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Dec 14, 2011

Podolski the saint of Cologne

Never mind Augsburg's unexpected win against high-flying Monchengladbach or Dortmund dropping points at home against Kaiserslautern - in a way the most surprising scenes of the past Bundesliga weekend were played out in Cologne. Not so much on the pitch, where the hosts proved once more why no other team, not even any of the top sides, converts its chances anywhere near as efficiently as Stale Solbakken's men. That is particularly true for Lukas Podolski, who scored his fifth brace of the current campaign in his team's 4-0 win over Freiburg and is playing the best season of his career.

The surprising thing, at least for those who don't follow the German game really closely, was what happened in the stands. As their team took a commanding lead, the Cologne fans suddenly started up chants - against Schalke 04.

What must have led foreign observers to scratch their heads in bewilderment was a reaction to newspaper reports that said Schalke were interested in signing Podolski. To call the player a Cologne folk hero would be an understatement, as Podolski is more like a combination of a saint and a saviour to the club's fans. Even when he left Cologne for Bayern Munich in 2006, his popularity never really wavered. And when he returned three years later, it was as if the prodigal son had realised the error of his ways and was now forsaking fame and wealth to be with his family and friends. (Which, truth be told, is not so far from what actually happened.)

And so attempting to lure Podolski away from Cologne once again is more than trying to rob the team of a star player. Rather, it resembles a conspiracy to dismantle the Cologne Cathedral and rebuild it somewhere else. Which explains the fans' fury - but it doesn't make the situation any easier.

Podolski's contract runs out in 2013, which means the coming summer is the last chance for a cash-strapped Cologne to sell him for a lot of money. Unless, of course, Podolski decides to extend his contract. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem from the outside, because Podolski really is the exception that proves the rule, the modern professional who prefers to play where his heart is rather than where the money is.

On the other hand, there are also some doubts as to how much at home Podolski still feels in what everybody knows is his spiritual home. He always had a good and close relationship with Wolfgang Overath, who recently stepped down as president. (We reported on this development four weeks ago.) His relationship is less good and less close with Volker Finke, the club's director of football. And Podolski will also remember that he was promised a strong, competitive team when he rejoined his hometown club in 2009. Despite some good results this season, it hasn't happened and isn't likely to happen in the foreseeable future. As if on cue, Cologne could only draw 1-1 at home with Mainz in their game in hand on Tuesday night. (Guess who scored Cologne's goal?)

"Should he extend his contract, everyone in Cologne will be happy. If he doesn't want to extend it, then this is indeed a train of thought we'd go through. Then we'd have to consider if it is feasible - provided the player wants it." Horst Heldt said that, Schalke's director of football.

Another contract due to run out soon also made headlines this week, namely that of Hertha's coach Markus Babbel. For quite some time now, the club has tried to get Babbel to commit himself - will he extend his contract or is he going to leave the club in the summer of 2012? But Babbel's reluctance to enter into serious talks appears to have led to a souring of the once-splendid relationship he enjoyed with Hertha's business manager Michael Preetz.

This has led to the bizarre situation that Hertha may soon part ways with the most successful coach the club has had in a long time and despite a perfectly fine, even good, start to the season, even if the 2-1 loss at home against Schalke last Friday may have been sobering. On Tuesday, Babbel told a Berlin newspaper that he is not in talks with other clubs and that he will sit down with Hertha during the winter break. But perhaps this comes too late, perhaps all those reports that said Babbel is so ambitious that he wants to move to a bigger club as soon as possible have angered proud Hertha beyond repair.

Having mentioned Schalke's win, it's time to have a look at the top of the standings now - because all the signs are the Royal Blues from the Ruhr area are for real. Thanks to the goal-scoring heroics of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who trails Bayern's Mario Gomez by only one goal, Schalke have climbed into third place. "We know we won't be challenging at the very top until the end," said coach Huub Stevens, "because we lack the necessary consistency." But it's worth bearing in mind what Monchengladbach's defender Dante had to say after his team's shock defeat in Augsburg: "This league is a bit crazy. It doesn't matter who is in last place and who is in first, everyone can beat anyone. No team is really bad."

The figures seem to bear this out, as they indicate that the Bundesliga is once again very competitive, despite the fact Bayern, the overwhelming favourites, are three points clear at the top. Because only five points separate the first five teams, very rare in Europe's most popular leagues. (In Spain it's 13 points, in Holland 10, in England and Italy 9, in Portugal 8 and in France 7 points.) Of course this doesn't mean it'll remain this close until May, but at the same time there's no reason why Schalke shouldn't still be there or thereabouts when the finishing line draws nearer.

One club that knows very well what it's like to suddenly and unexpectedly challenge for the biggest prize are the Wolves, VfL Wolfsburg. Sensational league champions under Felix Magath only nineteen months ago, the team is struggling heavily at the moment with the same man at the helm. "We are now fighting relegation," Magath said following his team's 4-1 dismantling away at Bremen. The scoreline actually flattered the visitors, as two Bremen players, Florian Trinks and Marko Arnautovic, contrived to miss an open goal from less than six yards.

In any case, despite the facts that Wolfsburg seem to be aiming at some transfers in the winter break, that the club can count on solid Volkswagen money and that Magath once signed Podolski to Bayern - it's safe to assume that if the man they call "Prince Poldi" really decides to leave the Goats, it won't be to become a Wolf.

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