeaten teams, handing their host what was also their first loss at home in the Viktor Skripnik era.

And, like pretty much all of Wolfsburg’s matches of late, there were plenty of opportunity for shouting what is perhaps the Bundesliga’s best name for shouting . . . BAS DOST!

Dost’s brace consisted of the equalizer and the eventual game winner in the 3:5 thriller, giving the lanky Dutch striker now 13 goals on the season, which would be impressive enough a mark at match day 23, but when you note that he’s achieved it in just twelve appearances, you realize Dieter Hecking has found something special at Wolfsburg.

Although Dost is getting the face time as the goal scorer in his club’s surge, the bulk of the praise for the rise of the Wolves continues to rightfully be thrown the direction of Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian Red Devil has been in scorching form for most of the season, tallying eight goals of his own and assisting on another 15 to date. His boy-ish looks obscure the bad intentions of a stone-cold midfield assassin.

All due credit to Dost for finishing enough of his well-served chances to emerge as the insane scoring threat Wolfsburg had thought they’d purchased from SC Heerenveen in the summer 2012 window, but the balls delivered by de Bruyne and now also Andre Schürrle deserve some share of the credit. Still . . . the smaller guys may be setting him up in brilliant fashion, but the big man is knocking them down at a record pace. Were it so easy, surely someone else would have done it by now. As it stands, nobody has ever scored goals in the Bundesliga at such a rapid pace, as Dost’s torrid streak has now outpaced even that of the great Claudio Pizarro! The Peruvian goal-scorer snagged ten goals for Bayern last year in just 684 minutes, largely as a substitute. Dost has 13 goals in 819 minutes, which is one every 63 minutes on average.

Which is crazy.

Speaking of frenetic pacing, it took de Bruyne all of three minutes to give Dost two must-score opportunities to flip a 3:2 halftime deficit on it’s head. Then Dost got in on the act by lifting the ball over Raphael Wolf’s challenge and into the path of Daniel Caligiuri, who had little work to provide the final margin.

It was a spectacular match in which the resurgent Werder side was simply overwhelmed by individual brilliance and maybe served as reminder just how incredible a job Skripnik has done since taking over. He converted a side that struggled on both ends of the pitch into one of the stronger looking teams since Christmas. Being bettered by a red-hot Wolfsburg side does nothing to diminish Werder’s challenge to European placement, and the fact that such a thing is even in play after the awful start to their campaign is all you need to know right now. Nobody will be happy having given up five, but Skripnik is unlikely to let such a setback phase him.

Because . . . Skripniker!

As much as Werder is improved and no longer the sure-fire relegation candidate they appeared earlier to be, they’re also not quite ready to lay claim to being “Princes of the Universe.”

But we’re here to lavish praise on a team that is suddenly as exciting to watch as anyone in the league right now, though such exciting play was less evident earlier in the week when the Wolves sat on their 2:0 first-leg advantage and rode a scoreless draw into the round of 16 in Europa league, where they’ll face Inter Milan later in the month.

For now, Wolfsburg may very well be princes, “born to be king,” but the current king remains alive, well, and terrifyingly good.

As when Freddie Mercury sang “the power is in my hand,” Manuel Neuer took occasion to remind the world why his name gets mentioned with those of Messi and Ronaldo these days, parrying away a few huge 1. FC Köln chances when their Friday night-meeting remained a one-goal affair, providing opportunity for Arjen Robben to do that Arjen Robben thing in which the Dutchman perfectly placed his header over Pawel Olkowski’s ducking head, under Kevin Wimmer’s flailing clearance attempt, and just inside Timo Horn’s necessarily unattended far post to finally quiet the Billy Goats for good.

For good measure, Robben later sped through and past the Köln defense to chip a cross right between Robert Lewandowski’s nipples, forcing Lewa to do little more than continue his run in order to collect a goal and make the final score 4:1.

Sidebar: Dream of having Robben join your rec football team for a day after he promises he’ll do nothing but deflect shots off your chest into goal . . . you’d look amazing for an afternoon, y’all!

Another sidebar: As a staunch supporter of the loser in that match, allow me to say “you’re welcome” on behalf of all of Planet EffZeh for providing a thriller of a match for the celebration of your club’s 115th birthday.

