One month in to the 2011-12 German Bundesliga campaign, and there is a historically familiar shadow to the early league table, as Bayern Munich lead the way, with Schalke 04 in second spot, and Werder Bremen third. Those three sides have all accrued nine points from their respective four opening fixtures. Defending Champions Borussia Dortmund lie sixth with seven points. At the foot of the standings are, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Hamburg. HSV have mustered just one point and, more of a concern to Michael Oenning’s side; have shipped 14 goals through a young, lightweight-looking backline. They sit one point behind Kaiserslautern and newly promoted Augsburg, with Steve McClaren’s former side Wolfsburg a further point better off in 15th spot.
After a total of 36 match-ups, over 1.6 million German fans have already amassed to witness 100 goals, with just a single 0-0 blotting the otherwise goal-ridden copybook. Ironically, that scoreless encounter came between last year’s top two of Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen. Yet it wasn’t without drama in other domains, as both sides ended with ten men, mustered 26 shots between them, and committed 29 fouls! The top three have already each scored five in a game, and the Werder Bremen v SC Freiburg fixture of Matchday 3 saw the nets rippling on eight occasions. For the first time in 17 years, just one team remains undefeated after four games – fourth-placed Hannover 96.
The traditional top-flight curtain-raiser – the German Super Cup – levied an element of what to expect from the impending season, as a revitalised Schalke saw off Dortmund 4-3 on penalties. It was Jurgen Klopp’s effusive BVB charges that largely dominated the 90 minutes. But, despite Lewandowski, Großkreutz, Götze, Kagawa, and new signing Ilday Gündagon all going close, they were unable to break the resolve of Ralf Fährmann and his resolute back four. It then fell to Fährmann, charged with the unenviable task of replacing the much-vaunted Manuel Neuer, to take centre stage, saving efforts from Großkreutz and Perišić in the ensuing shoot-out. The 23-year-old ‘keeper rejoined the Royal Blues from Eintracht Frankfurt on a free transfer during the summer, and has quickly reestablished a clear rapport with the 04 rearguard. His displays to date have left the locals tripping over the superlatives, yet the East German stopper has a maturity which belies his youth: “It was a dream come true. The game went brilliantly for me and the rest of the team. [Although]it was particularly significant for us, we shouldn’t make too much of the success in the Super
In a similar vein, the effervescent Jürgen Klopp also attempted to downplay any significance drawn from the encounter: “Obviously we would have liked to win this game, but I prefer to lose while playing well, than to win while playing poorly.”
While both Schalke and Dortmund can point to the success being enjoyed through noticeably youthful squads (with average ages of 24.0 and 23.9 years, respectively), one side struggling to implement their regeneration are the Frank Arnesen-directed SV Hamburg. Having recruited no fewer than five players from former club Chelsea, Arnesen has placed due stock in youth – a move that has yet to be repaid. Despite Club Chairman Carl Jarchow’s assertion that “HSV belong among the top four in the Bundesliga”, the quiet Dutchman remains resolute, if a little too non-committal for the Red Shorts faithful: I don’t know how long the restructuring will take, [but]there are no free lunches [and]everything you get you have to earn”. After being routed 5-0 by Bayern, and picking up just a solitary point thus far (courtesy of a 2-all draw at home to Bundesliga returners Hertha Berlin), the lunchtime bell cannot come soon enough for the league’s only ever-present side.
Following a season-opening setback against Borussia Mönchengladbach, losing 1-0, Bayern Munich appear to be gathering momentum. With a fortuitous, last-minute victory against Wolfsburg on Matchday 2, they have since registered eight goals without reply domestically, and kept six clean sheets in succession across all competitions. The high-profile capture of Manuel Neuer has been augmented by the return to both form and fitness of Messrs Robben, Ribéry and Müller, and Mario Gomez has already found the net four times. Jupp Heynckes team are swiftly establishing the behemothic repute of years past, clearly benefitting from the lack of a summer’s rest, and no major international tournament. As for last year’s Champions: Die Schwarzgelben have endured something of a mixed start. Following their aforementioned stalemate with Leverkusen, Dortmund have now gone four away games without managing to find the net, as part of a winless run dating back to February; all after a record-equaling return of eleven victories on the road. The departure of Nuri Sahin to Real Madrid has clearly impacted on the side’s creativity through the midfield, which was the fulcrum of their tactical approach last term. Klopp, however, remains largely unconcerned, focusing on the more pragmatic approach embodying his team, amid an awareness of the rejuvenated threat coming from Munich: “Pressing has to be our number one priority from the get go. If it turns into a game of football after that then it pleases, not only me but also others, which is fine.”
At the opposite end of the table, and following a promising 3-0 opening day win over FC Köln, VfL Wolfsburg have had a turbulent August. A run of three defeats has left Die Wölfe sitting just a point above the relegation play-off berth, and struggling to find form and consistency. That has been epitomised by Coach Felix Magath’s use of 21 players so far, as he tinkers with formations in an attempt to arrest the slide. The volatile nature of the starting line-up has been accentuated by the recruitment of the likes of the familiar Aleksandr Hleb, Thomas Hitzlesperger, and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, while the enigmatic Diego – cited as the final straw in breaking Steve McClaren’s ill-fated tenure – has since departed for Atletico Madrid. Magath, though, ever sporting his Club-issued green tie, has stayed true to his methods, employing a stringent fitness regime that he insists will prove its weight, while stating with conviction how “we will be a lot more solid after they return from representing their national teams, but right now we’ve got play catch up.” Having mustered just one strike since the opening Matchday, and with in-form Schalke next up, there is more pressure on Magath’s conviction than the 58-year old may care to acknowledge.
Elsewhere in the division, and last year’s 2.Bundesliga champions, Hertha Berlin, have made a solid start. After a disappointing Matchday 1 1-0 reversal at home to Nürnberg, Markus Babbel’s combative side have since showed strong resolve, picking up five points, to lie 11th. Babbel himself harbours no illusions over the relative status of his side, irrespective of their illustrious history. Ahead of the campaign, the former Liverpool centre-half cut a mantra that was as calculated as his playing career had epitomised, outlining his aim: “we want to stay up. Full stop.”
With away draws to both Hamburg and Hannover thus far, and around 38 points being the target to avoid the drop, the ‘Old Dame’ of the league is on course to do just that. An away trip to Dortmund on Matchday 5 will offer the toughest test yet, and a strong indicator to all whether Hertha truly belong.
Another side that appears to have rallied after an inauspicious start are FC Köln. With eight goals conceded in the first two rounds, the recent inner-turmoil that saw the appointment of Stale Solbakken appeared to have reemerged. However, the 43-year old Norwegian has drawn on all of his experience with FC Copenhagen (where he led the Danish side beyond the Champions League Group Stage). A battling point at home to Kaiserslautern was followed by an enthralling seven goal thriller with Hamburg, where Die Geißböcke came out on top, 4-3. Next up for Köln is Nürnberg, before the ever-encapsulating Rhine derby with Leverkusen.
September’s highlight looks set to be the crossing of swords between Schalke and Bayern that is set for Matchday 6, and comes just four days after the Bavarians travel to Villareal in the Champions League, and three after Schalke make the trek to Steaua in the Europa League.
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