The Jawarhalal Nehru Stadium rises imperiously from the low, flat buildings of New Delhi, its ring of steel emitting an eerie blue light through the black sky. It is newly constructed, and is the only stadium of such size in India not to be built predominantly for cricket. Against a backdrop of delays, bureaucratic interference and chaotic transport links, the stadium finally opened to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Its first business of 2012, curiously, will be to accommodate the visit of Bayern Munich.
It has been a fine first half of the season for Bayern. They sit three points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, are still in the Pokal, and have reached the knockout phase of the Champions League, with a favourable draw into the bargain. Mario Gomez is top scorer, Manuel Neuer has been a qualified success after his controversial move from Schalke, and key youngsters Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller and Jerome Boateng continue to make strides in their developmental process. How nice, then, to anticipate a winter break. An easy defeat of Koln, followed by a battle in Bochum, may have led the players to eagerly look forward to a long Bavarian Christmas before battle is rejoined in late January. These hopes will come to naught, however, as barely will the gluhwein have cooled, than Bayern are crossing the globe on a mission surely more attributable to the marketing department rather than the manager’s office.
Warm weather training in the suddenly-ubiquitous Qatar is one thing; the players will undoubtedly enjoy the desert sun and the peerless facilities springing up around that country. The trip to Delhi, however, surely contravenes the spirit of the winter break. Nominally, the match, on 10th January, is a testimonial for Indian legend Bhaichung Bhutia. Bhutia, described by a team mate as “God’s gift to Indian football”, owns his own team, United Sikkim, for whom he leads the attack. His brief spell in English football was heralded as a breakthrough for the Indian game, albeit a failed effort at Gigg Lane, Bury. Now he will enjoy a day in front of 60,000 fans in Delhi, against a full first team from Bayern.
Various legends have expressed their support for the trip. “We are excited about the city, the country, and the enthusiasm for football,” said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Paul Breitner, however, rather gave the game away. “We are here to make Bayern popular in India.” The winter break was envisaged as an opportunity to recharge batteries, providing a fresh start in January, not a chance to flog players halfway across the world in pursuit of the marketing dollar. “The trip to India will be an experience”, said a hardly enthusiastic Mario Gomez.
Elsewhere amongst the leading group, transfer activity will dominate the break. Dortmund, in second place in the division, is seemingly prepared to lose Paraguayan forward Lucas Barrios, ousted from the side due to the emergance of Robert Lewandowski. They are determined, however, that they will not let Mario Gotze go, with bids from the big names of Europe surely imminent. A potentially bigger loss still would be defensive general Mats Hummels, reportedly a target for Juventus. Dortmund, though, are also looking to buy, with number one target seemingly being Monchengladbach’s young play maker Marco Reus. During his recent absence with injury, the foals have struggled to maintain any level of performance, and manager Lucien Favre must fear the impact of his permanent departure. The only questions remaining are when exactly he will take his leave, and whether he chooses Dortmund or Munich as his destination.
In Leverkusen, it may be an uncomfortable Christmas for Robin Dutt. The manager received the dreaded vote of confidence this week following a dismal 3-0 home defeat to Nurnberg. Leverkusen was dreadful, especially in defence, and they will approach their Champions League tie against Barcelona with more dread than eager anticipation. Philipp Wollscheid, exceptional at the back for Nurnberg, cannot arrive soon enough. Things are better in Gelsenkirchen, where free-scoring Schalke celebrated Christmas with a 5-0 win over Werder Bremen. Raul has indicated his desire to extend his contract at the Konigsblau, giving them a terrific boost. They will face Viktoria Plzen in the next phase of the Europa League, and even the proposed 100 Euro ticket prices in the Czech Republic will not dampen the spirits of Schalke fans at present.
At the other end of the table, matters of Bundesliga survival will dominate talk over the festive period. Hamburg find themselves in much better shape since the arrival of Thorsten Fink, but will note that they sit only three points above the relegation zone. Wolfsburg and Nurnberg gained critical wins in the final round of games to draw clear of the drop zone, but will still need a strong second round to survive. Mainz lose a lot of close games, and another narrow defeat at Monchengladbach has left them in a perilous position at the interval. Kaiserslautern dropped into the bottom three with an uninspiring draw at home to Hannover 96, whilst Freiburg and Augsburg, whilst not adrift in points, have yet to show the quality necessary to retain their Bundesliga status.
In the second division, the New Year will bring fresh hope to several teams hoping for a return to the top flight. Realistically, any two from five teams could claim the automatic promotion slots. Paderborn, a small club from a town north east of Dortmund, fought their way into contention with a remarkable win at leaders Fortuna Dusseldorf, breaking the latter’s long unbeaten run. St Pauli and Eintracht Frankfurt, relegated last year, are both in the mix for a quick return to the highest division. The surprise packages are Greuther Furth. The green-clad Bavarians sit third, riding the goals of dynamic duo Christopher Nothe and Olivier Occean to an unlikely promotion challenge. They will be the team of most neutrals going into 2012.
The Bundesliga is interestingly poised going into the winter break, and we await its return as eagerly asNew Delhi awaits its leaders.