Author Archives: Jason

Lounge Acts Postview: Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund

In what was billed as the match of the round, the supposed epic tussle between current Bundesliga champions Borrusia Dortmund and current league leaders Bayern Munich turned into a farce with both sides ending the match with fewer men than they began and Jürgen Klopp likely awaiting a heavy fine after his antics in a scoreless draw. On a night when Klopp lost his cool under the dual pressures of managing his young squad both in Germany and in Champions League competition, it was in fact Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer who will be stealing the headlines after his unsporting behavior following his save of a Lucas Barrios penalty in the 65th minute earned him the early gate. The shared points, coupled with Werder Bremen’s 2-1 success at Borrusia Park saw BvB drop to third in the table, while the Bavarians’ lead at the top shrunk to three points.

With Bastian Schweinsteiger and Anatoliy Tymoschuck both out for Bayern, Jupp Heynckes drafted in Luiz Gustavo alongside Toni Kroos in the center of his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. Danijel Pranjic was given a rare start on the right wing with dynamo Thomas Müller pulled inside to support top scorer Mario Gomez, and French James Bond villain Franck Ribery manning the left. The level of comfort and communication among this set of players was lacking from the off, as what appeared to be a promising offensive movement in the 18th minute, begun on the break by a deep-lying Gustavo, ended in tragi-comedy as an outlet pass made by Müller out wide just rolled out of bounds with a non-reactive Pranjic watching it go out. Pranjic then shrugged his shoulders, motioning to young Thomas as if asking, “Wait, you meant to pass it to me? What team am I on again?” This came on the heels of an incident in the 13th minute, where it Ribery could be seen attempting to sneak up on BvB’s Sven Bender from behind and to give the young midfielder a “wet willy.”

The Wet Willy & Shinji’s Socks Formation

Dortmund were just as impressive in their end, however, and refused to come second in had quickly become a comedy of errors at the Allianz. Shinji Kagawa, eager to regain the form that brought him such accolades last campaign prior to a metatarsal injury suffered in January’s Asian Cup shelved him for a spell, ran his socks off. Quite literally it could be said, as when made a cutting run across the face of Manuel Neuer’s goal area in the 32nd minute, he was unable to slow his momentum and ran off the field of play, into a bank of cameramen pitch-side. Subsequently extricating himself from one cameraman’s equipment Kagawa ripped his right sock, revealing a shin guard covered in images of Shinji’s supposedly favorite Dragonball Z characters. Exacerbated that this occurred with the ball still in play and Dortmund down a man, Klopp accidentally performed a reverse double-fist pump on the opposite side of the pitch which connected with the 4th official, causing a ten minute delay in play while the head referee checked on his colleague. Dortmund’s staff quickly re-socked Kagawa, who continued for the rest of the match in what he later described as “Super Saiyan” mode.

The first half ended with neither side truly showing his quality, as the stoppage of play for the 4th official, coupled with the Ribery’s insistence on not passing to Gomez until the German international called for the ball by flapping his arms like a chicken made the opening 45 minutes a clunky affair. It was not until the 2nd half when the action became truly interesting, if not alarming. With BvB having gained a foothold in the match once Klopp brought on young Moritz Leitner in place of Sebastian Kehl around the hour mark, Neuer began being called into real action for the first times of the evening. As that trademark pressure around the opposition’s final third started wearing down a rather exhausted Bayern back line, Neuer was forced into making two fine saves–one on a cheeky backheel from forward Lucas Barrios and the second from a dangerous free kick from Mats Hummels.

A penalty call for a hand ball in the box by Gustavo in the 65th minute was turned down by referee Wolfgang Stark, and at this point is where Klopp lost his composure. Play was once again halted as the young trainer stormed the pitch to confront Stark, causing copious amounts of spittle to fly from his mouth onto Stark’s slightly aghast face. As the referee sought assistance in removing Klopp from the field as well as the park, Klopp dropped to his knees and began pulling up handfuls of the turf and shoving the blades of grass into his mouth in an apparent attempt to stem the amount of saliva still dribbling. Once order was restored and Klopp was no longer about, real calamity struck for Dortmund when they were reduced to ten men following a questionable red card handed to Sven Bender just a short time later.

“Coq au Vin Gomes, Coq au Vin.”

In the 68th minute, Bayern’s Müller slipped on the now-bald patch of dirt created by Klopp’s performance as he was advancing the ball up the park. Bender, who had been marking Müller tighter in this 2nd half, had been defending Müller at the time and supposedly said, “What you fell over for Mule?” while the Bayern player was on the ground. Stark, who was near enough to hear Bender’s words, immediately blew his whistle and reached for a red card to tumultuous applause from the dumbstruck Allianz Arena. While Stark has yet to speak officially on his decision, reports suggest he thought Bender had used racist language when addressing Müller, and the red card was given for grossly unsporting conduct. And while he was no longer a party to the proceedings by this point, it has been further reported Klopp ruptured a blood vessel in his temple upon hearing of Bender’s dismissal, and there is now a doubt as to his health over managing the squad in their upcoming Champions League match against Arsenal.

Now down a man, Dortmund lost the initiative, and the match favored Bayern going forward. Ribery delivered a well-placed cross into the box for Gomez but the striker’s headed shot went well wide of Roman Weidenfeller’s goal in the 74th minute. Having the bulk of possession playing with the man advantage, Bayern Munich were able to pin BvB into their end for the remainder, until a swift counter attack turned the match completely upside down. His first touch having let him down, Toni Kroos gifted the ball to Hummels around the 77th minute. Hummels then swiftly hoofed the ball to a streaking Kagawa, finding the speedy player on a dead run just over the midfield stripe. As Bayern’s defenders were too far up the pitch in search of that winning goal, Kagawa looked to have had a free run on Neuer, but Germany’s captain Philipp Lahm recovered to shield his keeper but in the process had a deserved penalty called on him.

With Bayern now also reduced to ten men, it was Barrios who was called upon to attempt and snatch a winner from Fortress Allianz if he could but sneak one past the mighty Neuer. Amazingly, Barrios scuffed his shot, sending it over the crossbar and into the dark of that cold, Bavarian night. Even more amazingly, Neuer then produced a replica Borussia Dortmund shirt from behind his goal, waving it in front of a crestfallen Barrios before proceeding to wipe his bottom on the BvB crest of the jersey. Match officials tell us Neuer was yelling something like, “There’s your Arsemund Lucy!”

At this point, Stark had lost complete control of the match, and with members of both clubs on the field attempting to keep both sets of players from engaging in an all-out fight–well, except for Gomez, who was still to be found up far up the pitch running his fingers through his hair–the full time whistle was blown after only 82 minutes of play. Pranjic could be seen reaching into Stark’s pockets for cards and confusingly, looks to have given himself a yellow card.

There is no word on whether the caution Pranjic awarded himself will be counted as an official card by league officials. Further, there is no word on whether Schalke 04 have plans to send a congratulatory card to Neuer for his part in the match.

Dutt-Struck Luck This Time

In the interest of full disclosure, the following words come from a bitter Bayer Leverkusen fan. Jon & Terry neither endorse this sort of knee-jerk analysis nor ascribe to the slightly deranged opinions mentioned below. Or they could–I just didn’t ask them. 

