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Oct 25, 2011

Confusion and comebacks

It was a week of confusions and comebacks in German football. Confused were many fans and observers by what was widely perceived as an astonishing discrepancy between the top clubs' results in Europe and in the Bundesliga, the comebacks happened - rather loudly - in Hamburg and - pretty quietly - at Schalke.

But first things first: following their resounding 5-0 win against an inexplicably passive Cologne team on Saturday, Borussia Dortmund's players were repeatedly asked to explain why the team had played so well less than three days after their disappointing showing at Olympiakos in the Champions League. "We knew that we'd done ourselves a disservice in Piraeus," said captain Sebastian Kehl. "So there was a lot of fury involved today."

"Furious" was also a word you could use to describe the pace with which Leverkusen came at Valencia during the second half of their Champions League match a week ago, when they turned the game around and won 2-1. But a few days later, on Sunday, the team turned in yet another strangely uninspired performance and lost 1-0 at home to Schalke.

Granted, the defeat was a bit unlucky. Eight minutes from time, a Leverkusen corner was cleared out of the danger zone by Schalke's defence and found its way to Jefferson Farfan, who used his body quite forcefully to shield the ball from Andre Schurrle before taking off on a solo run at a blinding speed that took him from his own penalty area to the opposing box, where he had enough breath left to finish calmly.

A few Leverkusen players later pointed out that another referee may have blown for a foul on Schurrle, but their complaints were muted. For one, Bayer's director of sports, Rudi Voller, was recently fined 10,000 Euros for loudly arguing with the referee after Leverkusen's game in Cologne. Secondly, Bayer know very well that the real problem is that they currently lack the kind of determination and aggressiveness Farfan displayed in creating and scoring the goal.

Leverkusen, known for their attacking game, have scored only twelve goals so far - exactly as many as Mainz and Hamburg, and less than Freiburg. That's a serious concern because it's not as if the team is wasting too many opportunities - they don't have them in the first place. "We lack ideas of how to create chances," Schurrle admitted after the Schalke game, which will have some fans fear that the side is missing the creativity of Arturo Vidal (sold to Juventus in July) more than was expected.

A few minutes after Schurrle had made this comment, the best game of the season so far kicked off in Hannover, where Bayern Munich suffered their first defeat (and conceded their first goal from open play) since early August. The team that had been quite unfortunate not to win in Napoli the previous Tuesday was beaten 2-1 by Hannover 96, the team that had only managed a home draw with Copenhagen in the Europa League on Thursday. Confusing? Astonishing? Yes and no.

Hannover 96 may have lurked in what looked like mid-table obscurity for the past weeks, but in fact they are one of the very, very few teams that surprised last season and have not suffered a severe dip in form (or results) since. Their counter-attacking game still works like clockwork and it should be a warning sign to any opponent that Didier Ya Konan, the team's top goalscorer last year, is often used only as a sub this season.

As for Bayern, the side didn't disappoint in Hannover despite the scoreline. "A lot of things went against us today," coach Jupp Heynckes explained, referring to 96's goals, which came from a penalty and a deflected shot, and the deciding moment, a red card for Jerome Boateng, who pushed an opponent during a break in play.

Even Hannover's coach Mirko Slomka later said that the sending-off was a judgement call and that he wouldn't have minded a more lenient decision. But even with ten men, Bayern kept moving forward and created many chances, most of which were saved by an outstanding goalkeeper, young Ron-Robert Zieler.

The final moments of this exciting game were end-to-end stuff, as Bastian Schweinsteiger hit the inside of the post, Hannover's Konstantin Rausch robbed Manuel Neuer of possession but missed an open goal and finally a David Alaba free kick four minutes into stoppage time went whistling inches past the post. When it was over, Heynckes had every right to say: "I'm more pleased with my team today than after some 7-0 or 5-0 matches."

Still, the result put some thrill back into the title race, as Dortmund, Hannover 96 and also Schalke are now back within shouting distance of the Munich giants. Schalke also provided one of the two comeback stories when they signed a well-known goalkeeper who'd fallen on hard times - Timo Hildebrand. The former Germany keeper had been out of a job since his contract at Sporting CP ran out in the summer and a trial with Manchester City came to nothing.

A severe knee injury to Schalke's number one, Ralf Fahrmann, proved to be Hildebrand's chance to get back into the professional game. For the time being, however, the club appear to consider him just a stand-in for Lars Unnerstall, yet another young and highly-talented German goalkeeper. Consequently, Hildebrand is not in the first-team squad for the German FA Cup game in Karlsruhe on Wednesday but will get some match practice with Schalke's reserves instead, who play Standard Liege.

However, things can change very fast in football. Only a few weeks ago, Schalke would never have been an option for Hildebrand, because he doesn't enjoy the best of relationships with Ralf Rangnick, Schalke's coach until mid-September.

And a few weeks ago, you wouldn't have guessed that Thorsten Fink would soon make a comeback in the Bundesliga. The former Bayern player was having great success coaching Basel, leading the Swiss outfit in the Champions League and with a chance of reaching the knockout stage following a stunning 3-3 draw at Manchester United.

But less than three weeks after that memorable night, Fink signed a contract with Hamburg SV - the team bottom of the Bundesliga. "HSV are something special and I can achieve a lot with this young team," he told more than 100 reporters during his presentation when he was asked why he had made the move.

His team showed a similar confidence during Fink's first game in charge, against Wolfsburg. Hamburg conceded a goal after all of 64 seconds (!), but never lost morale. Those 90 minutes also saw another comeback of sorts, as Hamburg used a formation similar to the 3-5-2 system with wing-backs that was so popular in Germany during the 80s and 90s, though HSV don't use a fixed sweeper. However, the team only came away with a draw and is still mired in the relegation zone.

Which makes the coming weekend a particularly important one for the teams in the bottom third; Hamburg will have to beat Kaiserslautern, otherwise any great achievements Fink has in mind will have to be put on the back burner - because then HSV are certainly going to have a long and nerve-racking season ahead of them.

Home wins will also be badly needed in Freiburg, against Leverkusen, and Mainz, who play Bremen. In both cities, the fairytale that was last season is now well and truly a thing of the past. "We always knew we would be fighting against relegation," Freiburg coach Marcus Sorg says. And there's nothing confusing about that.

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