The second half of the Bundesliga season officially kicks off on the evening of Friday 30 January, and as luck would have it the schedule has served up a cracking restart fixture: last season’s double winners and current leaders Bayern Munich travel to face second-placed Wolfsburg. Millions of fans around the globe will tune in to see if the big-spending Wolves can put a dent in the Bavarians’ formidable 11-point lead in the table and inject some excitement into the title race.
Regardless of the result on Friday, the league of the world champions will continue to offer plenty of entertainment and talking points for the fans. A fierce fight is on the cards both for places in Europe and in the battle to avoid relegation, and on top of that the campaign has also brought a handful of genuinely exciting young talents to the fore. FIFA.com turns the microscope on five emerging players who could exert a decisive influence on the second half of the season.
Sebastian Rode (24, Bayern Munich)
After last summer’s announcement of the bustling midfielder’s switch from Eintracht Frankfurt to Munich, most pundits voiced doubts as to the 24-year-old’s ability to compete on equal terms with the star names and multiple trophy-winners in the Bayern squad. However, Rode has silenced his critics by asserting himself and chalking up greater than expected playing time. "He’s my favourite player in the team," head coach Pep Guardiola said a few weeks ago. "He’s always up for it, he’s always striving for improvement, he never complains, he helps the team and he’s a superb player for me personally." Rode has often caught the eye with dynamic and aggressive performances after coming on as an impact sub, adding a touch of steel to the Reds’ otherwise refined passing play.
Kevin Kampl (24, Borussia Dortmund)
A heavy burden of hope and expectation lies on the shoulders of the Slovenia international, a recent arrival in Dortmund from Red Bull Salzburg. Club bosses envisage the newcomer playing a key role in rescuing a disastrous domestic campaign which has seen the yellow-and-blacks slide to 17th spot, second from bottom in the standings. "Dortmund don’t belong down there. I totally believe we can pull clear," the 24-year-old declared at his unveiling. With BVB in such dire straits Kampl knows there can be no honeymoon period, and his tireless running and work rate in Borussia’s winter friendlies show he has understood the urgent need to push on. With fit-again Marco Reus resuming duty on the opposite flank, Dortmund now boast real quality in the wide positions and are hoping to remedy their domestic woes as quickly as possible, as well as maintaining their much more satisfactory UEFA Champions League form.
Karim Bellarabi (24, Bayer Leverkusen)
Arguably the biggest winner of the first half of the Bundesliga season, Bellarabi’s stellar ascent was based on an exceptional start, as he scored Leverkusen’s opener in Dortmund on the first day of the season a mere nine seconds after kick-off, the fastest-ever goal in the German top flight’s 52-year history. Bellarabi went from strength to strength after that with a valuable contribution to Bayer’s commendable campaign so far. "But I want even more than I’ve managed so far and I’m looking for success with the team. It’s as simple as that," the winger declared a few days ago. As the crowning glory, the Berlin-born player with German and Moroccan roots earned a maiden cap for the reigning world champions, where he fit in without undue difficulty.
Max Meyer (19, Schalke)
Meyer is the Royal Blues’ marathon man this term with a club-best average distance covered of 12.1 km per match. He is only 19 but already has ten goals in 68 Bundesliga outings to his name and rates as one of the nation’s most exciting prospects. The gifted youngster has not been a regular thus far this term but looked back to his best in Schalke’s mid-season training programme, showing the form that took him as far as Germany’s preliminary FIFA World Cup™ squad last spring. Meyer’s favoured role is in the hole behind a front two, but he has the talent and flexibility to patrol the flanks if need be.
Robin Knoche (23, Wolfsburg)
Like Meyer, Knoche is a youth product of his first senior club, although he is based a little further to the east with Wolfsburg. He appeared at every youth level for the men from Lower Saxony and has featured in 15 of the 17 league fixtures so far. The two-footed centre-back must take much of the credit for the Wolves boasting the league’s second-best defence with 17 goals conceded. His reward was a first call-up to the Germany senior squad, although he was an unused sub for the friendly meeting with Spain. However, it all points to a potentially glittering future for the tactically astute and hard-working player, known as a solid and down-to-earth character to boot.