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Jan 25, 2012

All part of the script

They're trying to conceal it as best they can, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that somebody is scripting the Bundesliga.

Last weekend, Germany's top flight returned from hibernation and the games involving the clubs in the title race produced the results required to create a rare and thrilling situation. For the first time in two decades, three teams are level on points at the top after 18 matches of the season. Not to mention that a fourth is trailing that trio by only one point.

This state of affairs is the more noteworthy since most experts predicted Bayern Munich would win the title quite comfortably, which means German fans are treated to a plot they didn't expect. However, it's not just the storyline that has you wonder if it's all scripted, it's the little details.

Consider the fact that the noisiest - and the most expensive - transfer before the season began was Manuel Neuer's move from Schalke to Bayern, triggered in part by Neuer's wish to finally win the league. Consider next that the season then opened with a Neuer mistake that gifted unfancied Gladbach a sensational away win in Munich.

Now fast forward a few months. The noisiest - and most expensive - transfer saga during the winter break concerned Gladbach's Marco Reus, who announced he would decline Bayern's openly voiced contract offer and instead join Borussia Dortmund in the summer.

Well, what if we had predicted last week that the curtain raiser for the second half of the season, the return match between old rivals Gladbach and Bayern, would feature another inexplicable Neuer mistake, who mis-hit the ball trying to belt it upfield? What if we had told you that this ball, which could have rolled to a hundred different spots on the pitch, would land at the feet of none other than Reus and that he would score the crucial opening goal from 30 yards?

Still, that's what happened. And it's not all. Bayern deservedly lost this game 3-1, as Gladbach defended like Inter in the 1960s and counter-attacked like, well, Gladbach in the 1970s. It allowed title-holders Dortmund, who ran rampant in Hamburg and won 5-1, to catch up with the Munich giants. As did Neuer's old club Schalke!

Despite Gladbach's stunning rags-to-riches season, perhaps it's about time to ask whether Schalke might be the true surprise team of this Bundesliga campaign. It's not so much what they do, though, rather the circumstances under which they are doing it.

This is a club that was forced to change managers in an unusual way (Ralf Rangnick stepped down due to exhaustion syndrome in mid-September) and is seemingly losing a key player every weekend - from goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann and striker Jefferson Farfan to midfielders Peer Kluge, Lewis Holtby and Jermaine Jones (retroactively charged with an insidious foul on, guess who, Reus and suspended until March).

Yet Schalke hang in there, having lost only one of their last nine league games and they could be for real, though striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar says: "I think Bayern and Dortmund are ultimately more consistent than we are."

Schalke's caution is understandable, as Saturday's 3-1 victory over Stuttgart not only brought three points but also new injury woes.

Both Alexander Baumjohann and Benedikt Howedes were forced to come off, the latter with a facial injury that required surgery. It tells you a lot about the team's streak of bad luck that Howedes is the second Schalke player to sustain a facial fracture this season - and the second to do so after colliding with a team-mate. In early November, Huntelaar broke his nose.

Strangely, Howedes's cheekbone fracture was also the second severe facial injury of the weekend - and the ninth overall this season. Dortmund's defender Neven Subotic, for instance, was out for two months after three titanium plates had to be inserted in his face and he only returned on Sunday, a day after Howedes and also Bremen's Sebastian Prodl suffered similar injuries.

Huntelaar, for one, thinks it's just a coincidence. "Yes, I have never seen so many injuries to the face in one season," he said. "But sometimes you're lucky, sometimes you're not. Sometimes you get hit on the nose and nothing happens, then you get hit and something breaks."

He's probably right, as every injury was different. As mentioned, Howedes collided with a team-mate on the ground, while Prodl was trying to head home from close range when he was kicked by a Kaiserslautern player who tried to clear with a bicycle kick. Prodl was doubly unlucky, as the referee completely missed the incident and neither booked the offender nor awarded Bremen a penalty.

Subotic, on the other hand, had sustained his injury back in November when he was knocked out by an elbow during an aerial duel with Wolfsburg's Sotirios Kyrgiakos. This is, incidentally, the last Bundesliga game Kyrgiakos has played so far, as he belongs to the impressively large group of Wolfsburg players who've fallen out of favour with manager Felix Magath. On Saturday, against Cologne, Magath tied a Bundesliga record when he gave Giovanni Sio his debut ten minutes from time, as the striker became the 35th player to make an appearance for Wolfsburg this season.

Since Magath still has eight players in his squad who haven't seen action so far, it's likely he'll set a new record - even more so since the transfer window is still open. And Magath likes to shop. While the aforementioned transfer story surrounding Reus made the biggest headlines, it should not be forgotten that Magath spent €27 million during the winter break on eight new players.

It's a little bit ironic, then, that even though Magath fielded five of those new signings in the Cologne game, the only goal of the match was scored by Sebastian Polter, a lanky homegrown kid who has cost Wolfsburg not a penny. We told you it all reeks of a Hollywood script.

But maybe you still have doubts? Okay, how about this: Before Saturday's game between Nurnberg and Hertha Berlin, Boban Pribanovic, a member of Nuremberg's coaching staff, grabbed one of the dozen match balls, took a marker and wrote "2-0" on the ball. It happened to be the ball referee Peter Gagelmann later used for the kick-off. It also happened to be the very ball Dominic Maroh scored a goal with in the second half. Final score: 2-0.

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