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Aug 29, 2012

Fortuna make triumphant return

Among many other things, the first matchday of the new Bundesliga season proved that many clubs have bought wisely, not least the two that are expected to slug it out for the league title.

In an entertaining, though surprisingly mistake-strewn opening game, title-holders Borussia Dortmund narrowly defeated a plucky Werder Bremen side due, in no small part, to the performance of new signing Marco Reus.

The attacking midfielder, voted Germany's Footballer of the Year two weeks ago, scored the first goal of the new campaign (the eighth Dortmund player to earn himself this honour), though the more impressive aspect of his game is probably how quickly he's adapted to Borussia's style of play, which demands a lot more defensive work from him than he's used to.

However, Dortmund's rivals Bayern Munich matched this promising start a day later with a comfortable though also slightly shaky 3-0 away at newly-promoted Furth. Again, a new signing found the target, as the Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic, bought from Wolfsburg in late July, made it 2-0 on the hour to put the match beyond doubt.

Mandzukic had already proved his worth in the German version of the Community Shield (which Bayern won against Dortmund to stop the well-publicised run of five defeats against this opponent) and the domestic cup. Some pundits had expressed concern about the sudden surplus of high-profile players upfront, considering Bayern have also brought back Claudio Pizarro, but the combination of the severe injury Mario Gomez sustained in early August and now Mandzukic's excellent form has proven the Bayern honchos right.

However, you probably have to say that household names such as Reus and Mandzukic were upstaged on day one by a 23-year-old German born to a Lebanese father and a Russian mother. That's not just because Dani Schahin outscored those stars by finding the target twice or because he did it in his first-ever game in the top flight. It's who he did it for.

Schahin's second-half brace earned Fortuna Dusseldorf three points away at Augsburg. It was the club's first win in the Bundesliga since May 1997 and an unexpected one at that, as Fortuna have widely been tipped as the surest of all relegation candidates. (As were, incidentally, Augusburg one year ago.) The main reason for this is that Dusseldorf have completely broken up the team that won promotion and have brought in no less 19 new players.

Granted, some of them are quite well-known, such as the Ukrainian striker Andrij Woronin (loaned out from Dynamo Moscow and now with his sixth German team) or Celtic's Cha Du-Ri, the German-born son of Cha Bum-Kun. But you would've expected that all this coming and going meant the team needed a lot more time to gel.

This all-important first win means that Fortuna are now looking forward to the coming Saturday with happy anticipation, even euphoria. The club's first home game back in the Bundesliga will be the Rhineland derby against Borussia Monchengladbach, an old rival Fortuna haven't played in fifteen and a half years. As if fate has had a lot to make up for, four days ago the two sides were also drawn against each other in the domestic cup competition.

There's a drop of bitterness that poisons the sweet drink, though. Fortuna, you may recall, won promotion via the play-offs against Hertha Berlin and the second and deciding game was marred by a pitch invasion that prompted legal wranglings. While the game's result was allowed to stand, Fortuna have been penalised by the German FA (DFB) and can't have more than 25,000 home fans for each of their first two home games. (The original ruling had said the first match should be played behind completely closed doors.)

Happy anticipation and euphoria are words that haven't been connected with Hamburg in a long time. The only team that has graced every single Bundesliga season with its presence is coming off a disastrous campaign in which the club flirted with being relegated for the first time in history. But all the signs are that this year isn't going to be much better. Last week, Hamburg were knocked out of the cup by a third-division team, now they lost the first game of the new league season at home, 1-0 to Nuremberg.

It would be a bitter irony indeed if this should really turn out to be the season in which the mighty and proud HSV finally suffer the drop. For one, it's a jubilee campaign, the 50th Bundesliga season. There are commemorative books and programmes by the truckload and Hamburg often play an important role in them, as HSV are, as mentioned previously, the only team that has featured in every one of those seasons.

Second, Hamburg were formed 125 years ago. True, the story of the club's origin is not quite that straightforward, but just last week the Italian company Panini published a special sticker album devoted only to HSV's history and the cover announces "125 years in 240 pictures", so let's leave it at that.

There are no two ways about it: this is a special year and a special season. At Hamburg they are hoping it won't turn out to be too special and at the moment they would surely be happy with simply retaining their Bundesliga status for the 50th time. But one of the doubters is the club's biggest icon, Uwe Seeler. "I don't see any progress whatsoever," he told a newspaper. "And this is something a director of football must be judged by."

The director of football in question is former Chelsea sporting director Frank Arnesen. He hasn't had the easiest of times since joining Hamburg last July, and his time could already be up if he fails to bring in some much-needed help before the transfer window closes on August 31. Because this is one club that hasn't bought wisely in a long time.

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