Saturday 4 April ~
There is only one point separating the top four teams in the Bundesliga, but with no club hitting consistent form since the winter break, the German media has been dubbing it “the title that no one wants to win”. That’s a typically negative spin from a press that often seems more concerned with the eminence of a strong German club in European competition than it is with a vibrant, competitive domestic league. But where the home critics harshly interpret an egalitarian Bundesliga as a symptom of sub-standard play, fans are just delighted that Bayern Munich are not running away with the shield. A year ago they were already seven points clear at the top. Going into this weekend, where four of the top five teams meet, they are one of three teams on 48 points, one point adrift of improbable leaders Hertha Berlin.
Today Bayern travel to Wolfsburg, coached by former Bayern boss Felix Magath, and with whom they share an intriguingly identical record – not just that both teams have won 14 games, drawn six and lost five, they have also both scored 53 goals and conceded 31. That Bayern are above Wolfsburg in the table is either for alphabetical reasons, or it’s because Bayern won the first encounter 4-2 back in October (when Bayern came back from 2-0 down). Or maybe it’s because the league knows that prickly manager Uli Hoeness would throw a fit if it were the other way around. Hoeness has also called today’s game “a pre-title decider”, saying that if Bayern win, then they will go on to be champions. But although Bayern’s attacking form has been very strong of late (23 goals in its last seven games, including the 12-1 aggregate mauling of sorry Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League), their ramshackle defending means that Hoeness’s presumption is exactly that. This year, all predictions are off.
Wolfsburg’s climb up the table has been propelled by the striking partnership of the excellent Brazilian Grafite, who has scored 18 goals in just 16 games (although that includes six penalty kicks), and the Bosnian Edin Dzeko, who has scored 13. They have been well supplied by Dzeko’s compatriot, playmaker Zvjezdan Misimovic, who has racked up six goals and 14 assists. Given that matches involving the two teams are averaging more than three goals per game, and with Bayern boasting Luca Toni, Franck Ribery and Lukas Podolski in their starting line-up (Miroslav Klose is injured), it’s perfectly set up for a dour 0-0 draw, but at least that would satisfy the purists in the press who think that too many goals make the Bundesliga mediocre. A repeat of December’s electrifying encounter between Bayern and Hoffenheim, however, or of the teams’ first game in Munich last autumn, would provide more ammunition for those arguing that right now this is the most dynamic and exciting league in Europe.
AAh, Hoffenheim. What happened to the globally publicised “village team” that lead the new, positive ways of German football up until Christmas? The winter loss of Vedad Ibisevic, who had scored 18 goals, with a ruptured cruciate ligament, as well as the move into their new stadium, seemed to rob them of momentum. And yet, although placed down in fifth and five points behind Hertha, they have the longest unbeaten league run of the top five. Unfortunately, that’s only a five-game run, and they’ve all been draws. Coach Ralf Rangnick reckons they should have won four of those five games, which would still make them league leaders, but that’s a theory ignoring the slump in both their attacking verve and overall confidence.
When Hoffenheim travel today to fourth-placed Hamburg, they’ll welcome back two other fine forwards in Nigerian Chinedu Obasi (six goals) and French-Senegalese Demba Ba (11), and it may be their best chance to resurrect early season form and launch a late comeback bid for the shield. Hamburg, managed by Martin Jol and with a UEFA Cup quarter-final tie against Manchester City on Thursday, are lurking with intent to take their first title since 1983. But Jol’s team lacks the firepower of Bayern, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim, and relies too much on the Croat Mladen Petric (ten goals this season) to score winning goals in close games. This time last year their campaign was already fading and they ended up fourth, 22 points behind Bayern, and they are pressured by the fact that they may not get a chance like this again for many years to come.
Finally, first-placed Hertha entertain patchy Borussia Dortmund, but few see the capital’s principal team, who last won the national title in 1931, as favourites. Like Hamburg, they’re over-reliant on the form of one striker, the Ukrainian Andrey Voronin, who is expected to play despite a broken nose sustained against England in midweek. Like Hamburg’s Petric, Voronin grabs crucial goals – two against Bayern in a 2-1 win, and the only goals in games against Leverkusen (twice) and Hoffenheim. Without him, Hertha look prosaic, and their home fans lack the fervour that would make them popular alternative champions to the hated Bavarians. But it would make a nice change. Out of the four teams seriously challenging Bayern’s retention of the trophy, only Hamburg were half-considered pre-season contenders. With nine games left, the league that no one wants to win ought to be worth watching right down to its final Saturday. Ian Plenderleith