Bayer 04 should give those three points back to Valencia and someone should tie a knot in Robin Dutt’s scarf out of spite. Yes, Leverkusen rallied to nip three points off the Spaniards in a crucial Champions League tie at BayArena, but honestly, the victory does not feel deserved. The more important points, though, were matters of an ongoing nature, and the final outcome–which finds Werkself sitting on 6 points and 2nd in the group–glosses over these concerns like whitewash on a dirty and rotted wooden fence.Perhaps this is being overly critical of the club and its trainer only a few matches into the Bundesliga season and the alternate legs of European fixtures still to come, so take this with a grain of salt.

There are three points to the bad that can be taken from that Valencia match, and they are unlikely to be addressed before Bayer 04 take on Los Che at the Mestalla nor in the preceding Bundesliga matches against Schalke 04 (massive) and Freiburg. That realisation is more frustrating than what transpired against the Vampire-Bats, or whatever it is Los Che means.

To begin, what purpose did Michael Ballack serve on the pitch? Yes, this is a pinched nerve with Leverkusen supporters, but overall he was dreadful against Valencia. Having read the Bild story about how “Captain Ballack” dragged the club back with a brilliant 190 seconds of work, one would get the impression he had a good match. Isolating on him, though, it appeared he played most of the match at a trot slower than a farm horse with a broken back and couldn’t be too bothered about tracking back defensively, or moving beyond the speed of a submarine turning around in the water.

About the only thing that was right about the Bild story was he pretended to be a part of the match for a little over three minutes.

With Ballack in a more advanced position and doing virtually nothing other than looking for his Valencia defender and sticking close to him in case he had a snack or something, Ballack deprived both the attack and the defense throughout the match. At several points during both halves, Stefan Kießling was to be found having to track back considerably to assist on defending out wide–perhaps where “El Capitan” should have been. Further, there are too many times when Kießling was seen actually running past a lethargic Ballack far too deep in the midfield from his striker’s position to pressure an opponent on the ball or streaking in for a loose ball, then having to turn back to goal and dribble in to restart the attack.Isn’t that what Ballack should have been doing the whole time, with Stefan positioned somewhat more dangerously?

The trickle-down effect–Reaganomics works people!–was that Simon Rolfes was made largely irrelevant where he was positioned. Ballack was occupying an area of the pitch Rolfes could have made some contribution out of in terms of being able to better link the midfield and the forwards, but instead he played a bit further back defensively in the 4-2-3-1 formation, which was of no help to anyone else wearing red and black on the evening. While there are some who will question his true worth, it is a certainty Rolfes would have done more playing in the more advanced CAM Dutt had Ballack occupy.

In actuality, Rolfes did little more than get in Lars Bender’s way and quite often forced him to perform the lion’s share of the dirty work on a night when at least two of Leverkusen’s elder statesmen couldn’t be bothered. Judging by the number of times Bender committed to a tackle or slid to sneak an errant pass from Valencia’s midfielder, perhaps Rolfes was concerned that, given his age and injury history, he’d crack a hip doing the same thing.

And he probably would have, which begs the question: why was Rolfes one of your holding midfielders while Ballack played up top Herr Dutt? Surely he spotted this same comedy of errors taking place and adjusted accordingly, right? Nein. Instead, the incongruity was allowed to continue, and in truth, the two goals where created mainly through the quality of Schürrle and Sam. Andre’s shot was a thunderbolt that punished Los Che for not moving out of their own penalty area quickly enough whereas the second came about because Sidney had the speed to get to that lazy pass from Ballack faster than his defender. Other than those moments, the remainder of the match was like a flaming bag of dog poo placed on the front porch by those meddling kids.

It is the season for tricks and treats, after all. For Leverkusen fans, let’s hope Dutt’s got new tricks available soon, because there will not be too many more treats such as the one given Wednesday evening either in Champions League or Bundesliga.

The Sound of One Hand Hitting Another

Most would consider that a positive sound, as in the sound of clapping at something pleasing to the eyes or ears. Now, we were recently made aware that the noise of flesh striking flesh means something entirely different to Bayern Munich fans bored at a match, but that’s not where this is going (or is it?) but let’s focus instead on the less embarrassing connotations. Much like its pessimistic cousin the audible “Boo” immediately suggests immense displeasure at whatever a spectator is witnessing, clapping brings with it a feeling of acceptance, whether begrudgingly polite or enthusiastic, along with a sense that whatever has just transpired was something good to behold. In football, it can be derived from such a simple thing as an outlet pass, or it can be the outward expression of emotions and events wrapped up in so many other complex matters taking place off the pitch. In any analysis, clapping in football is surrounded by that warm, fuzzy feeling we still get when fresh baked cookies are about to be served.

So, did you hear clapping when Kaiserslautern extended the contract of trainer Marco Kurz, or where you too busy munching on those chocolate chips?

If you didn’t, most likely it was because the announcement was made almost as an aside during a week when most football observers were still stuck in transition from following the final group play matches of Euro 2012 qualification to the weekend’s league games. Or possibly, as 1.FCK do not often find themselves headlining the news when there’s so much to discuss about how incredibly awesome Bayern Munich is or how Borussia Dortmund are faring thus far following last season’s glorious run, events at the Fritz Walter Stadion are just out of earshot. Jon and Terry highlighted Kurz receiving an extension to his contract on the Bundesliga Show, and while they were not heard clapping–which might not come across very well on podcasts anyway–you could certainly hear the positive tones in their voices when discussing this decision by Die roten Tuefel. It would seem incredibly odd, though, to suggest applause at the move to keep Kurz at the Betzenberg even longer, considering he has managed Kaiserslautern into the relegation mixer thus far this Bundesliga campaign.

After all, when their club is looking up the table and sees so many more clubs above them than below them, this is the moment when supporters start calling for the manager’s head, right? And why should fans of other Bundesliga clubs care enough about this to even give 1.FCK a perfunctory clap of approval?

In a league where club management demonstrates a lack of fear over throwing the baby out with the bath water before the temperature in the tub is even cool when it comes to Bundesliga trainers, this decision should be applauded both for the simple and the complex issues it represents. At the most basic level, giving Kurz a longer contract indicates something more substantial than the oft-heard “vote of confidence” from a club’s board that precedes a sacking once a side’s form does not improve. While the Red Devils are not where they want to be on the table for now, Kurz has been shown that the club does truly believe he will manage them away from a relegation spot come season’s end, and he is being provided additional time–calculated in euros rather than in empty words–to see out his vision for Kaiserslautern.

Further, make no mistake that extending Kurz for an additional year could also be considered a hollow gesture from chairperson Stefan Kuntz to spur on a bit of confidence for the team. Kuntz is acutely aware ‘Lautern are not an organisation that can be casual with commitments of its finances, either on player wages or coaches’ salaries. This season’s squad reflects that harsh reality, with the offseason losses of important players such as Ivo Iličević and Srdjan Lakic to bigger sides, as well as an inability to make permanent signings of lads like Jan Morávek and Erwin Hoffer, who played significant minutes for 1.FCK on their way to finishing 7th in the 2010/11 campaign. Quite simply, this is not the Kaiserslautern of the 1990s that could win a 1.Bundesliga title, get relegated, then fund its way back to an unprecedented double by winning the 2nd division one year and claiming the top flight the following year.

