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Weekend Premier League predictions

Premier League

Young guns go for it

Germans, as you know, are reserved and considered. Rare are the cases when we act emotionally or make binding statements on the spur of the moment. On the whole, this only happens when we're asked to go to war or hand out awards to football people.

Last August, Bayer Leverkusen's Klaus Toppmöller was voted Germany's 'Coach of the Year 2002'. That there were still four months to come in 2002 didn't seem to make much of a difference - but as it turned out, these would be long weeks indeed for Leverkusen.

The club collected only 20 points from the 17 league matches played between August and December, and when the winter break arrived, Toppmöller's job was already hanging by a thread. 'In January, we'll make a fresh start,' announced Bayer's business manager Reiner Calmund, 'and there will be no more excuses.' Little did he know there would be no more points, either.

Leverkusen lost the first four matches of 2003, and now Newcastle fans needn't look for the man with the funny grey curls when their team take on the Germans in the Champions League.

On Sunday, Klaus Toppmöller was fired. About the only thing that remains from the marvellous European campaign he enjoyed with Leverkusen last season is the Liverpool cap he bought at the Anfield club store in April.

But as this piece is not about spilled milk at Leverkusen, let us cast back our minds to that summer day when the Coach of the Year award was announced. Runners-up in the voting were Dortmund's Matthias Sammer and Rudi Völler.

Then there were six other names, amongst them that of a man who failed to win promotion to the Bundesliga. (Jürgen Klopp of Mainz.) In tenth place, with 11 votes to Toppmöller's 396, was Felix Magath. Yet if this award, as its name suggests, honours the performance of an individual over a whole calendar year, then Magath should have won by a landslide.

On the day Toppmöller won the trophy, Magath's VfB Stuttgart team was playing in the finals of the Intertoto Cup, ultimately defeating OSC Lille. The club had earned the right to compete in this tournament by finishing 8th in the Bundesliga in 2001-02. What may seem like breadcrumbs compared to the cakes Leverkusen sliced (but then didn't eat) during the same season was in fact some feat, for Stuttgart had lost six useful players prior to that campaign ­and added only two amateurs in return.

Yet this team defied all predictions by not even toying with relegation. In fact, problems only arose when Stuttgart bought an experienced player during the winter break ­ the Portugese Fernando Meira for a club-record 7m Euros. More of that in a minute, for the moment suffice it to say that Felix Magath already deserved more than just 11 votes when German coaches were ranked in August.

Then he did even better in the latter half of 2002. In December, when Toppmöller was already living on borrowed time, Stuttgart were in fifth place in the Bundesliga and had twice beaten a good Bruges team in the UEFA Cup. That's a fine achievement in itself, but it becomes nigh incredible when you consider the conditions under which Magath is doing his job.

Against Schalke on Saturday, half of Stuttgart's starting line-up was practically homegrown, though you wouldn't immediately guess it from looking at the names. The fleet-footed dribbler Aliaksandr Hleb hails from Belarus, the striker Ioannis Amanatidis has Greek parents, while Kevin Kuranyi's descent is melting-pot-stuff: he was born in Brazil to a German father and a Panamese mother, his grandfather is from Hungary, his great-grandfather from Denmark. However, he grew up in Germany (as did Amanatidis) and is a German U21 international, together with Christian Tiffert and Andreas Hinkel, who also started against Schalke.

Kuranyi is the star of this clutch, scorer of the 88th minute goal that beat Lille and got Stuttgart into the UEFA Cup, and there's many people who think he'll partner 1860's Benjamin Lauth upfront at the 2006 World Cup. But all five are pretty good ­and not one of them is older than 21.

When Stuttgart train, they sometimes have an 'old versus young' match, and players who are 24 have to join the 'old' team to make up the numbers there. It means they can play alongside the Bulgarian Krassimir Balakov (36) or the Croatian Zvonimir Soldo (35). But it also means they'll probably lose.

Of course this youth movement was born of necessity. Stuttgart are 16m Euros in debt. In December they fired their business manager Rolf Rüssmann, in part because he'd flown to Argentina to scout a player the club couldn't buy anyway. ('I didn't fly first class or business class,' Rüssmann defended himself, which gives you an idea how tight money is.)

Toppmoeller: Spurs talks
Toppmoeller: Spurs talks

The expensive Meira transfer may have played a role as well, but the immediate effect of Rüssmann's dismissal was that Magath is now also running the business side of things, highly unusual in Germany.

That he can handle money and contract matters is not that surprising, since he used to be Hamburg's business manager in the 1980s. But few would have thought he could deal with such a young playing squad.

For years, Magath was known as a 'fireman' (a coach brought in to save a club from relegation) and, above all, a slave-driver obsessed with conditioning. The former Middlesbrough and Swindon player Jan-Aage Fjörtoft once said: 'I don't know if Magath could have saved the Titanic. But all survivors would have been in excellent shape.'

Yet the kids at Stuttgart have managed to mellow Magath. When his team lost to Schalke, he took it like a benevolent youth hostel warden. 'They were trying to avoid injuries,' he told the press, 'because they're looking forward to the biggest match of their careers.'

Said match is the UEFA-Cup tie against Celtic Glasgow in the round of the last sixteen. That's how young those Stuttgart players are.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, published by WSC Books, is available through Sportsbooksdirect.

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