Robben now has 17 goals, which is a single-season personal best. With the way he’s playing, though, he’s going to obliterate that number by season end. He’s so good in firing the Bayern offense that it has allowed Neuer skeptics to emerge, questioning how good he really is as he rarely is challenged while Bayern compiles overwhelming possession advantages and is able to score in droves with Robben simply the current best on a roster packed with some of the most-talented players in the world.

That may even be a fair argument as to what Neuer’s week-to-week value actually is. It’s true that he often does not see many chances and much more rarely a dangerous one, but you must account for how having Neuer behind provides extra confidence in playing a high line and using the possession advantage to attack, attack, and attack.

Sidebar: Again, I suppose we should be playing the gracious guest here, especially as one of my Florida-area Bayern fans did actually voice thanks during the match. So, Thomas, and the rest of you . . . you’re welcome . . . <grumble, grumble>

Some continue to decry all the passing that happens in Pep Guardiola’s system, which is also fine, but when his team can score 18 unanswered goals at a stretch, bookended by Benedikt Höwedes’ header against a ten-man Bayern side and Anthony Ujah’s headed effort just before halftime Friday night . . . well, what is your argument exactly?

Because the goal is to protect the throne. Bayern sits comfortably on it with little reason for concern from even the rise of a future challenger as brought to you by Volkswagen, at least for the current season.

There CAN only be one, but the “one” here is the eventual champion, and between Neuer making outstanding saves and Robben flying absurdly through professional defenses, just enjoy the fresh princes for now and look forward to what they may provide next season.

But let’s also not dismiss the current season, either. Bayern may be running away with the league title, while Wolfsburg also looks unstoppable as the vice-champion, but pretty much everything else remains up for grabs, as evidenced by Borussia Dortmund’s charge up the table.

Batmeyang and Reusbin to the Rescue?

Inexplicably anchored in the basement for most of the Hinrunde, Dortmund was the league’s biggest disappointment, though everyone could see that there was simply too much quality in the side for the lull to last.

It took longer than fans would have hoped and probably longer than anyone could have expected, but the BVB seems to have finally broken through their slump, snagging their fourth-consecutive victory in thrilling fashion, slapping down rival Schalke in the Revierderby by a 3:0 margin that does not quite do justice to how lopsided the action was for most of the afternoon.

But the match itself was actually a tidy microcosm of Dortmund’s season, in some ways. BVB created chances at an incredible pace, but couldn’t make it pay as the battle continued scoreless into the 78th minute.

Of all people, the ice-cold Henrikh Mkhitaryan setting up Pierre-Emerick AuBatman (if you don’t know why I’ve replaced Aubameyang in that manner, where the hell have you been?) for the breakthrough. Mkhitaryan scored moments later from an Ilkay Gündogan pass to somehow raise the volume on the celebrations at Signal Iduna Park.

Sidebar: Mix Aubameyang having scored with the pop culture-spurred boost to his public profile and the typical machinations of Premier League sycophants when discussing transfer targets and the football internet is increasingly littered with talk of how Dortmund’s leading scorer is bound to be on his way elsewhere, with such reports citing plainly that BVB will end up losing many of their stars when they don’t finish high enough to return to Europe next season.

Moving along we go onto poor Timon Wellenreuther . . .

Schalke’s young third-string keeper had capably faced defending and presumed champions Bayern München, defending Champions League champion Real Madrid, sincere challenger for a third-place finish in Borussia Mönchengladbach, Thomas Schaaf’s high-flying Eintract Frankfurt squad, the reborn version of Werder Bremen, all since being pressed into service at halftime at the Allianz Arena when Fabian Giefer was involved in a single-player accident and strained his groin while executing a fairly typical kick.

That’s a big step-up in class from the Regionalliga West, much less for a 19-year-old getting his first taste of professional-level football. For the most part, the kid has looked capable and has had spectacular moments along the way.

But with a result out of reach and nearly 80,000 voices raining down on him, Wellenreuther had a Regionalliga moment, holding the ball just a split-second too long to avoid a surgical burst from Marco Reus who simply took the ball off the keeper’s foot for a low-effort 3:0.