Rather, this is a Kaiserslautern that nearly went bust at the close of the past decade, narrowly escaped relegation to the hinterlands of Germany’s third division, and are still recovering from those lows.

From the more complicated view, rewarding Kurtz now despite his club’s slow start to the season serves as a reminder that during this time in top European football, when even the slightest poor run of form elicits the baying for blood from impatient, gloryhunting fans–apologies if you qualify, but doubt you are if you’re reading this anyway–and swift sackings by club boards, there still exists such a concept as rational patience. The established study of managerial terminations specific to the Dutch leagues from 1986-2004 demonstrated there was little change in a club’s fortunes when firing a manager during the season, and quite often his successor compiled a similar record of misery. Also, the only positive gain for a club happened during the first three matches of the new trainer’s reign, thus quantifying the idea of a “new manager bounce.” Now, within that study, effects specific to Bundesliga were analysed as well using 2000/01 season data, with the only difference being the German league sees more forced resignations from its club trainers rather than outright terminations.

Other than this, the data indicated Bundesliga clubs performed roughly the same as their Dutch counterparts, suggesting in-season managerial upheaval in the German top flight held true to the Shakespearean quote on tales told by idiots. Thus what Kuntz and Kaiserslautern’s board have recognised is that the expectant knee-jerk response–to publicly bemoan the club’s position and place Kurz on notice he is managing on borrowed time–would likely increase their short-term success by only a couple matches and posturing for an immediate future without Kurz in charge could possibly do more damage to the club’s chances should they be unable to avoid the drop at season’s end. Kurz has been with the club during most recent lower league days, managed them to promotion, and could be well placed to repeat the feat should 2011/12 be less than optimal. Perhaps the board also acknowledges with this extension that Kurz has been given a less talented bunch of apples in this season’s Bundesliga basket to bake his apple pie, and he should be afforded a longer period to be the head chef should financial fortunes improve later for the club to buy higher quality ingredients at the transfer shop the next go round.

What this also speaks to is the clear division between the big and the small in Bundesliga. Finding themselves also at the wrong end of the table early in the season, Hamburg SV chose the predictable action in sacking Michael Oenning. While there was a time of uncertainty as caretaker boss Rodolfo Cardoso was denied a chance to prolong his tenure without the necessary licensing and Sporting Director Frank Arnesen even called his own name were the club able to find a suitable replacement soon, the dinosaur of the league was able to shower FC Basle with enough money to part with their promising young manager Thorsten Fink. Hamburg look to have settled their form woes through the usual path, as this is a club expected to compete regularly for Bundesliga titles and play in Europe rather than in relegation scraps. The northern club is a massive one with the financial base to recruit top coaches and top talent, and legions of Rothosen supporters demand the club’s board utilise these resources to fulfill aspirations of trophy-laden seasons.

They have the ability to buy a brown sack for Oenning while picking up new clothes for another emperor simultaneously while 1.FC Kaiserslautern pull out a needle and thread with Kurz to stitch up their 2011/12 campaign.

How about a round of applause then, for 1.FCK for making a sensible decision? When the next club in crisis emerges this season–which will inevitably occur–perhaps that club’s board will look upon what is happening on the Betzenberg and be slower to draw their axes. Not every season ends in glory, no campaign should be looked upon as a zero-sum game, and patience is a virtue to be admired rather than scorned these days. Otherwise, you might find yourself arrested for having sex in the stands of a match you’ve lost patience for watching.

Rough Times in the ‘Burg

Under typical conditions, a goalless draw would not be a welcome result, particularly for a home side that might have considered a draw in their park as two essential points gone begging. For such a thing to even occur in a 1.Bundesliga arena this season looks a bit anomalous, as there have only been two matches end in such a fashion after seven full weeks of play by all eighteen clubs in the league. When the final whistle sounded at the SGL arena this past weekend, ending FC Augsburg’s match against Hannover 96 at 0-0, though, Jos Luhukay’s moustache probably twitched into something suggesting he was smiling at the outcome.

After all, this was progress for his squad, and a home draw might count for a win these early days.

None expected FCA’s initial foray into top flight German football to be a hugely successful one, but few would have predicted the Bavarian squad would be entering Matchday 8 still in search of its first victory. That other underwhelming ‘Burg in Hamburg recently broke their duck, so now it is FC Augsburg that have yet to clear the good name of ‘Burgs and their ilk. Luhukay must assuredly be hoping FCA do not challenge the record held by 1860 Munich when die Löwen  failed to earn all three points until Matchday 15 of the 1977/78 campaign. By then, it would be early December and it would be less a question of whether Augsburg could beat the drop but whether their bottoming out would reach historic proportions.

Although any Bundesliga club would have to produce some seriously horrid work on the pitch to match the monumental achievements of SC Tasmania 1900 Berlin during their ill-fated 1965-66 campaign. The club set several infamous marks for abysmal performance, including fewest wins (2), fewest points (8), and fewest goals scored (15). With these feats having happened during a 34 match season, Tasmania either had to work very hard at being this terrible or regularly fielded squads where their goalkeeper played as a striker rather than between the sticks.

So, Luhukay should be able to breathe a bit easier aware there have been other clubs historically out of their depth in the top flight, and he should be able to take some positives away from that draw with Hannover, the most obvious being that it was FCA’s first clean sheet of the season. More than that, though, was that Luhukay found a potentially winning formula when he opted for the 4-4-2 formation rather than the 4-2-3-1 he set out on previous occasions. Against Hannover 96, Luhukay had Daniel Baier out on the right wing with Nando Rafael partnering Sascha Mölders up top rather than having Baier centrally located supporting Mölders as the lone striker.

Now, while Baier did seem to cut in a bit more than perhaps he should have when positioned as a wide player, having him there rather than in his more accustomed central attacking midfielder spot made him more of an effective outlet for FC Augsburg to threaten Ron-Robert Zeiler’s goal. He was able to get considerably more positive touches on the ball than he had been while playing in the middle during the first six matches and, when Luhukay substituted Rafael for Akaki Gogia at the hour mark, his natural inclination to play on the interior opened up the right for Gogia to occupy. Perhaps by this point FCA might have been playing for a draw, as Gogia sat deeper than Baier on the right, and here the tactical decision might have been wise by Luhukay, as it prevented Augsburg from being overturned later in the match as they had when Sidney Sam ran amok down this same flank in their previous home match with Bayer Leverkusen.

Again, a draw for FCA at this stage is a sight nicer than a morale-crushing loss late in the game.

Further, this change in formation prevented Hannover 96 from being able to simply isolate Mölders in the middle or be able to defend him in the centre with only one player. In several matches thus far, FCA have seen Japanese RB Hajime Hosogai charge down the right and either cross or cut inside to find Mölders on the GK’s doorstep, only to find a jumble of humanity effectively screening the forward out of an effective shot. At times, it has been Sascha as the lone FCA shirt in a sea of defenders and at other times it has been his own teammate Baier acting almost as the unlikely defender, shielding a cross from either Hosogai or LW Axel Bellinghausen to be capable of producing a quality shot on goal. With the four midfielders, then, FC Augsburg were better able to unclog the middle and make it easier for runners from either side to identify where their target man was in order to test the opposition’s keeper. Granted, a goalless draw suggests this was unsuccessful for either side in this encounter, but for Luhukay and that fantastic lip sweater of his, this might have marked the path toward FCA finding their first 1.Bundesliga victory.

