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May 9, 2012

A league of their own

Even though the team was not involved in the two issues that were finally resolved on the last matchday of this season, common decency demands we open this report with new - and old - league champions Borussia Dortmund. That's because their 4-0 victory over Freiburg completed a campaign the likes of which the Bundesliga has not seen before.

Even Freiburg, who had been unbeaten since February and had conceded only six goals in their previous ten games, never stood the slightest chance against a team that put the finishing touches on the best second half of a season in league history: fifteen wins, two draws.

The result also means Dortmund are unbeaten in 28 games. This is another record as regards a single season and the team may now also have a chance to break the overall record. (It's held by Hamburg, who went unbeaten in the final 18 games of the 1981-82 season and then the first 18 of the following campaign, for a total of 36.)

In addition, the win on Saturday brought Dortmund's points total to 81 - the best since the Bundesliga started back in 1963. The old record had been set by Bayern Munich way back in 1972, when they collected 24 wins and seven draws, which equals 79 points under the modern three-points-for-a-win rule.

All of which tells you that the question why favourites Bayern didn't do better than finishing as distant runners-up misses the point entirely. The Munich giants conceded only 22 goals and collected 73 points. This would have been enough to win the Bundesliga in eight of the last fifteen seasons. Bayern's league campaign was not spectacular, but it was not disappointing, either. It's just that Dortmund were well and truly in a league of their own.

This state of affairs makes the traditional end of the domestic season, the cup final on Saturday, even more of a showpiece, as it pits the best sides in the land against each other. Dortmund could set a club record by winning their first double and equalling a German record by becoming the first team since Frankfurt to defeat Bayern three times in one season. Bayern will be looking to end their miserable run against their new rivals - "It's about time we give them the stop sign," is how Bastian Schweinsteiger put it - but of course they still have a much, much bigger game coming up. "If losing the cup final means winning the Champions League final, I'd sign that here and now," Arjen Robben revealed.

But there will be another crucial game in Berlin before the cup final. On Thursday, Hertha Berlin and Fortuna Düsseldorf contest the first leg of the relegation playoffs, which Berlin reached at the eleventh hour thanks to a 3-1 win against Hoffenheim coupled with Cologne's 4-1 defeat at the hands of Bayern.

The latter result sent Cologne down for the fifth time in the club's history. It was a bitter goodbye for Lukas Podolski, who couldn't even properly acknowledge the fans who love him so dearly before he left for Arsenal, because a few dozen disgruntled supporters set off smoke bombs shortly before the final whistle, prompting the players to dash for the dressing rooms.

"It's somehow fitting that all is black now," interim coach Frank Schaefer said, referring to the dark clouds engulfing the fan stand, before adding: "What will stay with me is that this was a brutally unnecessary relegation."

While the first observation was correct, the second is doubtful. As has been so often the case at this club, Cologne's campaign was a case study in self-destruction. Consider that neither the club president nor the director of football nor the head coach who started the season was still there when it ended. Perhaps the fans who honoured Podolski with a banner in the final minutes put it best. The banner read: "Take care, Poldi! If we could, we would leave, too."

Yet for all the (largely self-made) disasters that befell the club in the past months, Cologne could've still reached the playoffs against rivals Dusseldorf - if Hertha hadn't finally had a bit of luck. While Cologne were denied a penalty for handball when they were only one goal down against Bayern, Hertha capitalised on a bizarre refereeing mistake: just as Hoffenheim, trailing 1-0, were gaining the upper hand in Berlin, the referee gave Dutch forward Ryan Babel two yellow cards for two transgressions he didn't commit. Against ten men, Hertha won the game with wobbly knees.

Elsewhere, remarkable things - in every sense of the word - also happened in Hanover, Bremen and Augsburg: Hannover 96 narrowly but deservedly defeated Kaiserslautern 2-1 to qualify for the Europa League and crown another very good season. It's marred, however, by the fact that the club will probably lose a key man, namely Jorg Schmadtke, the director of football who built the team.

Schmadtke has cited personal reasons for his decision to leave and says he wants to spend more time with his family, who still live in Dusseldorf. That led Cologne, based just 30 miles south of Dusseldorf, to express an interest in Schmadtke. But all the signs are he is indeed intent on taking some time off.

As it turned out, Hannover wouldn't even have needed those three points against Kaiserslautern, because both Wolfsburg and Bremen eventually lost their final games. Werder, in particular, disappointed mightily and played an abysmal second half of the season. On Saturday, however, they would've probably lost even if they'd been on form. That's because they faced a red-hot Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who scored twice in Schalke's 3-2 win to bring his goal tally to 29 and become the first Dutchman to win the Bundesliga's Golden Boot.

Huntelaar's performance becomes even more incredible when you consider that he also set up no less that 13 goals for his team-mates and that the last player to score 29 goals in a season was none other than the great Karl-Heinz Rummenigge - 31 years ago, when Rummenigge won the Ballon d'Or!

In Augsburg, finally, the hosts defeated Hamburg to overtake their proud opponents and finish the season in 14th place, an amazing and utterly unexpected seven points above the drop zone. And what happens during the press conference after the game? Coach Jos Luhukay announces he will step down and delivers a brief, vague statement, before the reporters are told there will be no more questions.

The root of the matter seems to be that club CEO Walther Seinsch is not an easy man to please (or get along with). Considering that Andreas Rettig, the business manager, had announced as early as December that he would not extend his contract and leave at the end of the season, Augsburg will go into the next campaign without the two men who have taken the team to the top flight and then kept it there against all odds.

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