After an unprecedented summer spending spree, many observers felt Bayern Munich general manager Uli Hoeness was not especially wide of the mark with his pre-season boast that Bayern would soon be so far off into the distance, their German rivals would need binoculars to see them.
The likes of Franck Ribery, Luca Toni and Miroslav Klose
certainly set off at a cracking pace, but by the midpoint of the
campaign, the only thing separating the Bavarians in top spot and
chief pursuers Werder Bremen is goal difference. Put away the
binoculars, bring out the microscope: the unexpected development is
symbolic of a wind of change blowing through the German top flight
"The Bundesliga offers attractive football, with many very good players. It's not something I realised before," mused Ribery, the recently-crowned French Player of the Year, in an interview with respected weekly Kicker. Bayern's newly-acquired superstar has himself made a sizeable contribution to the gradual rehabilitation of German club football in the international hierarchy, underscored by the 24-year-old's naturally self-effacing manner.
That admirable character trait ceases to apply out on the field of play. Ribery's dazzling skill, the clinical ruthlessness of his Italian FIFA World Cup winning team-mate Luca Toni, and the guile and trickery of Bremen's Diego and Hamburg's Rafael van der Vaart, have given the Bundesliga a dash of the flair and panache more readily associated with the Premier League and Primera Division, perhaps not all the time, but certainly with increased frequency. A thrilling matchday atmosphere, prompted by monotonously regular use of the 'sold out' signs at ticket booths the length and breadth of the country, provides a fitting backdrop to this welcome and sustained trend in the German top flight.
Champions and Cup winners in the doldrums
The league has still managed to retain one of its endearing long-term attributes, a relatively even spread of talent from top to bottom. Anyone can beat anyone else on their day, as champions VfB Stuttgart have been painfully reminded in a dangerous flirt with the dreaded drop zone on a number of occasions over the last six months.
The men from Swabia seemed paralysed at times, unable to bridge the gap between a post-championship afterglow and the grim weekly battle for points. Perhaps a shade too self-assured after their unexpected triumph in 2006-7, and basking in the wave of euphoria unleashed by that success, VfB painfully discovered the dramatic consequences of even slightly easing off the gas in the Bundesliga with a disastrous early run in the league. The slump in form also led to a swift and ignominious exit from the UEFA Champions League, although the side spearheaded by German Player of the Year Mario Gomez has since recovered to eighth in the Bundesliga at Christmas. "Overall, the year 2007 has had more highs than lows for us, although the lows were certainly connected to the highs," VfB coach Armin Veh reflected.
German Cup winners 1. FC Nurnberg have an even more bitter tale to tell of the exceptionally fine line between peaks and troughs in the evenly-matched world of German club football. Coach Hans Meyer was the talk of the town last summer, but the demands of both the Bundesliga and the UEFA Cup this term seem to have stretched the club's limited resources to breaking point, and the men from Nuremberg will spend the winter break third from bottom of the table "Fortune has really cut us adrift at the moment," complained Meyer, well aware that a difficult second half of term awaits.
Plaudits for Karlsruhe as Werder press on
Nurnberg aside, VfL Bochum, Arminia Bielefeld, Energie Cottbus and promoted duo Hansa Rostock and MSV Duisburg are the more-or-less predictable names battling to stave off relegation, but the third new arrivals from the second division have proved the surprise package of the season.
Prompted by diminutive Hungarian wizard Tamas Hajnal, Karlsruher
SC have ended the year in a solid sixth spot, the best winter
placing for a promoted club in a decade. Even that is not good
enough for ambitious coach Edmund Becker: "We still have to
improve," he declared. The question remains whether KSC can
maintain their excellent form into the second half of the campaign.
The real drama looks set to be generated at the very top. Bayern have lost just once (3-1 in Stuttgart), but coach Ottmar Hitzfeld has come under fire after four drab goalless draws in the Bavarians' last seven league fixtures, and Bremen have pulled level on points at the top. "It could end up a two-horse race," Hoeness conceded. Despite failing to survive the UEFA Champions League group stage, Werder are a real threat in the Bundesliga, largely thanks to the genius of Diego.
In his second season at the club, the 22-year-old Brazilian playmaker is to the northern side what celebrated conductor Leonard Bernstein was to the New York Philharmonic in his glory days. Diego has amassed the highest number of scorer points in the section with nine goals and seven assists, consistently demonstrating his potential for inclusion in the ranks of the world's greatest players in the not-too-distant future. "I only do crazy things on the field of play," the gifted schemer comments, a modest feet-on-the-ground approach dovetailing perfectly with the understated confidence typical of Bremen.
Early Bayern sparkle rapidly fades
Down south in Munich, Klose and Toni have fired an impressive 18 goals between them, many laid on by Ribery's refreshingly unpredictable genius, but Hitzfeld's men have unexpectedly struggled against deep-lying teams whose sole aim is to smother, thwart and claim a point.
The pre-season talk was of dashing attacking flair, but Bayern
increasingly reverted to type as the season wore on with a
methodical but slow-paced and ultimately blunt style of play.
However, the men in red rounded off their UEFA Cup group programme
with a thumping 6-0 win over Aris Salonika, Bayern's biggest
margin of victory in Europe for 14 years, perhaps hinting that
Germany's most successful club have simply been keeping their
powder dry for the second half of term.
Nevertheless, and to the great benefit of the watching public, three further title contenders will ensure the top two cannot rest on their laurels between now and May. The chase is on for Hamburger SV, prompted and inspired (and arguably over-dependent on) Van der Vaart's guile, a largely youthful Bayer Leverkusen side, and Schalke 04, Germany's last surviving representatives in the UEFA Champions League after reaching the Round of 16 for the first time in their history.
For all Bayern's free-spending transfer raids, the Bundesliga remains tightly-bunched at the top, and the future for German club football looks a lot rosier than it has done for a number of years. The binoculars can stay in the cupboard, for the time being at least.