Just, maybe not this approaching matchday–Augsburg venture into Westfalenstadion with a hope and a prayer.

So, while top flight life might not be for the ‘Burg by the end of this season, they show promise for making their dedicated supporters proud regardless. There will likely be little in the way of funds available come the January transfer window should Luhukay want to recruit seasoned Bundesliga veterans for a 2nd half charge, as benefactor Walther Seinsch indicated he has provided as much financial support in the past as he can to turn FCA into a winner. In essence, he stated last fall that the club must find its own way now, as he has finished his role in reviving the club after it fell into the amateur leagues due to its large debts earlier last decade. Still if Hamburg can find a way to get on track this season, why not Augsburg?

As for Freiburg, that’s a different ‘Burg of issues altogether.

It’s a Mad Tea Party

There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter… Which luckily, I am!

One of the more signficant contributions to pop culture ever made by Charles Lutwidge Dotson was giving Disney theme parks an excuse to create the Mad Tea Party ride. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a fantastic contraption that sees park-goers voluntarily decide to hop into oversized, pastel-coloured tea cups and spin round and round until either their eyes cross or their meals are involuntarily ejected. Despite these potential unfortunate side effects, the Mad Tea Party is considered one of the most iconic rides of all of Disney’s tehme park attractions and still quite popular.

A mad tea party also describes what we often see when it comes to the constant movement of trainers in Bundesliga of late, quite often with Felix Magath as the Mad Hatter.

So often when the sacking season begins, we refer to it as the “coaching carousel,” but this doesn’t quite fit the description of how things take shape for managers in Germany’s top flight. A carousel simply goes around in a wide circle, rhythmically moving up and down. Someone gets on, such as when Michael Oenning did in March for HSV, once someone else had been chucked of the horse, to begin a ride. The problem here, is that the carousel only goes in one direction, typically at only one speed, and the movements up and down can be timed so that the rider can come to expect when he’s on a high, and when he’s on a low.

Instead, Oenning just got his eyes crossed after having been spun violently every which way but up during his time in charge of Hamburg and from matchday to matchday likely had little notion of how to predict a high or low. Instead, he hopped into that red-shorted tea cup vacated by Armin Veh and gave it a spin for what many might have thought would be a short ride as a caretaker. The club opted to stay with Oenning to begin this campaign, however, and after one point from their opening six matches, could no longer wait to see if he might be able to lessen his vertigo and see the way forward. Even though it is still early doors at this stage of the Bundesliga season, it was becoming apparent the 45 yr old trainer was about to lose his lunch.

What is the hatter with me? Have I gone mad? 

Also, on the carousel, there is usually a large pole the rider can hold onto for security as the seat moves up and down. In Bundesliga, as in all top flight European football these days, there is typically no sturdy pillar with which a manager can cling to for support when his ride is at its ebb. Even a previous record of title triumphs is often not considered secure enough for them to latch onto to ride out the down times. Rather, in these eighteen tea cups, with some moving faster than particles in a CERN accelerator, a poor runs of form are spun so quickly into clubs being in crisis and managers start to look slightly dizzy and lost as the ride keeps speeding up as they try desperately to slow it down.

In the end, those, like Oenning, end up being spun right out of their seats before they decided to end their ride in the tea cup.

Now, there is the announcement that Ralf Rangnick is stepping away from Schalke 04, citing health reasons. Having listened to Rangnick prior to his appointment as the Royal Blues trainer in April, this is not an incredible shock. After Dietmar Hopp began spinning his tea cup in the wrong direction with Hoffenheim, Rangnick sounded like a person who wanted to take some time away from the game, watch the Mad Tea Party from the sidelines for a spell, before hopping back on the ride.

Instead, when the Mad Hatter himself left and took his party back to Wolfsburg, Rangnick was coaxed to come back for another spin, and he accepted perhaps too early for his own health. Those final days with Germany’s richest village team appears to have made him a bit sick of it all, and probably he should have given himself more time to focus on personal matters he most likely set aside while he remained a guest at the mad tea party.

You’re not the same as you were before You were much more…”muchier” You’ve lost your “muchness.”

So for Rangnick, being a rather seasoned veteran of this particular amusement park attraction, knew he was experiencing that feeling one gets right before they are about to be sick again if they have ridden the Mad Tea Party more than once, and chose to get off the ride on his own terms. As Schalke look for someone to replace him on a permanent basis, the question now becomes if another established Bundesliga manager is offered enough of a sweetener to hop out of their current seat to take a spin in Gelsenkirchen or if another guest is invited to the party.

Either way, it’s a mad ride. And do YOU know how a raven is like a writing desk?

And So It Begins

Charging forward like a locomotive fueled by ambition and belching steam from all the euros that clubs burned to reach this much celebrated stage, the Champions League begins this week. At least, it feels a bit like group play of the 2011/12 competition has rushed upon us after having seemed so far away previously, still stuck at the station, waiting for more passengers prior to departure. This season’s Bundesliga participants might not be entirely ready for this oncoming freight train either, but the time has passed for flagging down the conductor and asking him to slow down. The whistle is about to blow for things to start–they will just have to hope they weren’t left looking for postcards in the station’s gift shop before getting on board.

Of course, Bayern Munich have ridden these rails so often, the Bavarians were already enjoying cocktails in the dining cart before anyone else in their group took a seat. Jupp Heynckes already had to tell Mario Gomez to stop giggling when Philipp Lahm was asked to show proof of age in order to buy a pint. Twice.

No, Bundesliga’s other two participants, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen, might be the ones looking a bit out of sorts before this Champions League play starts. Both sides have had their share of glory and–yes, in the case of Leverkusen–almost glory in this competition, but for both it has been a few years since either have returned to the grandest European contest; this lack of inexperience will likely show at some point during group play one would imagine. The same could be said for the trainers of both clubs, although Dortmund’s rather animated coach Jürgen Klopp has managed Europa League ties, with Mainz 05 (in ye olde UEFA Cup days) and with the Borussians last season. Werkself’s trainer Robin Dutt was just plucked out of the Black Forest not too long ago, though, so he might find the glare of the Champions League spotlight rather bright at Stamford Bridge.

Then again, both BvB and Bayer 04 finished above Bayern in last season’s Bundesliga, so obviously there is top quality in both squads–why should either be given short shrift just because they lack a certain experience? After all, Tottenham Hotspur and Harry Redknapp showed for a time in this competition last season that sometimes all you need to do is run about and things might go your way. A key problem with this rationale, however, is that neither Dortmund nor Leverkusen are the same sides that finished first and second respectively to qualify. Both lost arguably their best players in the close season, with Nuri Sahin becoming the latest Bundesliga acquisition of Real Madrid while Arturo Vidal headed south to join the Old Lady. In fact, Vidal’s so good, they even built a new home stadium just for him at Juventus.

Also, don’t look up that fact for accuracy.

