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Sep 29, 2010

The bizarro world of the Bundesliga

Just five weeks into the new season, observers are struggling to decide the most mind-bending thing about the bizarro world of the Bundesliga. Is it that Mainz have won six games on the trot - including Saturday's match away at Bayern and an encounter at Wolfsburg in which they came back from three goals down - to lead the league?

Or is it that Hannover - numero tre relegation candidates for you, me and everyone else - are in, gasp, third place? Is it the fact that we're way past the three-goals-per-game mark, even though Bayern Munich are hardly able to score goals without massive help from their opponents?

Is it that Kaiserslautern - numero uno relegation candidates for you, me and everyone else - have not only beaten the aforementioned Munich giants but also collected as many points as Werder Bremen? Or is it that Schalke, despite the additions of former Real Madrid players Raul, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Jose Manuel Jurado, are already 11 points behind rivals Dortmund, who have the youngest squad in the league?

Is it that a player representing Freiburg - numero due relegation candidates for you, me and everyone else - leads the scoring charts despite missing the biggest sitter of the season so far on Sunday?

As far as I'm concerned, it's none of that. If you want to see the strangest, most mind-bending thing in the parallel universe that is the Bundesliga, look no further, as it were, than last place.

Look no further than VfB Stuttgart.

I don't mean the fact that this is a team that has won one league game 7-0 but managed to lose all the others, though this is quite some feat in itself. What I mean is the fact that VfB appear to be caught in a cycle that keeps repeating itself, no matter who's in charge or who's on the pitch.

We could start the charting of the club's campaigns back when Giovanni Trapattoni was sacked and replaced by a man who Dieter Hundt, the powerful chairman of Stuttgart's supervisory board, called a "stop-gap solution". This man was, of course, Armin Veh, who then led the team to a sensational league championship in 2007.

But to make things easier, let's start in the summer of 2008, when Veh was still very much the man in Swabia, having finished the season in a decent sixth place and qualified for Europe. His team then unexpectedly botched the start to the new season, winning only five of the first 14 games. Following a heavy defeat at Wolfsburg in November, Veh was sacked.

He was replaced by his assistant, Markus Babbel - an interim solution, of course. But almost from one day to the next, Stuttgart were a totally different side and by and large unbeatable. Under Babbel, the team climbed from 11th place to third and stunningly challenged for the title until the very last day of the campaign.

Now it was Babbel's turn to be the toast of the town during the off-season. His temporary contract was made permanent and the future seemed rosy. But then Stuttgart suffered yet another inexplicably horrible start to a season. By early December 2009, they hadn't won in a dozen weeks and were mired in a relegation spot.

There were no two ways about it - Babbel had to go.

In came the Swiss Christian Gross, he of the famous "ticket to my dreams" speech at Spurs. All of a sudden, Stuttgart went from strength to strength and won an improbable 13 of the next 19 league games to finish in sixth place and somehow qualify for Europe yet again.

"Christian Gross has done a great job," Dieter Hundt said after the end of this rollercoaster ride of a season, adding he was hoping for a top-three finish in 2010-11. But as seasoned rollercoaster riders know, what goes up must come down...

And so it's been Groundhog Day all over again for Hundt, VfB and the club's fans. Once again, a team that was brimming with self- confidence and was rock solid at the back in spring and early summer is suddenly a bag of nerves and blunders left, right and centre. That has resulted in a start to the new season the like of which even Trapattoni, Veh and Babbel haven't had to endure. Five losses from six games - that has no precedent in the club's long history.

I wish no evil upon the club, Mr Hundt or Mr Gross (though the latter has a tendency to look at you in a way that can give the faint of heart the creeps). But I will not be surprised if Stuttgart fire their coach at some point in the next couple of months and replace him with someone - anyone - who can then do no wrong, winning tons of games and leading VfB back into Europe to become the most popular man in the whole of Swabia. Until autumn, of course.

Naturally, this raises the question of whether clubs or teams can really lead a life of their own, entirely irrespective of whether their goalkeeper is a well-known veteran (Jens Lehmann) or a talented youngster (Sven Ulreich), their midfield manned by a local lad (Sami Khedira) or an Italian World Cup winner (Mauro Camoranesi) and the man at the sidelines a novice (Babbel) or an experienced coach (Gross).

Hmm, I don't know. What I know is this: on the last weekend in February, Patrick Helmes, playing for undefeated league-leaders Bayer Leverkusen, was interviewed by a website and asked about his club's reputation for choking as they reached the final stretch. Helmes dismissed this and pointed towards new and experienced players such as Sami Hyypia and a coach with a long history of winning, Jupp Heynckes. "Many people are waiting for us to run out of steam," Helmes said. "But week in, week out, we're proving that it's not going to happen this time around."

And I guess you all know what happened next.

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