The 2008-09 Bundesliga championship is the title race that nobody wants to win.
By Nick Bidwell in Munich
In a season when the Bundesliga top table seating plan changes from week to week, it is tempting to regard the 2008-09 edition as the championship no one wants to win. Germans may not fully understand the concept of queuing but their league very much has an “after you” quality to it these days.
All half-dozen contenders – Bayern Munich, Hoffenheim, Hamburg and Hertha Berlin, plus outsiders Leverkusen and Wolfsburg – have had their moments of alarming fallibility. All possess a capacity for self-harm and significant weak points, which could derail their ambitions unless treated as matter of urgency. All could be line dancers: one step forward, one back.
With so many possible permutations, the German title race is one of the most open and exciting in Europe. Democracy in action compared to the dull one-club rule on offer in so many domestic leagues these days. It’s far from perfect; it can be rough and ready at times, but if you want unpredictability, this has to be the division for you.
Inconsistency is the element keeping the top-six playing field relatively level and no team has aided the process more than winter champions Hoffenheim, whose performance graph for early 2009 unexpectedly took a downward turn with a 1-1 away draw at bottom club Gladbach and a shattering 4-1 home loss to Leverkusen.
Defensive frailities not apparent before Christmas suddenly have surfaced and there are legitimate doubts whether they have enough gas in the tank to maintain their power pressing game to the finishing line. The season-ending knee injury suffered by top scorer Vedad Ibisevic might not prove as costly as initally thought. The long-striding Senegalese attacker Demba Ba has picked up the baton with some style, racking up a memorable hat-trick to help his side achieve a 3-3 draw in the south-west derby at Stuttgart.
At Hamburg, optimism is taking hold, title talk encouraged by wins at home to Bayern and at Leverkusen. Boss Martin Jol, who has only been in situ since the summer, has assembled a team of considerable heart, enterprise and tactical adaptability. While their football does not particularly flow, they do know how to hold their nerve and a have a feel for the right time to force the issue. They are not, though, beyond a matchday black-out, such as in the 3-2 loss at Karlsruhe when they let slip a two-goal lead.
Hertha Berlin, enjoying their best campaign since finishing third in 1999, are the sort of ultra-reliable team to set your watch by, so fastidoiusly organised by Swiss coach Lucien Favre, so compact, workmanlike and spirited. Yet even their finely-tuned machine has produced results of wildly differing hue since the winter break. The glowing technicolor of a gutsy 2-1 victory over Bayern at the Olympiastadion; the grey of a solid if uninspring 1-1 draw at lowly Bielefeld and raging red in the wake of a 2-1 defeat in Wolfsburg, who have turned their backyard into a citadel.
Lucien Favre deserves JFK status in the capital city for the way he has wrung every last gram from a group of mainly artisans. Some harp that they only ever win by the narrowest of margins (nine out of their 12 victories have been by a single goal). But that’s not the real problem. Hertha’s faultline is their overt counter-attacking strategy, one which only works against the big boys.
Against Bayern, for example, Hertha only had a fraction of Bayern’s possession and chances, yet still came through courtesy of two Andrii Voronin goals, the first, a header after Bayern Christian Lell lost the flight of a cross, the second a crisp cross shot following the rapid break-out led by the Brazilian midfielder Raffael. When Hertha face clubs with even less ambition than their own, they lose their way. Ad-libbing is not a hallmark of this team.
What Bayern coach Jurgen Klinsmann would give for a rearguard of Hertha’s solidity. A clutch of New Year defeats – in Hamburg, Berlin and a 2-1 reverse at home to Koln – has plunged the reigning champions into crisis and Klinsi principally stands accused of not having enough locks on his back door. Lucio and Martin Demichelis appear sluggish in central defence and midfield holder Mark Van Bommel too often goes walkabout. Although Bayern are not out of the title hunt, a change of emphasis is a must.
Time to ditch the Klinsmann mantra of individual improvement in favour of collective drills.