In short, both these sides lost the midfield engines that brought them such great success last season and thus far have been hard-pressed to replace the attributes they exhibited on the pitch. For BvB, Sahin was a perfect link between defence and attack, sparking offensive movements of his own deep in his own half at times and pulling off passes only he could see finding the proper target. As for Vidal, he developed into one of the best tacklers in the German top flight last season, and his confident control on the ball allowed his teammates to re-position themselves appropriately to pose either a scoring threat or be better placed to effectively defend. These types of skills will likely be sorely missed when going up against some of Europe’s better squads, and Bundesliga observers must hope neither side will have their shorts pulled down about their ankles as Werder Bremen did last season.

Still, both could be set to ride this Champions League train for a while given the groups in which they have been placed. With Woolwichmund approaching (because it seems labeling the Arsenal v BvB encounters “Arsemund” is something rather disgusting) and the Gunners not in the greatest of shapes entering group play, Klopp and Dortmund might have the early upper hand at the Westfalenstadion. Really, in Group F the other three sides are all out of sorts thus far, with Arsenal having recently been humbled by an 8-2 drubbing from Manchester United in the Premiership, Olympique Marseille having yet to record a win in Ligue Un, and Olympiakos…uh…for playing in the Greek league?

This is a Bundesliga site, not a Hellenic one–please be gentle. What this could mean, though, is Group F looks set to be evenly matched at the outset, and Borussia Dortmund could find themselves blitzing through as group winners should Klopp employ the frenetic, lung-bursting attacking style his squads seemed built to do.

As for Bayer Leverkusen, the Werkself might have less of a chance with Chelsea and Valencia expected to top Group E. The Michael Ballack farewell tour appears to have the makings of a mucky midfield scrap, and  if AVB employs the proper tactics befitting his reputation, Dutt might ask to borrow his chalk board. Bayer 04 might have thought they received a reprieve when midfielder Juan Mata was allowed to leave Valencia, but he’ll be opposing them at Stamford Bridge for the Blues instead. Rene Adler will likely be out until at least October, and while Bernd Leno has performed well in goal for Leverkusen in Bundesliga, he will be manning the net against extremely seasoned Champions League campaigners without an equally experienced centre back pairing in front of him to act as a security blanket.

The hope for Bayer, perhaps, lies in the Torres factor. Having recently had his comments regarding his Chelsea teammates come under club scrutiny, along with his rather poor rate of return following January’s sensational transfer from Liverpool, Fernando Torres has yet to discover how to win friends and influence his neighbours in London. He came on as a substitute in Chelsea’s most recent Premiership match, perhaps with an eye to saving him for this Champions League encounter with Leverkusen. With the club investigating his disparaging remarks about the squad and with Didier Drogba unavailable, might AVB opt for a forward partnership that includes young Daniel Sturridge instead of Torres, or does he start Torres and hope everyone plays nice?

Mario Gomez is still giggling in the dining cart, by the way.

As for Bayern Munich, what could be said as they prepare for Wednesday’s trip to El Madrigal? Considering the Red Shorts just completed putting seven past SC Freiburg and Villarreal began their La Liga campaign by shipping five to Barcelona, this might be the least intriguing Champions League match involving a Bundesliga side. Expect much to be made of their tussle with Manchester City in a few weeks instead, when Germany’s No. 1 squares off against England’s No. 1 at the Allianz Arena. This week, however, one might imagine the Bavarians should sink the Yellow Submarine and announce to the other clubs they will be fighting for the second spot in Group A.

So, the train has left the station. How far will Bundesliga’s representatives be riding it? For those of us following the fates of these clubs, here’s hoping none of their campaigns become derailed too soon, particularly when the final destination stops in Munich.

Fines A Sign of Bad Times for Wolfsburg?

There is an eerie calm during the two weeks international breaks intrude upon top flight league schedules. Pubs near stadiums likely find their trade less brisk on these weekends while fans entertain themselves with other leisurely activities typically omitted from their usual football rituals. Players not participating in their national squad fixtures are permitted more time to rest and recover, granted a brief reprieve from the weekly grind along with the incessant “Will he play?” type questions for those with nagging injuries.

When the break comes on the heels of a transfer window having just slammed shut, or closed softly, or simply concluded, it can be downright crickets. This is all well and good though for the club trainers, most of whom might appreciate the time to assess their squads after all the comings and goings during the transfer season without having to busily cobble together a plan of action in a matter of a couple days. For some, it might be a welcome break from the media glare, particularly if the season has not gone as swimmingly as planned. Of course, not a bit of that matters to Wolfsburg’s trainer Felix Magath, for he is a slave to the rhythm.

And we all know rhythm is a dancer, don’t we? It’s our soul’s companion, and all that nonsense.

No, not content with utilizing the time to evaluate his club’s concluded player transactions along their rather recent woeful defensive record as a team–having conceded 7 goals over the last two matches–Magath appears to have singled out two of his more attack-minded players during this time off and shine the media spotlight on them (and himself) instead. Charging Patrick Helmes and Mario Mandzukic with being “lazy runners” during the side’s 4-1 defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach, the pair were fined € 10,0000 each by that noted lover of medicine balls over this internationals weekend. While this is not something unprecedented for that crazy cat Felix, it is rather odd, considering neither player has ever come across as being particularly consistent up and down the pitch ever nor have either been regularly considered defensive assets to their squads.

Honestly, if Magath is going to fine Helmes for not moving about that much, he might as well charge him for being, well, Patrick Helmes. He could pursue the matter retroactively and tell Patrick he owes Bayer Leverkusen a few thousand euros while he’s at it.

The matter, though, might be rather amusing now to some Bundesliga observers, as this is Magath’s modus operandi, but for Wolfsburg supporters, it could spell the continuation of a poor run of form. As the experiment under English manager Schtunning Schteve McClaren crashed and burned at the VW Arena near the close of last year’s campaign, VfL returned to Magath, the only trainer to have taken die Wölfe to the Bundesliga summit, in an attempt to bring form to function. Most of the club McClaren had inherited fit Magath’s championship-winning system, and try as they might, McClaren’s tactics and his squad just could not get on the same page; thus, Magath picked up his poisoned chalice after having parted ways with Schalke 04 earlier in the season.

So, the cat is back, but will this type of old school encouragement work on his current Wolfsburg squad? Magath demonstrated last season during Schalke’s woeful 2010/11 league campaign this sort of managerial style works only in the proper circumstances, and can often backfire with lacklustre results. Last season, Magath isolated players such as Jermaine Jones and Alex Baumjohann in a similar fashion, labeling them as lazy and opting for them to rot on the reserve squad of the Royal Blues during his tenure. This, of course, was the same Jones who was vital in Schalke’s midfield just the previous 2009/10 season and impressive when he was finally able to escape the final days of Magath’s reign while on loan to Blackburn earlier this year. As for Baumjohann, he was returned to the side when Ralf Rangnick took over, and looks to be a first choice substitute as Rangnick rotates his midfield during the Bundesliga and Europa League campaigns this season.

Also, ask Zvonomir Soldo how effective going old school can be. Anyone know where he is these days?

