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Nov 2, 2011

Eleven: The magic number?

There is a saying in Germany that the standings after Matchday 11, or almost exactly one third of the season, will give you a good idea of who will be fighting for - or against - what, for the rest of the campaign. This rule of thumb didn't really apply a year ago when Frankfurt appeared upwardly mobile after 11 games, while Stuttgart were in the relegation zone, but as quite a few observers have noted, the 2010-11 season was an aberration and now things appear to be back to normal.

One of those observers is Dieter Hecking, the Nuremberg coach who worked wonders last year with a young and inexperienced squad. At the weekend, his team was played off the park by a Bayern Munich side that should have scored more than just four goals against the Franconians - "We can be thankful that the Bayern players already had Napoli on their minds in the second half," Hecking admitted - and keeps edging nearer and nearer towards the danger zone.

But Hecking is unperturbed. "We always knew that it was all about getting 40 points as quickly as possible," he said on late Saturday evening on national TV, referring to the number of points that supposedly guarantee you stay up. "We thought it was very likely we wouldn't have a couple of surprise teams at the top again and current events confirm that."

It is indeed true that the Bundesliga table looks a lot more predictable than it did a year ago, when Mainz won eight of the first eleven games, Freiburg six and Bayern only four. Actually, one glance could be enough to tell you that.

When you open kicker, Germany's premier football magazine, and look for the Bundesliga table, you'll find that some teams have a capital letter in brackets behind their name, either M, P or N. "M" stands for "Meister" and denotes the reigning league champions, "P" is for "Pokalsieger" and tells you which club are the current Cup holders, "N" means "Neuling" and marks the newly promoted sides.

In a normal season, you'd expect "M" and "P" in the first half of the table or even the first third, while the "N" teams should in the second half and probably even near the bottom. That is pretty much the case now, and yet, if you look more closely, there are still some surprising aspects.

The "P" that proudly sits in second place, for instance, belongs to Schalke. While it had been generally expected that the team would bounce back after a very disappointing 2010-11 league season, few would have expected them to trail only Bayern Munich, given all the turmoil of the past months.

Consider, for example, the fact that the players have had three very different head coaches in less than eight months: Felix Magath, Ralf Rangnick, now Huub Stevens. Or that two of them left under strange circumstances, as Magath was fired despite reaching the Cup final and the Champions League quarter-finals, while Rangnick stepped down because of exhaustion syndrome.

Then there were the transfer rumours, whether real or manufactured, surrounding Raul in July and August or the goal drought that haunted the "Hunter", Dutch striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Between mid-November 2010 and mid-August 2011, he scored only one single league goal.

But none of that seems to have affected to the team - and all of it seems to be very much in the past now. A converted penalty against Cologne on Matchday 2 must have broken the spell for the explosive Huntelaar, who scored twice against Hoffenheim on Saturday to bring his tally up to ten goals (he trails only the almost absurdly consistent Mario Gomez in the goalscoring charts).

The first goal was scored by Raul - controversially, as the ball rebounded off his hand, but entirely legally - and if one takes into account that another striker, Jefferson Farfan, won the previous game, in Leverkusen, through his pace, you have to conclude that Schalke can beat you in so many ways that they will be there or thereabouts for some time to come. "We're not chasing Bayern," said teenage phenom Julian Draxler after the Hoffenheim match. "But now we want to defend second place with all our might."

Another side that may not be a surprise team but has done better than expected is the first "N" in the table - newly-promoted Hertha Berlin in tenth place. Saturday's 3-2 victory away at Wolfsburg wasn't just Hertha's fourth win of the season - it was also the fourth win against an entirely respectable, not to say strong, opponent. (The other three victories came against Dortmund, Cologne and Stuttgart.)

Of course such a good showing is the result of many factors, but the most important one is easy to spot in Berlin. At Wolfsburg, Hertha conceded the 2-2 equaliser five minutes from time, but then didn't sit back and try to defend the point they still had. "Our coach says that, statistically, a team is most vulnerable during the five minutes after a goal," Hertha's defender Christian Lell said after the game. "So we knew this and hung in." A minute after Wolfsburg's goal, Hertha regained the lead and won.

The coach Lell quoted is Markus Babbel, and he is palpably popular at Hertha, with players, fans and club officials alike. One of the secrets of his success appears to be that, despite his casual, easy- going manner, Babbel draws up rules and enforces them: fan-favourite Patrick Ebert and local boy Anis Ben-Hatira, signed from Hamburg in the summer, didn't even make the squad for the Wolfsburg game after "not fulfilling the expectations" of the coach, as Babbel explained.

If the rule of thumb about the first 11 Matchdays applies this year, Babbel will steer Hertha towards safety early, while Schalke are going to challenge for Europe, perhaps even the Champions League. It also means that Borussia Monchengladbach will not have a difficult season ahead of them, despite the persistent claims to the contrary made by their coach Lucien Favre.

No one denies that the Swiss is the driving force behind Gladbach's sensational rise (when he took over the team in February, they were in last place and seven points off the pace), though young Marco Reus is certainly a factor. The striker has a habit of wasting good chances, some say because he does so much running that he lacks breath and concentration in front of goal, but at the weekend he was on target twice to beat a good Hannover 96 side almost by himself.

This also serves to underline another rule of thumb that has governed the Bundesliga in the last couple of seasons: teams that are active in Europe (like Leverkusen, Hannover and Dortmund) sometimes struggle in the league, which allows sides not burdened by this strain (such as Bremen and Stuttgart) to sneak past them. But then again, it's probably way too early to draw such conclusions, even if 11 games surely help you spot the general trends.

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