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Musical chairs

Some 11 months ago, there was a debate in the Bundesliga about how proper, not to say ethical, it was for clubs to hire coaches who had just been sacked by a rival. Or, to look at it from another angle, how becoming it was for coaches to sign contracts with clubs soon after having been fired by a competitor.

The discussion, if you recall, centred on Felix Magath. On March 16, 2011, he was sent packing by Schalke. On March 18, he signed a contract with his old club Wolfsburg. On April 9, he coached Wolfsburg against Schalke.

This controversy may play an important role at the moment, as there was - and still is - a chance that things could become even stranger and more controversial in three months, on the last matchday, when Hoffenheim and Hertha will meet in Berlin to end the season. Because the two teams might well be coached by the same two men who were at the helm in mid-December, when the sides drew 1-1 in Hoffenheim. Only they could be sitting on different benches.

This unusual game of musical chairs began the day after the aforementioned December match, as Hertha fired coach Markus Babbel. The man who was on the other bench that day, Holger Stanislawski, suffered the same fate last week: on February 9, following a bitter cup defeat at the hands of second-division F├╝rth, as Hoffenheim gave him the sack.

The Hoffenheim vacancy lasted for only 24 hours before the club announced that none other than Markus Babbel would take over. Babbel promptly had a good debut on the weekend just past, as Hoffenheim earned a point away at Werder Bremen and could have had three (Bremen equalised in the final minute).

While Babbel could thus be happy with his first game in charge, his former club Hertha were beaten 5-0 in Stuttgart. It was Berlin's fifth consecutive defeat, which meant Babbel's successor Michael Skibbe was still without a win since taking over. (Hertha did win a cup game after Babbel left, but the team was then coached by interim manager Rainer Widmayer.)

On Sunday, Hertha's director of football Michael Preetz [we hope you can still follow all those names - musical chairs can be a complex pastime] decided he had to act before it was too late and relieved Skibbe of his duties after just 52 days in the post.

Under the unwritten football rule that appears to be obeyed around the world, despite its obvious shortcomings, Hertha looked for a successor among the men who had just lost jobs elsewhere, men such as Ralf Rangnick... and Holger Stanislawski.

According to reports published on Tuesday, Rangnick refused the Berlin offer, while Stanislawski, whom many observers considered the favourite for the job, said he'd prefer to take some time off first, having been sacked himself less than a week ago.

It's quite possible that Stanislawski's hesitation has to do with the furore that surrounded the Magath saga last year. After all, given the two teams' most recent run of results, it is not unlikely that the Hertha vs Hoffenheim game on the final day of the season could be a crucial one for the relegation fight. And it would be absurd, even by the flexible standards of the football world, if this match pits coaches against each other who have effectively swapped jobs.

Then again, who says Stanislawski won't change his mind and it won't happen after all, considering stranger developments abound elsewhere? At Bayern Munich, for instance, the player the team supposedly couldn't do without suddenly appears surplus to requirements.

Or maybe not so suddenly. Quite a few reporters and journalists have been arguing for quite some time that Bayern play better football - or at the very least more versatile football - without Arjen Robben on the pitch.

It sounds preposterous at first. After all, the Dutch winger was absolutely crucial when Bayern reached the 2010 Champions League final and was voted Germany's Footballer of the Year. A season later, more than a few people said Dortmund only pipped Bayern to the title because Robben missed the complete first half of the campaign. And now he's suddenly hurting the team?

However, it is true that, for all his pace with the ball at his feet, Robben sometimes slows down Bayern's game, as distributing the ball quickly is not one of his strengths. There are also those who say teams have learned how to defend against his favourite ploy: cutting inside. Finally, some critics, among them Franz Beckenbauer, feel he's too selfish.

"Those charges of egoism are not correct," Thomas Muller says, defending his team-mate. "It's part of Arjen's game that he is a strong dribbler. And dribbling is usually done on your own." Still, Bayern appeared much improved last week, when coach Jupp Heynckes at last decided to bench Robben, so that Muller could move over to the wing, which allowed Toni Kroos to play in the position he likes best, central offensive midfield.

With this line-up, Bayern earned an impressive 2-0 win away at Stuttgart, so Heynckes used it again on the past matchday, against Kaiserslautern, and won by the same scoreline. To be more precise: it was almost the same line-up, as Bayern lost Bastian Schweinsteiger to an injury again during the Stuttgart game. He will be sidelined for at least four weeks and thus miss the Champions League games against FC Basel, which is much worse news for Heynckes than an unhappy Robben.

The other German team still active in the Champions League, meanwhile, have significantly more worries. Bayer Leverkusen were beaten 1-0 at Dortmund on Saturday, but the narrow result masks a very timid performance, as Bayer never looked like creating a chance, let alone scoring.

The same scenario was played out for 45 minutes on Tuesday night against Barcelona, as Leverkusen resembled, according to pundit Stefan Effenberg, "a rabbit in the headlights" in the first half. It was fodder for the critics of coach Robin Dutt, who are growing in numbers. But even though Leverkusen eventually lost 3-1, Bayer were much braver in the second half against the overwhelming favourites, scoring a goal and hitting the inside of the post.

In a way, this match mirrored Leverkusen's league season so far: ultimately disappointing in terms of the results, but with enough bright spots to keep hopes alive - and the coach in his job. Still, Saturday's game against Augsburg is important for Bayer, as another disappointment wouldn't bode well for Dutt. There are already people who say the right man for Bayer could be somebody like... Stanislawski.


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