With Wolfsburg likely needing their goal scorers on quality form while players on the back line like the two-footed Sortirios Kyrgiakos get sorted following the departure of the lad Simon Kjaer, this might not be the best of moments to unsettle them via negative motivational tactics. Having observed Helmes at Bayer 04, he seems to be a player who needs more confidence spewing forth from the trainer’s box than other strikers, he needs time on the pitch, and he needs to be allowed to sort out his own mistakes for positive results to take place. As for Mandzukic, his form has always been slightly spotty; in one match, he’ll appear as active as a sea turtle beaching itself to lay eggs, the very next match, he can be found darting vertically all over the pitch like a hare with his ears pinned back.

In short, this is probably a decision waiting to backfire on Magath like an old Beetle.

The break, then, is ending. Players on international duty will soon be rejoining their respective clubs, with a new matchday approaching like a freight train of relief for league enthusiasts bored out of their gourds the past weekend. For Magath and Wolfsburg, whether his decision to fine VfL players for sleeping on the job proves motivational or detrimental can only be determined on the pitch, and what better way to find out than with a home match against Schalke, featuring many of the players Magath treated in a similar manner last season along with a few he loaned out completely for not fitting his style. It should be a right family get together, then. 

Thunder Bernd

Across the pond, we have a delightfully horrid beverage known as Thunderbird. A fortified wine, it is intended to get you properly inebriated while simultaneously providing you with a curious sensation of having just licked asphalt after consuming the bottle’s contents. An occasional side effect includes discoloration of your lips, just to add a bit of comic relief to your evening should you find yourself venturing anywhere else from the parking lot of the liquor store from where you purchased said Thunderbird. Of the prime reasons why it still exists and is sold in an age when bathtub gin is no longer a prerequisite for getting tanked, Thunderbird is incredibly cheap and ready to be used almost immediately upon procurement.

It even comes in a tiny brown paper bag that can be recycled, which is good to Mother Earth and all.

This leads us, completely unnaturally, to Bayer Leverkusen’s current man between the sticks, Bernd Leno. When the young player was taken on loan from VfB Stuttgart 10 August following the mess David Yelldell made in Werkself’s 1st round loss in the DFB Pokal and a concussion suffered by Fabian Giefer in the 2-0 league loss to Mainz,he was immediately thrown into the starting XI against a tricky Werder Bremen side. One clean sheet and a win later, he remained the No. 1 and was put up against those very same Swabians who had loaned him out the previous fortnight. The result was identical–another clean sheet for Leno, another three points for Leverkusen. Certainly, facing last season’s champions in form of Borussia Dortmund, complemented with all the attacking verve to make even the most seasoned Bundesliga GK sweat through his gloves, Leno would be caught out, right? Yet again, Leno produced a clean sheet, making some remarkable saves along the way in a tense affair likely to be remembered when those two sides meet next at the Westfalenstadion.

Leno was ready to intoxicate, right out of the bag, and came relatively cheap too. Let’s hope he doesn’t make Robin Dutt feel like he’s been licking a dirty street later by falling out of form.

Anyone listening to the English commentary of that BvB match might have been struck by some of the hyperbole spilling forth later in the 2nd half, when Leno’s performance was being compared to that of Manuel Neuer. To begin, Dortmund attacking players did not seem to all be dancing to the same rhythm beat out by Juergen Klopp on the day, which made the 19 yr old’s day considerably easier. Further, this was only his third senior Bundesliga match, and neither Werder nor Stuttgart were considered overwhelming favourites in his opening two matches. Still, though, his display against the reigning Bundesliga champions and his third straight match without allowing a goal might suggest young Bernd might be a bit special going forward, but perhaps Neuer comparisons should be tempered just a while longer.

For a young keeper, he has thus far demonstrated considerable skill in anticipating when a troublesome cross is coming his way and where he should be positioned. He also has displayed alacrity with respect to decisions on when to come off his line and smother a loose ball, rather than deferring to his defenders to see off a threat. It has even been remarked by teammates like Hanno Balitsch that Leno has no fears over being vocal from the back and appears confident in the decisions he makes, both in training and during the match. Perhaps the most difficult adjustment for a young, inexperienced keeper in any top flight to make–particularly in Bundesliga–comes down to positional awareness and a lack of fear in taking charge of his penalty area. With the higher quality opposition in Germany’s top flight often widening their attacks and sending in crosses from the wings for other players to dart into the centre for a quick strike, these are two qualities essential for success for GK in Bundesliga.

Just ask Thomas Kraft about that, after his good but not so great time with Bayern Munich last season.

Next for young Thunder Bernd–yes, this is a nickname I am considering using for him, so you will have to abide–is newly promoted Augsburg. While this side appears to pose little challenge to Bayer 04, their early season play suggests the gameplan is to go wide and confuse the opposition’s keeper so that he forgets Sascha Molders is standing right there on his doorstep ready to crack a shot past him. Here again presents a new challenge for Leno and, should he perform similarly to his previous three performances, Rudi Voeller will likely be in contact with VfB hashing out the details of a permanent move for the lad rather than ending his loan spell with Bayer 04 at the winter break.

After all, when you have discovered Dom Perignon was filled in that bottle of Thunderbird you purchased at the last minute in a fit of desperation, you don’t want to have to go back into the store and run the risk of buying actual Thunderbird, do you? That is, unless you needed to get something for Yelldell to drink to go with the hash he made earlier?

Why All Quiet on the Cisse Front?

When Papiss Demba Cisse hops on a plane in Dakar, Senegal, to return to Europe, to which club’s city will he be returning? If you stopped at the question mark to feverishly check Wikipedia before venturing forth, you would say, “Well, he’s flying back to Freiburg, obviously. Or wait, was it Wolfsburg? Or London?”

“Why do I look to Wikipedia and expect it to be right all the time?”

Exactly. Perhaps the confusion has continued for the Senegalese striker –currently on international duty for his nation’s friendly against Morocco–because of the slightly stunning reality that he still remains at SC Freiburg. Most observers of Bundesliga probably expected one of the league’s top goal scorers from the 2010/11 campaign to have already been snatched up by some larger club, and some fans in other European leagues such as the English Premiership are wondering why their clubs have not seriously bid on the lad yet. Surely, most surmise, somebody will come close enough to Freiburg’s € 15 million valuation for the South Baden side to have pulled the trigger. Schalke 04 and VfL Wolfsburg appear to have made somewhat official offers in the neighborhood of € 10-12 million, and there have been rumors English clubs such as Arsenal, Fulham, Blackburn, and Tottenham made inquiries into his availability.

Now, Freiburg rejected Schalke’s bid out of hand, Wolfsburg’s offer appears about € 3million less than what the club wants, and it appears none of the English clubs have tabled an actual bid. Perhaps potential bidders are waiting to see what Cisse has in him to begin this campaign, wondering if last season’s 24 goals in all competitions was a fluke or if he is truly worth meeting Freiburg’s price. After all, Freiburg’s not participating in any European competition, so any club that lands Cisse would not be buying a cup-tied player. Well, one matchday in, and Cisse’s already in the goals. Granted, Augsburg might not have been the stiffest of Bundesliga tests for Cisse to demonstrate he is no one season wonder, but he performed as new trainer Marcus Sorg asked and can only play against whichever side the schedule says, so what more do you want Wenger?

