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Feb 26, 2013

In sun or snow, North-West is best

The vibrant football conurbation of North-Rhine-Westphalia is undergoing a spell of profound change. It is, in fact, so densely packed with clubs that a few short train hops took you all over a weekend of derbies and days of destiny.

Cologne are the club who would most welcome an about-turn in fortune, after a calamitous end to the last campaign culminated in relegation in Lukas Podolski's swansong season. Podolski, now of Arsenal, was a rare beacon of professionalism in a ramshackle squad dogged by off-pitch scandal, with various players brawling and drink-driving their way through last February's edition of the city's famously wild carnival. Coach Stale Solbakken was powerless to stop the slide.

This season's boss, Holger Stanislawski, can probably empathise. The veteran of an 18-year spell at St Pauli as player and coach, his last season at the Millentor ended in chaotic fashion, as the legendary Hamburg club lost 11 of their last 12 matches to go straight back down after one Bundesliga season amid their own clutch of extracurricular dramas.

Stanislawski is getting a grip on this situation, though. Having eked out a win on his return to St Pauli on Monday night, Cologne had hope that a late promotion charge might be on. The trick, as they received Union Berlin as the fourth-placed side in the second tier, was not to drop the baton. They were six points behind Kaiserslautern in the promotion play-off spot, with the visitors just a single point further back.

Even on a sub-zero Saturday lunchtime, with snow falling throughout, 42,000 were at the Rhein-Energie Stadion. The tense atmosphere of the opening half in particular - even after Kevin McKenna headed the hosts into the lead - showed that those faithful fans still bear the scars of the last campaign. Still, the club is backing Stanislawski to deliver, and one of the January signings he's been granted, the unpolished yet very awkward former Wolves striker Stefan Maierhofer, bobbled in a second to seal a convincing win.

As with Cologne, it is often overlooked outside Germany just how big a club Schalke are. There were 61,673 present at the Veltins Arena - the region's snow shut out by its retractable roof - for Saturday evening's meeting with near-neighbours Fortuna Dusseldorf. To call this a genuine derby would be a little misleading. Fortuna are back in the top flight for the first time since 1997, since which time they suffered serious cashflow problems and even spent a couple of seasons in the regional fourth tier.

The relative prudence that got them back to the top flight contrasts with Die Königsblauen's rather cavalier approach on and off the pitch in recent years. The irresistible Champions League performance that flattened Arsenal at the Emirates in October feels a long time ago. Coach Huub Stevens was fired in December and his replacement, Jens Keller, has not convinced.

As was the case in Wednesday's exciting - and creditable - Champions League draw at Galatasaray, Schalke's was a very loose interpretation of the fashionable 4-2-3-1 for Fortuna's visit. Jermaine Jones often wandered from Roman Neustädter's side in midfield and, while Julian Draxler intermittently revelled in a Lewis Holtby-shaped hole, Schalke always looked vulnerable to a counter. Luckily for them, Fortuna were happy to try to contain, even after a scrappy Joel Matip goal gave Schalke the lead.

Ploughing a more gutsy furrow did see the modest visitors chisel a way back into the game after the break, as midweek exertions caught up with Schalke. The industrious Axel Bellinghausen was a worthy scorer of the equaliser, starting and finishing a move ping-ponged around somnambulant defenders. How Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, an unhappy, air-kicking facsimile of his best self, must have envied that tidy strike from his vantage point at the other end.

A fortunate winner arrived for Schalke, when Matip found himself in oceans of space to steer home a second from Michel Bastos' misdirected shot, but the centre-back seemed more relieved than elated, as his side secured only a second win in 12. Marooned in ninth place, much rides on the return with Galatasaray in two-and-a-half weeks' time.

Whereas treading mid-table water is little short of a disaster for Schalke, you sense it would be a job well done for Borussia Mönchengladbach, given the whirlwind 18 months that took them to the start of this season. Lucien Favre's side went from relegation certainties to Champions League qualifiers in that time, and then saw the core of their side disappear, when Marco Reus, Dante and Neustädter all upped sticks.

The visit of champions Dortmund - Reus' new club - had been a 54,000-sell-out for six weeks, but by Sunday had the makings of a hangover from hell, following Thursday night's Europa League exit to Lazio. Juan Arango and the banned Patrick Hermann were missing, while major summer signings Granit Xhaka and Luuk de Jong started on the bench.

Meanwhile, the more celebrated BVB continue to develop. Having been a key piece in 2011's maiden title triumph under Jurgen Klopp, the returned Nuri Sahin is a substitute de luxe for now. With Robert Lewandowski banned, Mario Götze slotted into the false nine position - something he may be called on to reprise more regularly in the next campaign, given Lewandowski's expected move to Bayern Munich.

Maybe in time we will drop the 'false' in that description - Götze's hold-up play is more robust and accomplished than one would expect from a player of his size. He gave his side the lead on the half-hour at Borussia-Park, converting a penalty won by the sort of intuitive combination with Reus that has come to characterise Dortmund's season.

The defensive caprices that undermined Klopp's side in last season's Champions League are instead doing so domestically this season, though. A spell of Gladbach pressure in the second period climaxed with teenager Amin Younes - making his first Bundesliga start - taking advantage of Dortmund dithering to smash home an equaliser, with the aid of a slight deflection from Felipe Santana. The rancour with which it was greeted in the stands showed where Die Fohlen's fans see their team now - in the role of upsetter, not pacesetter.

No matter - even while waving goodbye to their Bavaria-bound Bundesliga crown, it is still Dortmund, the club with the real sense of continuity under Klopp's continuing dynasty, who appear placed to continue their domination. Yet while they are German football's glamour to the rest of the world, there are many other protagonists that make this region of Germany so special.

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