30 December 2009 ~ Fears that the Bundesliga would struggle this year to match last season's nail-biting conclusion already seem misplaced. At the winter break only five points separate the top five clubs – and the top two are old hands at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The unofficial "autumn champions" are Bayer Leverkusen, who were cruelly rechristened "Never-kusen" after four second-place finishes between 1997 and 2002. Having bolstered the defence pre-season with the canny signing of Sami Hyppia, new manager Jupp Heynckes seems to have persuaded Bayer that tactical discipline and the occasional draw might be a more successful route to their first League title than heroic defeats.
Leverkusen's young side, for whom midfielder Toni Kroos has been outstanding, are unbeaten so far this season. One point behind them in second place are Schalke 04. Although Schalke's attacking play has often lacked fluency and creativity, Felix Magath's achievement in rejuvenating the debt-ridden underachievers is arguably as impressive as his stewardship of VfL Wolfsburg to last year's Bundesliga title. Even Kevin Kuranyi looks less like Dick Dastardly's emaciated lovechild and more like an international striker.
Looming up ominously over Leverkusen and Schalke like a descending cartoon anvil are third-placed Bayern Munich, whose 4-1 victory at Juventus in the Champions League has been accompanied by an unbeaten run of ten matches in the League. The early-season infighting and criticism of Louis van Gaal's tactics now seem not to be a sign of crisis at the end of Uli Hoeneß's 30-year reign as general manager, but instead an indication that "FC Hollywood" are returning to normal after Jürgen Klinsmann's touchy-feely interregnum.
There are a few surprises at the bottom of the Bundesliga too. Having topped the table in March, Hertha Berlin started the 09-10 campaign with a win over Hannover 96. But they've only picked up three more points in the next 16 matches and already look doomed. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at some of their 13 defeats. In October, Hertha were 1-0 up against Hamburger SV when defender Kaka headed past his own goalkeeper, Timo Ochs. Four minutes after Ochs had left the pitch injured, replacement goalie Sascha Burchert raced out of his penalty area to head clear, only to direct his header straight to a HSV player, who lobbed the ball into the net from the half-way line. Only two minutes later, Burchert risked another header – with exactly the same outcome. It ended 3-1 to HSV, with all three goals self-induced.
The Bundesliga season looks certain to be overshadowed by the tragic death of Robert Enke, which belatedly triggered a national debate about the stigmatisation of depression in sport and in German society as a whole. Yet there are gloomy signs that football is reverting to type. Markus Babbel, who had guided VfB Stuttgart to the Champions League in May, was dismissed in December, after home fans blockaded the team bus and changing rooms chanting: "If you get relegated, we'll kill you." Babbel subsequently accused fans of "hypocrisy" in their public show of sympathy for Enke. "Four weeks after the death of Robert Enke," Babbel said, "this shows that fans and the whole football community have learned nothing."
And the first half of the season ended with the German media labelling another goalkeeper as "having a screw loose" – Jens Lehmann. The tabloid Sport Bild even placed Lehmann number one on their list of "the 50 maddest Bundesliga players of all time". Admittedly, this followed a period in which Lehmann urinated behind an advertising hoarding during a match against Unirea Urziceni, conceded a last-minute penalty against Mainz 05 by standing on striker Aristide Bancé's foot and then stole a fan's glasses after he asked him: "Jens, why can't you just be normal?" Any Arsenal fan, however, could confirm that this behaviour was perfectly normal for Jens Lehmann. Paul Joyce