Watching that game, his play on the ball was so comfortable, it looked as if he could easily match his tempo with whatever was happening on the park. Considering the side he was up against–a club that at times was buzzing with that newly promoted feeling and at other times rash when covering up mistakes–Cisse didn’t even seem to shift into a higher gear all afternoon. This is not to say his play was lazy–it most certainly was not–but more so that you could sense there was a higher level he could play at, but he didn’t even need to against FCA.

And that’s a little scary.

Hearing that Papiss Demba Cisse scored a goal over the weekend, and he had done so for Freiburg, many football admirers thought, “What’s he still doing there?” The question has been asked more often this week, so let’s consider why he has yet to move. Simply put, Freiburg do not appear to be budging on that € 15 million they are demanding for him. The situation appears obvious–without Cisse’s goals, the Breisgau-Brasilianers likely spend next season in 2.Bundesliga. New trainer Marcus Sorg knows his job will be made immeasurably more difficult without him, and as the player is under contract until 2014, the club has ample time to reap the benefits of his relegation-staving even through this season and still be able to get a tidy transfer sum later. Reviewing the transfer values of SC Freiburg’s squad, the Senegalese player is the one cherry the club has in their pie, so they would only be serving themselves well by holding out until some goal-starved club takes the big bite.

Then again, the club made a move this summer that seemed to indicate they were entirely expecting to be without Cisse’s services by the end of this month. Freiburg signed the 25 yr old Malian forward Garra Dembele from Levksi Sofia essentially as his replacement, rather than as a complimentary player. While the transfer fee of € 2.3 million for Dembele does not seem to be a huge amount of money in this age of silly season excess, it certainly is for a club like Freiburg and appears to represent the most the club have ever splashed out on one player, eclipsing the € 1.5 million they paid for Cisse’s transfer from French club FC Metz in 2009. In that context, then, Cisse’s meant to be sold this summer; the club is simply making whichever club gets him work a bit harder with their firm stance.

But why so firm? Could the club be risking his value to them by having him injured or throwing out a few dreadful performances that make bidders think twice? Again, with his current contract expiring three years away, Freiburg can run these risks. But for a club that has just spent the most money it ever has for another player’s services, they likely intended that player to be the main attraction now rather than playing second fiddle to a one man show. Dembele only came in for the final couple minutes against Augsburg, and while he might take some time adjusting to a new league, only a few minutes against the newest members of 1.Bundesliga seemed slightly odd for a player not returning from an injury.

At least, it did to me, and I’m usually wide of the mark, so pay no attention to the rest of this as I’m completely speculating for the remainder.

Upon reviewing some of the transfer fodder regarding Cisse, there has been an interesting note made about Freiburg owing the player, his agent, and his former club FC Metz co-payments on any transfer deal, so perhaps herein lies the true reason for Freiburg’s stubborn stance on their demand. When Cisse was signed from FC Metz, it seems neither they nor Freiburg produced any official statement of the financial details, and that € 1.5 million transfer fee is a rough guess. After all, this is Freiburg–who cares, right? It would then make sense that the club has set a price around € 1.5 million higher than Cisse’s average transfer market value–somewhere in the neighborhood of € 13.5 million–if they must pay those additional parties any proceeds from the deal.

This might also explain why there have not been clubs outside Germany that have officially put out a bid yet. Perhaps when English Premiership clubs came asking questions, heard of some complicated financial relationship that tied the player to his former French club and might stretch back to any friends he met along the way from Generation Foot–an academy in Senegal that has a relationship with FC Metz and continues to provide the club with many players–they might have gotten cold feet. If there is indeed a complicated financial relationship that travels with Cisse wherever he goes, it might be reducing his attractiveness to more notable clubs, which would prefer to avoid excessive entanglements over such a big move. It also explains why Freiburg’s determined to get their fee–it might be the only way they reap some benefit in the deal.

Think of this as the Kia Joorabchian Third Party Chilling Effect, or The Tevez Syndrome.

Certainly, it does not seem to be the case that Cisse’s rights are owned in a similar fashion–which I believe is impossible in Europe anyway–but a potentially messy situation might have been enough to cool the heels of the English and seen German clubs slow to move for the time being. So, whichever club does agree to Freiburg’s demand for this fantastic player by the end of this month, they might have to come prepared to write out more than just one cheque. Let’s hope they bring plenty of ink too.

And the best that Cisse can hope for when he books his flight from Senegal to Europe? That his ticket doesn’t say he’s heading to somewhere in Russia, because that’s another rumored Cisse hot spot, and that’s the one place he has said he doesn’t want to go.

A 2011/12 Bundesliga Preview: What Happens to Idle Hands & An Adled Brain

In truth, there are many websites and blogs about that would present a more thorough and likely informative preview of the league, delving specifically into each club’s strengths and weaknesses. My guess is by the time this is posted, Jon & Terry will have done that very thing in a podcast format, so I’m at a distinct disadvantage. The other excellent contributors to this site would also be much more qualified to present an overall primer for the upcoming 2011/12 Bundesliga season. So why have I done so instead, risking general scorn and derision with something that is certain to be far off the mark?

Well, the computers were down at my office, and I was bored. So, let’s begin with last season’s top clubs and proceed forward.

Borussia Dortmund
The electrifying display by BvB last season led to a league title for Jürgen Klopp’s lads that no one saw coming. With Nuri Sahin guiding the attack from the midfield, Shinji Kagawa and Mario Götze flashing across the goal, Großkreutz, Lewandowski, or Kuba bombing down the flanks, along with exemplary defensive work by central defenders Subotic & Hummels, Dortmund withstood a slight sag in their final form to take the Hubcap for the first time since 2002.

One of the keys to that campaign–along with breathtaking offensive play & solid defensive work–was home form. Westfalenstadion was treated as a virtual fortress by BvB, with only 1 loss at home all campaign–the opening fixture to Bayer Leverkusen.

Might they have the chance to repeat? The Special One swooped for Sahin but Klopp reloaded with former 1.FC Nürnberg midfielder Silky Ilkay Gündogan taking Sahin’s spot alongside solid defensive midfielder Sven Bender. Silky’s a promising young player and should fit in nicely with the squad built by Klopp–which remained mostly intact–but he is not as similar player as Sahin when it comes to playmaking.

Gündogan can, at times, get bogged down in a midfield that Sahin would glide through more easily because his vision is considerably developed for a player his age. Further, Silky’s not as proficient at dropping back to help out a fullback or CB in distress, as Nuri demonstrated with aplomb last season. Finally, Sahin’s passing skills are remarkable–again, that vision thing–and anyone who would have been brought in to replace him would simply not be able to provide the same level of quality to Dortmund’s dazzling 2010/11 form.

Also, BvB now must contend with Champions League competition as well. Last season, Klopp’s charges bowed out of Europa League and the DFB Pokal Cup play quite early and were able to concentrate just on their league play. So, while BvB will likely not be repeating as Bundesliga champions–after all, this is Bundesliga, champions and managers change by the minute–the side should still be battling near the top of the division rather than mid-table or below. Potentially the 2011/12 Bundesliga champion will be…

Bayer Leverkusen
Kidding. Supremely kidding. Die Werkself have a good bit of work to do if they wish to stay in the upper tier of the top flight. Jupp Heynckes has gone back to manage Bayern Munich, Sami Hyypiä retired, Arturo Vidal’s gone south to Juventus, and Stefan Kießling is still, well, Stefan Kießling. Think of him as Peter Crouch sans Robot Dance and with slightly better accuracy with his noggin.

