Now that the Bundesliga can officially boast THE TIGHTEST TITLE-RACE IN EUROPE’S BIG FIVE LEAGUES, scores of football fans worldwide will no longer be deprived of the joys of German club football by insisting on a real competition between first and second in the table.
No boring procession by Juventus, PSG, Barcelona and Leicester City to the championship here: this season, unlike others, is guaranteed to go on all the way into May!
So welcome, dear millions. It’s good to have you, finally. But please be advised: all is not as initially advertised. The team who were widely tipped to make life difficult for Bayern Munich and exciting for everyone else as the new, coming force in the German top flight, for example, have not lived up to their billing. Far from pushing on after winning the German Cup and destroying Pep Guardiola’s side 4-1 in January last year, VfL Wolfsburg have gone six steps backwards. A 3-0 away defeat by Bayer Leverkusen on Friday night – so poor that Süddeutsche Zeitung felt “it could amount to a new Volkswagen scandal” – left Dieter Hecking’s men in eighth spot in the table and “in the basement, mood-wise” (NDR), just in time for the biggest game in the club’s history, against Real Madrid in the Champions League. “With that sort of performance, it won’t be very titillating on Wednesday night,” predicted Hecking grimly. Unless Cristiano Ronaldo piques interest on the post-game changing room photo, possibly.
For die Königlichen (the Royals), it will be a case of going from el clásico to (one half of) “el plástico”, as Kicker had cruelly dubbed Wolves’ appointment with Leverkusen, the other corporate-owned club in the league. The temptation is strong to call this one “el mismátchico”. Wolfsburg have been inconsistent throughout the campaign but never quite as awful as at the weekend. “We played grotesquely badly,” said the Germany international Julian Draxler, “we didn’t challenge for any balls and lacked everything.” The sporting director, Klaus Allofs, tried hard to sound outraged about the latest capitulation – “We haven’t shown that we belong in the Champions League next season” – but seemed rather resigned to his team’s ineptitude. The Lower Saxons’ season could well be over in 10 days.
Truth be told, Wolfsburg’s form in Europe has offered some consolation. “I’m not afraid that we’ll be playing as badly as today [against Madrid],” Allofs said. “We’ll witness a different team then. But on the other hand it makes me incredibly angry that there is such a difference [in attitude].” The inability to keep the focus between soul-stirring floodlit outings against Manchester United (and Gent) has only been part of the malaise, however. “We won’t be finished by the morning if I start listing all our issues,” Hecking said in Leverkusen.
The biggest singular problem can be surmised in three words: Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian attacking midfielder was the best player in the Bundesliga last season, a one-man tornado tearing through opposition defences and providing goals and assists by the bucket-load. The 24-year-old brought in €75m but Draxler, the man signed for nearly half that sum, is only half the player in terms of direct impact, a much more discreet influence on proceedings who cannot, by himself, lift the rest of the team to another level. His more intricate game does not naturally lend itself to the counterattacking football that made Hecking’s team so hard to play against in 2014-15 either.
The striker Bas Dost breaking his metatarsal three months ago and the hard-working winger Daniel Caligiuri losing form have exacerbated the decrease in firepower. Wolfsburg have scored 23 fewer league goals than at the same stage last season to date. Off the pitch there have been too many distractions as well. Nicklas Bendtner was at last told to pack his bags last week after sleeping through a training session – his contract will be rescinded one year before its expiration. “We had to do it, he had become a danger to society,” said Allofs, by which he meant that the striker’s famously relaxed lifestyle had begun to prove corrosive for team morale. Similar accusations have been levelled at his fellow forward Max Kruse. The Germany international was publicly rebuked for a series of misdemeanours that verge from the rather trivial (he deleted a photo of himself on a Bild reporter’s mobile phone) to the bizarre (he lost €75,000 in a Berlin taxi) and do not seem all that grave by themselves. The club and the national team manager, Joachim Löw, believed they were indicative of an underlying lack of professionalism that Kruse had been warned about before. “We trust him to sort himself out,” Allofs said on Friday. Kruse had played for an hour at the BayArena without once threatening to do something meaningful.
While Wolfsburg’s plight will garner little sympathy in Germany, due to their heavy spending and perceived status as an artificial power, it is objectively a shame that the third-best club side the league has seen over the past five years have unravelled this quickly. Wednesday will offer a last chance of redemption. Hecking will have the centre-back Naldo available again to stabilise the defence and must hope that the maddeningly inconsistent André Schürrle will have a good night. But you wouldn’t be too surprised if Madrid inflicted so much pain that the last remnants of a functioning team at the Volkswagen-Arena will be blown away altogether.
• Thomas Schaaf had never been relegated as a Bundesliga manager before taking on the Hannover 96 job, and he won’t be relegated this season either: the Lower Saxons pulled the plug on the 54-year-old after an atrocious run of 10 defeats in11 games. “We didn’t want to end the season this way and will try to get a positive effect from changing the manager,” said the sporting director Martin Bader, who is also on borrowed time now. “But it’s only theoretically possible to stay up now that we’re 10 points adrift of the play-off spot”. The under-19 coach Daniel Stendel has been cast as the fall-guy to oversee 96’s first relegation from the top flight in 30 years.
• “We are burying fair play this weekend,” the 1.FC Köln sporting director, Jörg Schmadtke, mournfully announced after the 1-1 draw away at much-improved Hoffenheim on Sunday. The visitors had scored a late equaliser after playing on when Köln’s Lukas Klünter was lying on the floor injured. A similar thing had happened in the Leverkusen game two days before. In both instances, however, the players were right to play on as the referees had deemed the injuries not serious enough to warrant an interruption. Schmadtke, who had recently called officials “eggheads”, might have made more of an impression with his fair play if he hadn’t thrown his chewing gum in the direction of the Hoffenheim bench in protest. TSG have accepted his apology but the German FA might not be so lenient.
• Dortmund warmed up for what promises to a very awkward family reunion on Thursday night with a dramatic 3-2 win over Werder. The BVB chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke, is very worried that the fans’ love for Jürgen Klopp could create a “feeling as if it’s a friendly game” and urged his players to change “from hugging mode into competitive mode”. Privately, the Black and Yellows were very pleased that the first leg is at the Westfalenstadion: the scenario of the crowd cheering their former Übertrainer after their own club’s elimination from the competition was – however unlikely – the stuff of nightmares for Thomas Tuchel and the board.
Results: Leverkusen 3-0 Wolfsburg, Bayern 1-0 Eintracht, Hannover 0-3 HSV, Mainz 4-2 Augsburg, Ingolstadt 3-0 Schalke, Darmstadt 2-2 Stuttgart, Dortmund 3-2 Bremen 3-2, Gladbach 5-0 Hertha, Hoffenheim 1-1 Köln.
This article was written by Raphael Honigstein, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 5th April 2016 15.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010