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Babbel suffers Hertha hurt

A week ago, we drew attention to the mysterious falling out between Hertha Berlin's coach Markus Babbel and the club's general manager, Michael Preetz, and said the two might soon part ways. However, nobody could've expected that the matter would come to a head only a few days later and that Babbel would be fired less than 24 hours after his team snatched a point away at Hoffenheim.

On the day of the game, Babbel confirmed that all the rumours that said he would not extend his contract were true and that he intended to leave Hertha in the summer. That, however, was not what turned the quarrel into mud-slinging of the highest order and led to his sacking.

What triggered this development was Babbel's claim that he had informed Preetz about his decision in early November and had then kept quiet about it at the club's behest. Confronted with this statement, Preetz denied Babbel's version of events and said the coach had only informed him four days earlier, on Tuesday.

Club president Werner Gegenbauer, rather understandably, sided with his general manager instead of with a coach who was about to depart anyway. Unfortunately, when asked about this mêlée, his statement included a reference to "Baron Münchhausen", which was akin to calling Babbel a liar. The coach hit back after Sunday morning's training session and said the president was "being used". A few hours later, the inevitable happened and Babbel was fired. In all likelihood, he will be replaced by the former Dortmund, Leverkusen and Frankfurt coach Michael Skibbe, currently in charge of Turkey's Eskisehirspor.

This strange and sorry saga overshadowed a final matchday before the winter break that should have produced plenty of talking points in footballing terms. There was, for instance, one of the most unexpected results of the past few weeks: Nurnberg's 3-0 win away at Leverkusen. After their patchy start to the season, Leverkusen had gone six weeks without a defeat, had beaten Chelsea to reach the next round of the Champions League and appeared to have found both stability and unity. Nurnberg, meanwhile, seemed caught in a downward spiral, having won only one of their previous 11 league games, and were also plagued by injury worries.

Yet you wouldn't have guessed any of this once the game had begun and a surprisingly adventurous Nurnberg side dominated a Leverkusen team that was all over the place. It was so bad that the home fans were singing "And you want to play Barca?" - referring to their team's Champions League draw.

After the final whistle, Bayer's director of football Rudi Voller said: "You could see during the first half of the season that there is something wrong. The most recent positive results have just served to whitewash this." He also announced that talks would be held during the team's winter training camp (Bayer prepare for the second half of the season in Portugal in the first two weeks of January). None of which sounds like good news for coach Robin Dutt, rumoured to lack the squad's respect and support.

Nurnberg, meanwhile, should have been able to celebrate a peaceful Christmas after such a positive end to the first half of the league season, right? Wrong. In football, there are some things that are more important to your most loyal supporters than Bundesliga points. Local pride, for instance.

Just three days after the Leverkusen win, Nurnberg played a German FA Cup game against a second-division side - and ran out to banners reading "Victory or disgrace" and "Tonight you can become immortal".

Their opponents, you see, were not any second-division team but fierce rivals Greuther Fürth. This club, in its modern guise, is the result of a merger, but the Nurnberg-Fürth rivalry is one of the oldest and probably the most historic in the German game, hence the Nurnberg fans' banners. And hence their shock when Fürth won 1-0.

The other noteworthy result of the Bundesliga weekend was Schalke's 5-0 win over Werder Bremen. Not necessarily because of the scoreline, as Bremen have become used to being punished away from home (having now conceded fourteen goals in their last three away games). And not necessarily because Raul scored a hat trick - he also did that when the two sides met in Schalke a year ago.

Rather, it was Schalke's fluent, offensive football that raised eyebrows, a collective enthusiasm epitomised by Raul's climbing into the stands after the game and leading a chant for the Schalke Ultras. He's done that before (in April, after the Inter Milan game), but it's still an amazing sight to see such a world-famous star mixing it with supporters. It's testament to how much fun Raul is quite obviously having in the Bundesliga; indeed, after his performance on the terraces, he told a German reporter he would like to stay at Schalke and sign a new contract.

Similarly unusual scenes had been played out in Freiburg and Wolfsburg on the Saturday. Freiburg were drawing 1-1 with Dortmund when, a minute before the break, their midfielder Jan Rosenthal played a backpass to his goalkeeper that hit his team-mate Pavel Krmas and rebounded into the path of Dortmund's Jakub Blaszczykowski.

The linesman waved his flag for offside and most players on the pitch, from both teams, stopped in their tracks. The referee, however, realised his assistant had made a mistake, since Blaszczykowski received the ball from an opponent, and waved play on. The Dortmund player squared the ball to Ilkay Gündogan, the only other man who hadn't stopped playing, who made it 2-1. Freiburg's protestations were perhaps understandable but still unfounded, as only the referee's whistle stops play. Thus a lack of professionalism may have cost the team a valuable point.

Professionalism was also asked of veteran Hasan Salihamidzic. The Wolfsburg player was brought on by his coach Felix Magath after 45 scoreless minutes between his team and visitors Stuttgart. A mere 20 minutes later, with 66 minutes on the clock, Magath then replaced him with young striker Sebastian Polter.

As the 34-year-old Bosnian left the pitch and walked to the bench, he was clearly upset as nothing like it had ever happened to him before. Taking a sub off so quickly usually only happens when there has been a sending-off and you need to regroup.

But as rare as it is, it had already happened this Bundesliga season - and also in Wolfsburg. On the second matchday, Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes gave Takashi Usami his debut on 69 minutes, when the score was 0-0. In the final minute, Luiz Gustavo then brought Bayern ahead and Heynckes brought on another defender, Daniel van Buyten, for Usami, only 21 minutes after he had come on.

Bayern eventually won this game, while Wolfsburg won, too, and eight minutes after he had come on for Salihamidzic, Polter scored the only goal of the game, which may have made the whole episode easier to stomach for Salihamidzic. Or maybe not.

And so the Bundesliga went into the winter break in style - with many goals, upsets and subjects of conversation. While it's true that the league standings were a lot more unexpected and amazing a year ago, you could argue the season is even more exciting this year.

Yes, last Christmas, Dortmund sensationally led the league, but they did so by ten points. Now the top third of the table is much closer together, which means it's all still up for grabs when the Bundesliga teams (and these updates) resume business in late January.


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