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Jan 20, 2012

Old Gold retold

When the German Football League, the DFL, unveiled the 2011-2012 fixture list on June 21, the fact that the very first matchday featured a game between Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach didn't draw many comments, apart from the usual one, namely that this was a "tradition-laden" encounter.

• Duffelen: Back to Bundesliga business

It is, yes. In the 1970s, still referred to by many people as the game's "Golden Era", this duel was the perennial highlight of the Bundesliga calendar. The meetings between Bayern and Gladbach were the most eagerly anticipated pair of games, not just because those two teams were usually the main contenders for the league title, but also because most people understood the rivalry as a clash of cultures, styles and philosophies.

Which is why the teams never met early. When you compile a fixture list, you don't want the best clubs to cross swords before the competition has really gone underway, especially since it would also mean that they meet again soon after the end of the winter break, when conditions may be unworthy of a potentially deciding game.

And so, for the bulk of the 1970s, Bayern and Gladbach never played each other before late September in the first half of the season, never before late February after the winter break. Then, in 1979, Borussia finally ran out of steam, stopped being a superpower of the domestic game and finished only tenth. In the very next season, they were paired with Bayern as early as the fourth matchday.

This also tells you it is not an honour to open a season against Bayern Munich. Quite the contrary - it normally means the people who generate the fixture list think you're rubbish. Consider the fact that in the 20th century, Gladbach never ever played Bayern on opening day. But now, in the 21st, they do it almost regularly.

The premiere came in 2001, when Borussia had just been promoted back to the top flight. Only twelve months later, the two clubs met on the first day again. In 2005, three months after Gladbach had barely managed to stay up, they did it for the third time.

Sometimes, of course, life flummoxes the fixture mavens. In 1997, for instance, newly-promoted Kaiserslautern were, well, sentenced to start the new campaign in Munich against Bayern. But instead of being thrown to the wolves, they came away as shock 1-0 winners. What's more, in a way this was the deciding game, as two points would separate the two sides at the end of the season - with Bayern in second place, Kaiserslautern in first.

A similar thing happened this season. Gladbach, who had only ever won one single Bundesliga game away at Bayern (in 1995, with former or future Bayern players Stefan Effenberg, Michael Sternkopf and Patrik Andersson in the side) had to open the campaign in Munich. They stunned the league, not to mention their Bavarian hosts, with a 1-0 victory and haven't looked back since.

That is not to say that history is repeating itself here - in 1997-98, Bayern trailed Kaiserslautern by four points after the first half of the season, the same margin by which they now lead a Gladbach team that is unlikely to seriously challenge for the title.

Still, the Foals, to give Borussia their old nickname that evokes the 1960s and 1970s, are playing a heck of a season. Even their peers concur. According to kicker magazine's traditional survey among the Bundesliga pros, Gladbach are the most positive surprise (81.6 per cent say so), have the best outfield player of the past months in Marco Reus (35.7 per cent of his colleagues consider him that) and are coached by the man who's achieved the most (67.6 per cent voted Lucien Favre "the winner" of the first half of the season).

While this development reflects badly on the DFL's decision to stage the direct duel between Bayern and Gladbach so early, you have to say the governing body knows how to turn a negative into a positive. In November, the DFL announced that the return match between the teams, Bayern's visit to Gladbach's Borussia Park, would be given centre stage when league football returned from hibernation. The game was scheduled for Friday evening, to serve as a mouth-watering curtain raiser for the second half of the season, live on free-to-air television.

Well, and then this game became even more interesting. On January 4, Gladbach announced that Reus had invoked a buy-out clause in his contract, valid until 2015, and was going to join Borussia Dortmund in the summer for 17.5 million euros. (A few hours later there followed confirmation that defensive midfielder Roman Neustädter would not extend his contract and leave at the end of the season, too.)

On the first glance, this didn't have anything to do with Bayern. But it had been an open secret that the Munich giants were also interested in signing Reus. Since they normally get the (German) players they want, Dortmund's tenacity in courting Reus - and the player's decision to choose his hometown team over the biggest club in the land - was widely interpreted as a signal that upwardly mobile Dortmund had thrown down the gauntlet to Bayern.

Since big-time football is very often very childish, the following days and weeks resembled a sandlot brawl over territorial rights triggered by someone's recent acquisition of a shiny red plastic toy shovel. Bayern players (Arjen Robben and Holger Badstuber) and officials (chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and manager Jupp Heynckes) hinted in so many words that Reus may have feared the strong competition for a starting place he would have encountered at Bayern, while Gladbach's business manager Max Eberl said that "this needling only proves Bayern have been hit hard by Reus' decision".

The media lapped it up and it fanned the fires for the game that kicks off the second half of the season. But, as usual, quite a few things got overlooked among the tumult and the shouting. For instance that Dortmund are taking a tremendous risk, as the Reus transfer is the kind of deal that looks good on paper but raises more questions than it answers.

After all, Dortmund were as good as bankrupt seven years ago, due to gross overspending and megalomaniacal deals. Since then, it has stood them in good stead to sign players cheaply and quietly and place a premium on team spirit. Which means the problem with this, the second most expensive transfer in club history and the seventh biggest in league history, is not whether or not Dortmund can afford it financially but whether or not they can afford it in terms of the team's make-up.

Reus has cost the club more than three times what they paid for their currently most expensive man, Ivan Perisic, and four times what they paid for the core of the side, for men like Mats Hummels, Neven Subotic and Robert Lewandowski, all in the 4.5 million euros bracket. Reus will also earn accordingly. Which means coach Jürgen Klopp is almost forced to play him, never a good situation.

The other thing that got overlooked is what really hurt Gladbach. And that was losing Neustädter.

There was never any question that Gladbach would have to let go of Reus sooner or later and in all likelihood this is the best moment to sell him, considering that he was very much in demand and that - as some reports indicate - his buy-out clause stipulated that the transfer sum would sink over the years. So Gladbach, who have a long tradition of finding talent, nurturing it and then selling it to a bigger club, have pocketed a cool profit of 16.5 million Euros. (They bought Reus for €1 million from second-division Ahlen in 2009.) Under the circumstances, this is a fantastic deal for the club.

Neustädter, however, leaves for zilch and, what's more, he is the kind of good, though unspectacular player, a club like Gladbach should not necessarily have to lose. While it's true that replacements may be already waiting in the wings (most notably the Finn Alexander Ring and Tolga Cigerci, loaned out from Wolfsburg), the Neustädter decision could have given rise to the rumours that say Lucien Favre is considering his future, too. We can't hold on to guys like Reus, he might be saying to himself, but if we can't even keep the Neustädters, where are we headed?

That, however, is the future and thus unwritten. For the time being, both players are still wearing Gladbach's colours and will do so for the rest of the season, which kicks off on Friday. With a game that was always eagerly awaited in the 1970s - and is again now.

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