And while the club did attempt to replace the fabulous Finn with talented young defender Ömer Toprak from SC Freiburg, nothing has been done to shore up the fullback positions, notably at RB. Bayer 04 has already been knocked out of the German Cup in the first round by newly promoted 2.Bundesliga club Dynamo Dresden by a score of 4-3. In case you hadn’t heard, Leverkusen lost that affair despite Dresden spotting them a 3 goal lead. The comeback came about largely because of mistakes made from RB Hanno Balitsch along with GK David Yelldell.

That’s right, David Yelldell has been deputized as Bayer’s No. 1 in Rene Adler’s absence, and he had a rather difficult time between the sticks in Leverkusen’s first competitive match of the season. So, at the beginning of this campaign Werkself have two glaring weaknesses that most of Bundesliga and whomever they face in the Champions League group stage will tear apart should continued defensive issues not be addressed prior to the end of the close season or if Adler’s recovery time is more extensive that initially believed.

It won’t matter how many goals offensively-gifted newcomer Andre Schürrle or that little sparkplug, Sidney Sam, can score from the flanks if Leverkusen’s fullbacks consistently find themselves pinched in and leave Toprak, Stefan Reinartz, or Manuel Friedrich at the mercy of Bundesliga’s top wing players with less than reliable hands behind them.

As for new manager Robin Dutt, well, we’ll see. He performed minor miracles over the years for a small SC Freiburg side that had spent most of its history in the 2nd division rather than in the top flight as it does today. And, given time, Dutt should be able to impress at Leverkusen, but likely not this year. This is truly his first “big” job managing in German football, so being slightly unproven at a top club with the additional headaches of Champions League group play ahead, there are enough doubts about Dutt to suggest there will probably be a slight downward adjustment to Bayer Leverkusen’s aspirations this campaign. Qualifying for a Europa League spot would be a successful season, methinks.

Wait, a manager taking the reins of his first big-time football club, a slightly dodgy US keeper who’s replaced a very good keeper that sometimes makes brilliant saves yet makes a hash of easy ones, problems at RB, likely finishing between 5th & 7th, and a lanky centre forward with slight accuracy problems? Bloody hell–I support the Tottenham Hotspur of Germany.

Bayern Munich
Here are your favorites to reclaim the Hubcap this season. The Bavarian braintrust was slightly perturbed at Louis van Gaal’s handling last season, so they brought back a trusted old hand in Jupp to be a bit of a caretaker for a club that’s brimming with enough quality to truly dominate the league and make a deep run in the Champions League. If you recall, this year’s CL Final takes place at Bayern’s stadium, and die Roten want to be at the Allianz as participants rather than simply hosts. It has already been a decade since FC Hollywood last won that jug-eared cup, and Nerlinger, Hoeneß, and Rummenigge want it back, regardless of cost.

Which of course, brings us to Bayern’s biggest transfer activities of the summer. While they were unable to get their hands on Vidal–Rudi Völler flat out refused to sell the Chilean to Bayern regardless of price–the Bavarians splashed out over €19 million to bring in Germany’s No.1 GK Manuel Neuer, and shelled out nearly €12 million to return Jerome Boateng to the land of his birth after his ill-fated Manchester excursion. Along with other transfers, including an intriguing ones that brought former Gamba Osaka MF Takashi Usami in for less than €300 thousand, Bayern Munich have already spent 1/3 of the total transfer purchases debited to Bundesliga clubs this summer.

The cash is flashing, and it’s not yet done, as there are rumors about regarding a possible move for Chelsea’s defender Alex.

Does money buy you a title? Not necessarily, but when you’re Bayern Munich, it probably does. The club still has a depth of talent littered about the midfield along with solidly reliable wee captain Lahm, so for them, they probably could score enough goals to win after forking over a lot of euros to Schalke 04 for the best keeper in the league to stop all he sees. Some things never change, though, as Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry have already picked up early injuries from action in pre-season friendlies, so the winged duo might be slowed at the start of the season.

Honestly, it should be down in the standard manager’s manual to bubble-wrap those two and not unwrap them only when league play starts.

Those Being Notables
One of the biggest reasons for believing Bayern Munich will likely finish as league champions this season, though, is because the other pretenders to the throne seem to have been weakened by the summer transfer season. Dortmund and Leverkusen have already been mentioned, and other potential upper tier clubs like Hamburg and Schalke 04 have not appeared to have strengthened enough to truly challenge just yet. Until Wolfsburg sort out Diego and Felix Magath finds a way to re-educate young Simon Kjaer on how to play defense, die Wölfe are likely too far out. Bruno Labbadia will likely reach his expiration date with VfB Stuttgart, derailing that club’s chances at the top, and Hannover 96 will remain quietly just hanging around, much as they did last year.

As for Mainz 05, in addition to losing Schürrle and Lewis Holtby in the off season, they will be competing in Europa League after last year’s fantastic campaign. Much like BvB last year, Thomas Tuchel had nothing but the league to focus on, so it would be difficult to imagine the Carnival Club being back amongst the leaders this season while trying to balance a smallish squad with the rigors of an additional cup competition. Any finish somewhere mid-table in front of the supporters at their spanking new Colface Arena should be considered a success.

Outside of 1.FC Köln–which might surprise under new manager Ståle Solbakken–my pick for a club poised to make a run this season is 1899 Hoffenheim. Long-serving FC St. Pauli manager Holger Stanislawski was named the new boss at the Sinsheim club prior to the end of last season, and for some reason I think his arrival might finally kick 1899 out of its mid-level funk and seriously push further up the table this campaign. For some unknown reason, something tells me Stanis will find a way to get the best out of Icelandic heartthrob Gylfi Sigurðsson and sort out Ryan Babel to become a somewhat reliable scorer. Look for Germany’s richest village club to be more dynamic this campaign and be nearer the European spots near season’s end than perhaps you might imagine.

Just try to ignore the fact they still have Edson Braafheid in the squad.

Those Needing Potent Potables
As for the rest? If SC Freiburg lose Papiss Demba Cissé by the end of the month–and considering they already signed Garra Dembele earlier anticipating his departure, it’s expected to happen–the Breisgau-Brasilianers are possibly headed for a return to 2.Bundesliga. Remember, no Robin Dutt anymore. Newly promoted club FC Augsburg will likely be joining them, as the step up to the top flight will be too much for a club that has spent most of its history hovering about the third division. 1.FC Nürnberg might find themselves in the 16th position as they did a couple seasons ago, but most probably would win a relegation playoff–again, as it did a couple seasons ago. The other clubs finish somewhere in between, but accurately predicting where is like getting me to appreciate Mario Gomez.

It’s just not going to happen.

There you have it–a far too long preview for the 2011/12 Bundesliga season that had virtually no worth. If you read down this far, congrats. You either actually care about German football, don’t mind being slightly insulted, or your computer systems were down at work like mine.