The warning signs were flashing at 1. FC Nuremberg in late January when the Bundesliga programme resumed after the winter break. The Bavarians were already deep in the relegation mire when striker Marek Mintal, the German top flight's leading scorer the previous season with 24 goals and his club's insurance policy against the drop, sustained a repeat metatarsal injury in the first fixture after Christmas.
Coach Hans Meyer, who replaced luckless Wolfgang Wolf back in November 2005 when Nuremberg were anchored to the foot of the table, suddenly found himself without his star goal-getter. However, just two months later, the situation has dramatically improved. The club nicknamed simply 'Club' have moved seven points clear of the drop zone with five games remaining, and hardly anyone openly frets about the absent Mintal. In fact, the Slovak international is in danger of becoming the club's forgotten man.
The reason behind the phenomenal turnaround in Nuremberg's fortunes is Mintal's fellow countryman Robert Vittek. The striker has fully compensated for the absence of his international teammate and guided the Franconia outfit towards mid-table safety. It is easy to forget that back in the winter break, all the signs pointed to the striker departing for pastures new. Vittek never found favour under Wolf and failed to score before Christmas, becoming a target for the fans' frustration and publicly declaring his intention to leave.
However, Meyer talked his striker into staying - a decision that would prove to be the right one for both player and club. Vittek exploded onto the scene after Christmas as Nuremberg embarked on a dashing run to safety. "It's all working out brilliantly here at the moment, or at least nearly everything. It's pretty hard to get a run like this going. When things are going badly, it's hard to put a stop to it - but the same applies when things go well," the Slovak told FIFA.com. The hitman confessed he had no explanation for his personal renaissance and his team's stunning form. "To be frank, if we start thinking too much about why it's working, we'll probably argue ourselves out of it. For the moment, we're just going out and enjoying ourselves."
A new record
That was clear for all to see when the 24-year-old ran out for his side's games against MSV Duisburg and 1. FC Cologne on Bundesliga matchdays 25 and 26, as he rattled off six goals without any other player scoring in the meantime. The sensational display not only secured six vital points for his club, but also handed Vittek a new Bundesliga record. The modest Slovak international still refuses to get carried away: "My name appeared in the headlines, but the goals and the results were earned by the whole team, so it's not right to single out any one individual over the other players. Obviously, scoring goals is wonderful, but it's only ever the end product of work by the whole team."
Revered coach Meyer undoubtedly deserves much of the credit for Vittek's metamorphosis from target for the boo-boys to crowd favourite. Meyer took the sensitive Slovak to one side for a series of man-to-man talks, reassuring him of his ability and urging him back to form. "He's the right boss at the right time for Nuremberg, and he's basically restored our belief. Obviously, winning has contributed a lot to us rediscovering our confidence," the striker declared. Vittek started out in his city of birth with Slovan Bratislava, before switching to Nuremberg in the German second division in August 2003. He immediately shot to prominence, and the Bavarians were promoted in his first season at the club.
The player cannot recall any comparable run at any other point in his career. "Obviously, I scored plenty of goals as a youth, but you can't really compare something like this at the level of the Bundesliga with previous matches in very different circumstances." The striker finally appears to have found his feet in the German top flight, although he admits the initial adaptation period between Slovakian and German football was not easy. "Standards in Germany are generally higher, the pace is faster, and it's more physical. You have to be constantly alert in the Bundesliga," he explains.
Slovak hopes for the future
On the international stage, the Slovaks underlined their potential to make waves in European football with recent friendly victories over two of the biggest names around. In September last year, Vittek and his team-mates chalked up a 2-0 home victory over FIFA World Cup™ hosts Germany in Bratislava, before the striker and his men came away from Paris in early March with a sensational 2-1 victory over former world champions France. "We have a clutch of good players in Slovakia, and we're also in extremely good form, so a lot of things have happened automatically. It's a real shame that one poor evening in Spain cost us our dream of appearing at the World Cup," the player reflected, recalling Slovakia's qualifying exit at the play-off stage.
Despite this setback, Slovakian football is on a steady upwards trend, prompting the striker to look forward to a bright future. "You can't really pass a verdict on a footballer at just 24, which is how old I am now. I still think I'm young enough to learn a lot, lot more." The Slovak's recent goal-getting exploits have naturally attracted interest from a number of big-name clubs, although he has a contract in Nuremberg until June 2009. Vittek has always insisted he feels totally at home in Franconia, but admits he would be powerless to resist if one particular club made an approach for his services, the striker being a self-confessed Real Madrid fanatic.
The Spanish giants even tabled an offer for the player when he was 17, but the deal fell through after the striker sustained cruciate ligament damage. However, if Vittek can maintain his current deadly form, his dream of a switch to the Spanish capital might yet come true.