According to Germany captain Michael Ballack, the race for the Bundesliga title is already over as Borussia Dortmund show little sign of loosening their stranglehold on the German league.
"Top place is gone for everyone else, Dortmund are too far ahead," sighed Ballack, who made his comeback on Sunday following a four-month lay-off from a broken leg.
His Leverkusen team are second in the German league, but 11 points behind the leaders and Ballack could only watch from the bench as Dortmund demolished his team 3-1 at home ten days ago. Although the leaders were held 1-1 at home by strugglers Stuttgart on Saturday, Dortmund are on course for their first league title since 2002.
Having hand-picked his team since his arrival in 2008, coach Jurgen Klopp has nurtured several of his young stars up to the national team. Mats Hummels and Kevin Grosskreutz made their debuts for Germany just before the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, while Marcel Schmelzer and teenager Mario Goetze wore the Germany shirt for the first time last November.
"Dortmund have a young, success-hungry team with a good team spirit," enthused Germany coach Joachim Low, who picked the quartet for the goalless draw with Sweden last November. "Above all others, the way the Dortmund team plays has really impressed me. After their win in Leverkusen, they have the best chance of winning the German title."
As Bayern Munich announced their return to the title race with a 5-1 win at home to Kaiserslautern on Saturday, Klopp knows the Bavarian giants will not give up their title as German champions without a fight. "If Bayern had our lead, it would probably all be over," said Klopp, whose team face Bayern in Munich on February 26. Nevertheless, we know that a lot can still happen and we have to just stay on our path."
The facts speak for themselves. Dortmund have 15 wins from 19 matches, a goal difference of 31 and have only conceded 12 goals all season. They have been beaten just twice: a 2-0 defeat at home to Leverkusen on the opening day of the season and a shock 1-0 slump at Eintracht Frankfurt in December.
Schmelzer, Goetze, the son of a professor at Dortmund's Technical University, and Turkey midfielder Nuri Sahin all came up from the youth team. Neven Subotic, the towering centre half, came with Klopp from Mainz, while Grosskreutz, the fleet-footed winger, was found playing for Rot-Weiss Ahlen in the second division.
The joint top-scorers, Japan midfielder Shinji Kagawa and Paraguay striker Lucas Barrios have bagged sixteen goals between them and were plucked from Asia and South America respectively. Hummels, who has been ear-marked as a Germany star of the future, was signed from Bayern Munich in July 2009 for €4.2m, Klopp's most expensive purchase so far, and has forged a strong partnership alongside Subotic.
Using their considerable pace, Dortmund are more than capable of flooring the Bundesliga's top sides with lightning counter-attacks or creating chances either down the flanks or through the middle. Ballack has been the most prominent voice to question Dortmund's temperament if they are put under pressure, but his side's 3-1 defeat to the leaders settled that debate.
Likewise, Bayern were beaten 2-0 in Dortmund when the sides met in October and Munich are now 14 points behind the leaders. Klopp, who was overlooked for Jurgen Klinsmann in 2008 as Bayern coach, has an easy media-friendly persona and showed his talent for comedy in a spoof interview last November.
In the interview for main German broadcaster ZDF, Klopp fielded questions as though his side were bottom of the league, not four points clear at the top of the table and fresh from hammering Hanover 4-0 at home. "I don't know if I am the right man for the job," he sighed, tongue-planted firmly in cheek.