There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and a “group of death” at a major football tournament. The Euro 2012 draw was not kind to Germany this week, placing the Mannschaft in Group B alongside their old foes the Dutch, plus flamboyant Portugal and ever- improving Denmark. Contrary to the manic picking at each aspect of the process seen in the English media, the German press were serenely unconcerned. “We have no fear,” manager Joachim Low told Bild in the aftermath; “the players are nice and relaxed. We are looking forward to it.” On his return from Kiev, Low will have settled down to the week’s Bundesliga programme safe in the knowledge that he has, perhaps, the greatest abundance of youthful talent in Europe on which to call.
On Friday night, Low will have seen three eras of the national team entertain the fans at the BayArena, as Leverkusen dispatched an insipid Hoffenheim 2-0. Michael Ballack, once so integral to the Mannschaft, gave gravitas to the Werkself; the terrific Stefan Kiessling inspired them, whilst youngster Andre Schurrle showed flashes of brilliance yet to come. Leverkusen is a work in progress, but a potentially very fine one. They have acquired Stuttgart goalkeeper Brend Leno, and agreed a deal for Nurnberg strongman Phillipp Wollscheid in recent weeks, both young players of considerable promise. They will bear the loss of Ballack in the summer, but under the tenacious guidance of Robin Dutt, they can hope to contend for honours for some years to come.
On Saturday, first met second, as the flowering youths of Dortmund and Monchengladbach met at last in a packed Borussia-Park. Gladbach were shorn of their brightest bud, the wonderful Marco Reus, and it showed in their uncharacteristically cautious play. Dortmund dominated; their own star, Mario Gotze, constantly befuddling the home side with inspired movement and ingenious passing. Dortmund’s deserved lead came from a corner, headed forcefully home by their imperious Pole, Lewandowski. To their great credit, Gladbach fought back, steadily, and the suddenly prolific Mike Hanke stole an equaliser. On this evidence,Dortmund are the better equipped to maintain a title challenge into the Ruckrunde, but let us not judge a Reus-les Gladbach too harshly.
In Bavaria, third took on fourth as Bayern welcomed the surprisingly competent Werder Bremen to the Allianz Arena. The home side were in desperate need of a win, and got one, Franck Ribery finding the porous Bremen defence much to his liking. Bayern remain at their bullying, early season best when at home, but they must cure their ailing form on the road if they are to reclaim the title fromDortmund.
Saturday’s games were dominated by draws. Wolfsburg threw away a two goal lead at home to shaky travellers Mainz to increase the pressure on manager Felix Magath. Kaiserslautern and Hertha dragged out a tedious 1-1, whilst Papiss Demba Cisse reappeared on the score sheet to earn Freiburg a point against Hannover 96. The late game was also drawn, but was a cracking affair between Stuttgart and Koln. An unlikely brace from Christian Gentner looked to have given the home side the points, after recovering from a fortuitously-awarded Podolski penalty. Podolski is linked daily with clubs around Europe, but for now he remains the key figure in Koln’s battle against relegation, and he knocked in a priceless equaliser with two minutes remaining. Stuttgart certainly possesses talent, but they are not ruthless; this was a game they should have won, and such slips may well cost them a European place come May.
Sunday’s matches saw two home teams in need of results get them, but in rather different ways. Hamburg is visibly improving every week under Thorsten Fink, and they cosily saw off toothless Nurnberg. In so doing, they pulled themselves up to the dizzy heights of eleventh place, and some are whispering, very quietly, about a challenge for the European spots after Christmas. Schalke, too, had a crucial game, having been so crushingly disappointing in last week’s revierderby at Dortmund. They eventually beat bottom club Augsburg 3-1, but were very fortunate to do so. Their defence looks a mess in the absence of Benedikt Howedes, and there is too little creativity from midfield.
On such evidence, Schalke will struggle this Friday, as they travel to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Hertha score a lot of goals at home, and will relish the chance to test the nervous backline of the Konigsblau. TV Viewers could be in for a high scoring treat, akin to Hertha’s last home game, the cracking 3-3 draw withLeverkusen.
Saturday promises a host of tight, tense affairs. The northern derby between Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg sees the home side looking to cling on to relevance at the top, the visitors grasping the precipice at the bottom. Wolfsburg travel poorly, and may spend a tough afternoon in the Weserstadion. Nurnberg, too, are slipping, and will have few better chance to arrest their slide than a visit from Hoffenheim. Mainz is playing some good football, especially at home, and will present a tricky test for Fink andHamburg. The late kick off promises a tight, tactical affair between the wily coaches of Hannover and Leverkusen.
Sunday opens in front of the yellow wall at the Westfalenstadion, and Dortmund will fully expect to return to the top of the league with a win over the limited Kaiserslautern. Immediately afterwards, Bayern face a tough test of resolve in Stuttgart. The home side can certainly raise their game, and an intimidating atmosphere is sure to greet them in Baden-Wurttemberg.
Almost every game, indeed, almost every team, contains a player of promise for the national side. Even aside from the obvious candidates, there are the likes of Marko Marin at Bremen, Lewis Holtby and Julian Draxler of Schalke, Berlin’s Pierre-Michael Lasogga and the spectacular Hannover goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler. Looking closely at the Bundesliga, it is no surprise at all that Jogi Low does not fear the Group of Death.
You can follow Tom on Twitter @TomClover.