Contrary to pre-season expectations, the sports coverage in the German press during the recent winter break was not dominated by pictures of a grinning Ruud van Nistelrooij or a beaming Michael Ballack. Nor was it replete with ‘deadly duo’ pieces on Raul Gonzalez and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, or Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. As it transpired, all the predictions for the course of the current Bundesliga campaign were wider of the mark than ever before.
The first half of the German season belonged not to Bayern Munich, Schalke, Hamburg or Bayer Leverkusen, but to a clutch of underdogs who have turned the club scene on its head – for the moment at least. Understandably, the traditional big guns have spent the winter break noisily fuming, and plotting ways to see off the interlopers.
You might win something with kids
It is only the midpoint of the season, but the great and the good in the German game have emerged en masse to congratulate leaders Borussia Dortmund on winning the title. Jurgen Klopp’s talented, youthful side are ten points clear of the field and certainly in the box seat, especially as second-placed Mainz hardly rate as perennial title challengers. The latter, who ironically were Klopp’s previous club, nevertheless boast a team laden with raw talent, many of whom will surely develop into the stars of the future.
A glance at the standings suggests a fascinating second half of the campaign, in stark contrast to the usual two or three-horse races of previous years. Leverkusen lie third, with Bayern fully 14 points adrift of Dortmund in fifth. As for Hamburg and Schalke, spots in mid-table no-man’s land are dramatically short of expectations.
My players have shown they can cope with the pressure. I see no signs that it might all go wrong.
In the league’s 47-year history, the club top of the pile at the halfway mark has gone on to seal the title on 31 occasions. That suggests Klopp’s youthful squad – the average age is a mere 24.6 years – are exceptionally well-placed to claim the club’s seventh national title. Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz could yet prove a mighty irritant to the biggest clubs, as they occupy the space between the 1997 UEFA Champions League winners at the top of the table and the giants behind them.
In a season dominated by starlets, both Dortmund and Mainz boast outstanding creative gems in 18-year-old Mario Gotze and 20-year-old Lewis Holtby respectively, German youth products cast in the same mould as Mesut Ozil. So all things considered, will the top two be impossible to catch?
The war of words
"I’m totally uninterested in all the calculations and projections," said Klopp. "My players have shown they can cope with the pressure. I see no signs that it might all go wrong.”
However, the shell-shocked favourites have responded with angry ripostes and strident declarations of intent. Seasoned Leverkusen boss Jupp Heynckes kicked off the mind games in typical fashion: “Life’s a roller-coaster. BVB will hit a bad patch.” In a tasty twist, the young Dortmund side restart their title drive on Friday evening away to Bayer, who have Ballack champing at the bit after months on the sidelines with injury.
And as befits the champions and the nation’s most successful club, Bayern have refused to concede defeat in the title race, although making up a 14-point gap would be a new league record. However, Robben is fit again after a six-month lay-off, Ribery finally looks his old self again, and the club has splashed a reported €15 million on versatile Brazilian Luiz Gustavo. Outspoken boss Louis van Gaal has sprung one surprise by naming gifted 22-year-old Thomas Kraft as first-choice keeper instead of veteran Hans-Jorg Butt. The combative Dutch coach has come out fighting: "I want to win everything. We have to put pressure on Dortmund!"
And what of Schalke and coach Felix Magath, who will almost certainly be rueing the break in the programme. After an atrocious start to the campaign, Magath’s men won seven out of eight in the run-up to Christmas and played some decent football to match. Raul has found his scoring touch and the Royal Blues are back in business, although it is surely too late for any meaningful assault on the trophy.
"We have ambitious plans in the league,” declared Magath as his side prepare to face crisis club Hamburg and out-of-sorts striker Van Nistelrooij in their restart fixture. But who knows? Perhaps the images of the weekend will finally include Van the Man’s grinning face, as nothing can be ruled out for certain in this most uncertain of German domestic seasons.