Hopefully, the young keeper will remember the day more for standing tall in the face of what became a 20-to-1 shot-deficit for his side and not for the 86th minute howler. Wellenreuther has proven his mettle as the backstop in a team that plays a very defensive game. Just one goal and one point from the last three matches is cause for some concern, but very little of the blame for Schalke conceding their spot in third and drop into the Europa League area can be placed before Wellenreuther.

Mönchengladbach and Leverkusen

The team Schalke beat to grab third place, Borussia Mönchengladbach, may now be the favorite to maintain the final spot for a direct trip to the group stages of Champions league.

Die Fohlen have managed to stay afloat despite an offensive power outage, scoring just four goals in their first five matches of the year, but taking ten of the fifteen points available in them. Their midweek 2:3 thriller against Sevilla FC saw ‘Gladbach exit Europa League with a fight and maybe gave hope that a talent-laden offense was about to spark to life.

Indeed, Lucien Favre’s boys got two goals in their 2:0 downing of visiting SC Paderborn, but both Fabian Johnson’s and Patrick Herrmann’s goals evaded Lukas Kruse at least in part thanks to deflections of the original shots. Such scores hardly signal an offensive awakening, but a little luck can sometimes lead to a turnaround. With Borussia sitting in a great table position and now no longer needing to split focus with a European conquest, Favre’s crew can single-mindedly defend their spot, a comfortable proposition for the Bundesliga’s second-stingiest defense.

But beware Bayer Leverkusen . . .

The start to 2015 was not really blowing anyone away, with a trip to Hertha Berlin the only three-pointer from the first five matches.

A 1:0 at home over SC Freiburg is not going to convince anyone that Bayer is about to race away from everyone below them, of course, but their impressive 1:0 over Atletico Madrid earlier in the week did show that Die Werkself do have the goods to compete with anyone for 90 minutes. Three of Leverkusen’s next four opponents are among the bottom four of the table right now (along with Freiburg, of course), setting the table for a decent point-collection run which could be accented quite nicely with a result in Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League tie to send them into the next round.

At the opposite end of the table, Hertha BSC got a surprise victory at home over FC Augsburg, thanks to a goal from Salomon Kalou just a few minutes before time.

As Markus Weinzierl said after the match, it was otherwise a fairly ordinary scoreless draw. It just didn’t choose to end that way. Augsburg paid for a defensive lapse, and Hertha found their way out of the bottom three after two weeks in 17th.

It’s a long way to go before Pal Dardai’s Hertha can be said to be free from relegation concerns, but after being outscored 8:0 in their last three home matches, they’ll celebrate the score and victory before getting back to the reality of a big trip to VfB Stuttgart for a Friday night six-point special.

The bigger (sadder?) story may be the slow deflation of Augsburg’s European chances. Since riding their first-ever victory over Dortmund into fourth place, the FCA have just two points from their last four matches, dropping them into sixth place and giving space for Hoffenheim to creep to within two points.

Hoffenheim’s three-loss start to 2015 was initiated by a 3:1 loss at Augsburg, but Markus Gisdol’s crew now have seven of the last nine points and are positioned to make a return to European placement.

Kevin Volland provided a crucial goal, though no superhero mask.

The 2:0 victory over Mainz was hard-earned. By the time Roberto Firmino found Kevin Volland for the match’s first goal in the 55th minute, Mainz had already had several close chances go without finish. Ultimately, though, a clean sheet is a clean sheet, so credit to Hoffenheim for withstanding the new-look Mainz squad and collecting the three points.

Same to Eintract Frankfurt who’ve somewhat quietly gone six home matches without a loss after downing Hamburger SV 2:1 in Saturday night’s featured match. Both goals came courtesy of Alexander Meier, boosting his season total to 16.

But before we put match day 23 completely to bed, it should be mentioned the two worst teams of 2015 fought to a 1:1 with which neither was entirely satisfied.

VfB Stuttgart was left disappointed with having surrendered the lead given them by captain Christian Gentner, while Hannover 96 will think that a visit from the league doormat should have been the perfect opportunity to end a winless streak that instead stretched to seven.

And with the jolly red giant from Bavaria coming Saturday to start a three match run that includes battles with Borussias Mönchengladbach and Dortmund, that four-point pad over the relegation zone seems even smaller than it is . . . which is quite small.

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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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