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Wolfsburg deserve debut success

On 90 minutes and 57 seconds of the Hoffenheim versus Bayern Munich game on Saturday, with the score tied at 2-2, referee Michael Weiner already had the whistle between his lips to end the game. But he didn't blow it yet because Mark van Bommel had run into an inside right position with lots of space and time.

Van Bommel raised his head to look for Luca Toni and noticed that the striker had slipped away from Christoph Janker and Isaac Vorsah and was unmarked a few yards left of the penalty spot.

Van Bommel's cross was precise. As the ball hit Toni's chest, the Italian was ten yards in front of goal, in a slightly angled but otherwise ideal position, with Janker and Vorsah a good three steps to his right and unable to do anything about what would happen next.

It was now solely a matter of technique - and Toni chested down the ball well. Yet not perfectly. The ball dropped to Toni's left and so far in front of his body that he needed to take another step to reach it. That left him with no time at all and a very tight angle from which to dispatch a shot.

As the television commentator said "And here's Toni, is history repeating itself?", the striker raised his right leg to somehow make contact before the onrushing Vorsah and Janker could intervene. "No!", said the commentator emphatically as the ball cleared the crossbar. While Toni raised his arm to appeal for a corner, Weiner blew his whistle.

The line about history repeating itself referred to 2001, when Bayern grabbed the title with the latest of goals. Of course such a scenario is still possible and Wolfsburg's departing coach Felix Magath hinted as much when he warded off all congratulations as premature. "At Bayern", he said, "they know very well that you can win the league four minutes into stoppage time on the last day."

But possible is not the same as probable. For all practical purposes, Wolfsburg won the league the instant Luca Toni missed the target. And in many ways, it was a picture-book moment. A late Toni winner would have made German football suspect this was, after all, yet another Bayern season. But it isn't, wasn't and has never been over the many months since this hugely entertaining campaign kicked off last August.

The first half of the season belonged to Hoffenheim, the second to Wolfsburg. And so it's quite fitting that Hoffenheim both regained their pre-winter break form and were almost back to their first-choice XI just in time to stop Bayern's late rally, while Wolfsburg ... well, what can you say, really?

Perhaps it's enough to point out that they opened the scoring at Hannover when Edin Dzeko not only chested down a ball better than Toni did, but then also had the guts, nerve and the confidence to fire a sensational drop kick into the triangle from sixteen yards.

If you want to see a team on a roll that can do no wrong, get tapes of Wolfsburg's most recent games, against Dortmund and Hannover. In both matches, the opposition wasted one golden opportunity - on Tuesday, Dortmund's Alex Frei missed a sitter after 11 minutes and on Saturday, a deflected Jacek Krzynowek free kick hit the inside of the post on 10 minutes - and were then relentlessly made to pay for even the slightest of errors again and again.

In other words, I just cannot see this team, whose record at home stands at fifteen wins and one draw, lose their final game. And even if we take into account that every run must end one day, I cannot see this team lose to Werder Bremen.

Because those other Greens have clearly stopped competing in earnest as far as league football is concerned. And even though Werder's coach Thomas Schaaf was furious about his side's lack of commitment on Saturday, it's only human for players who have more than 50 competitive games under their belts and two Cup finals coming up to adjust their priorities.

Finally, and I hope I'm not stepping on anyone's toes here, after a lot of soul-searching I have come to the conclusion that I want Wolfsburg to win this thing.

Now, the non-Germans and the Anybody-but-Bayern people among you may wonder why it took me some soul-searching to side with the underdogs. To offer an explanation, let me take you to Dortmund's ground, where I spent Saturday afternoon.

At this late point in a season, goals scored against Bayern are usually cheered loudly when they are flashed across the scoreboard. But in our part of the stand, only about half the people applauded Hoffenheim's go-ahead goal and were then forced into discussions with those who had frowned at the news.

The dissenters' point was that Wolfsburg have no tradition and no support to speak of and are thus unworthy of a Bundesliga title. There is some truth to the premise of this argument. (This is my 183rd column, and Wolfsburg have featured prominently only once, see "The big, green W", September 20, 2004.)

But I can't follow the conclusion. This is, after all, a sporting contest. And in footballing terms, Wolfsburg very simply deserve to win the league. They have been nothing short of amazing these past weeks and months and more often than not it's been a pleasure watching them play.

If you have any palate at all for the aesthetics of this game, the interplay between set-up man Zvjezdan Misimovic and those deadly strikers, Grafite and Dzeko, was as much of a joy to behold as Barcelona's best moves.

Also, I really like the idea that we'll have a novice champion for the first time since 1970, when Gladbach celebrated their debut title. (When Dortmund won the Bundesliga in 1995, it was the club's first league title but not their first national championship.) Come to think of it... I wonder if there were fans in 1970 who said Gladbach were unworthy of the title because they came from a small city, didn't have the kind of support they have now and lacked tradition?

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