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Oct 21, 2008

Bundesliga revels in goal-fest

With roughly a quarter of the season already behind us, I guess we can now safely state that the Bundesliga has gone bonkers.

First, we are quite comfortably above the three-goals-per-game mark. That is extremely unusual at such an early stage. As you'll know, the Bundesliga traditionally offers more goals per 90 minutes than the other big leagues, but we normally pull away from the pack only in the final third of a season, when games between sides which have nothing to play for anymore often turn into slugfests.

Actually, if you'd given me just the bare results of the first eight weeks of this season, without any additional info, I'd have wagered a considerable sum that they come from the final eight rounds of a season from the 1980s, when there was still an element of carefree-ness to top-flight football. (Or is that carelessness?)

Second, it's not just the simple amount of goals that comes as a surprise, it's also how they spread out. Because it's not as if there are a few dominating sides which bolster the stats by habitually putting five past helpless opponents. Bremen, for instance (usual suspects in this regard), have now scored 22 goals in eight games. But they have also conceded 19!

Third, it's not just the goals and who scores them but also how and when they come about. A few weeks ago I was vacationing in Holland and followed the fifth weekend of the season via teletext. And at one point I was sure that somehow, somewhere a computer had been hacked. Bayern host Bremen, nothing happens for half an hour, then Bremen score five without reply in 37 minutes at the Munich arena? It had to be a hoax. Only it wasn't.

Two weeks later, Bayern were playing at home again, this time against lowly Bochum, and now I was following things on television. With six minutes left on the clock, Bayern were up by two and cruising. Then Bochum scored out of the blue to make it 3-2. I got up, went into the hallway and told my son he'd better come down from his room to watch the final minutes. (Most of his friends are Bochum fans.) By the time I got back to the living room, it was 3-3.

Fourth, it's not just Bayern who grab the headlines by playing one incredible game after another. Take my own team, Dortmund. With very few exceptions, the club's last seasons were marked by a strange atmosphere of lifelessness, as if there was something holding back the players. But now, with - let me repeat - a mere eight games under our belts, we have already had two historic matches.

On September 13, Dortmund were 3-0 down at home in the derby with Schalke. In the final 23 minutes of that game, two Schalke players were sent off and the hosts scored three to salvage an improbable 3-3 draw. And three days ago, on Saturday, Dortmund led Werder Bremen 2-1 away from home with two minutes left on the clock. This game also finished 3-3, with Dortmund equalising two minutes into stoppage time.

This is not normal. I don't know what's going in in the league, but it sure isn't normal.

I mean, we're already some 550 words into this column about how baffling this season is - and I haven't even mentioned the most amazing game, and the most amazing team, of all.

On September 29, Bremen defeated Hoffenheim in what has already gone down in the annals as one of the most stunning matches in Bundesliga history.

There were goals scored from a distance, there was a goal scored with a backheeler, there was a goal scored from a great free kick. There was a sending-off and a clearance on the goal-line. Newly-promoted Hoffenheim hit the crossbar and the post and came back from a 4-1 deficit to tie things at 4-4. Then, having just staged one of the greatest comebacks ever while playing away from home against a title contender, they got hit on the break and lost 5-4.

And what did their coach say? Was Ralf Rangnick furious? ''I can't blame my players,'' he said with supreme cool, as if having just watched a boring scoreless draw. ''We had just tied the game, Bremen were a man down. The momentum was on our side, so my players did the right thing and went looking for the winning goal.''

This cavalier approach had already cost Hoffenheim the game at Leverkusen, when they lost 5-2 in a free-for-all that could just as well have finished 4-4. One's tempted to say that this is a promoted team's naivety and that Hoffenheim are learning the hard way. But nothing could be further from the truth.

It's just their game, and it has stood them in good stead so far. (As we speak, Hoffenheim are in, gasp, second place.) It's not as if Hoffenheim gallop forward like a stampeding herd, quite the contrary. This is an extremely alert side, both mentally and physically, that is currently setting new standards in terms of switching from defence to offence.

If you only see the highlight reels of the Hoffenheim games, such as their 5-2 win at Hannover on the weekend, you'll probably wonder why the other teams allow Hoffenheim so many fast breaks. Only, most of these attacks aren't fast breaks as such. It's just that Hoffenheim abruptly and at an impressive speed come at you with five, six, seven men as soon as they have won the ball. Even well-organised and cautious teams suddenly find themselves outnumbered at the back because they aren't used to an opponent taking such risks.

This style has lost Hoffenheim a point here and a point there, but it has also won three points here and three points there. Thus the bottom line looks fine.

To recap, this is shaping up to be an amazing season full of wild games. Oh, by the way: in the Second Bundesliga, Koblenz have just lost 9-0 away at Rostock. Two weeks after beating Kaiserslautern 5-0.

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