There may not be a more beautiful sight in all Germany than Cologne at Christmas. The forbidding shadows of the great Gothic cathedral are lit up by the twinkling lights of the festive market. Christmas trees dressed in golden tinsel are intertwined with shimmering silver bulbs, throwing an eerie, magical glow upon the meticulously crafted towers of the ancient seat of worship. Down the centuries, people have gathered here to imbibe the fruits of the season and discuss the issues and personalities of the day, from Holy Roman Emperors to Hanseatic traders to Reformation firebrands. In the eight hundred years since the cathedral was first built, surely few people can have provoked such debate and uncertainty as a young man from Gliwicein, Poland. “What is Cologne,” asks Bild this week, “without Lukas Podolski?”
On Tuesday night, for the third game running, Podolski was the city’s hero. Trailing 1-0 to an industrious Mainz, with barely five minutes remaining, Podolski unleashed an unstoppable drive into the corner of the net. His exertions had inspired a 4-0 win at home to Freiburg on Saturday, and two goals had earned an unlikely point in Stuttgart the previous Sunday. Koln now sits in 10th place, their highest position in the Bundesliga since 2005. Most of it is down to Podolski, at 26 playing the best football of his career. He has scored more than half his team’s goals this season, and created a fair few more. Without him, unquestionably, Koln would be favourites for relegation. So why is Podolski not quite a universally adored personage in his adoptive city?
Unfortunately, Podolski gives the strong impression of playing for no-one but himself. He is accomplished self-publicist, making it quite apparent that he views his own contributions to the Koln cause as indispensable. He is quite open about his eventual desire to leave the club for pastures new. It is believed that he will hang on until after the European Championships in the summer; anticipating his own starring role, he considers it likely that his fee and wage demands will skyrocket. As Bild puts it, “Podolski is a sublime poker player.” It is thought that Arsenal and Schalke are keen to acquire his signature. The increasingly highly-rated coach of Koln, Stale Solbakken, with characteristic dryness, expressed some surprise. “If he is going to leave us,” he said, “I would expect him to find somewhere better than Schalke.”
That might be tough to do, as Schalke are currently third, and on a terrific run of form, if one ignores the utter no-show in Dortmund. Schalke overcame Hertha in a tough Friday night battle in Berlin. Their attacking play is frequently excellent, the canny wiles of Raul supplying the deadly masked menace of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The winner was scored by one of the league’s emerging talents, the golden-haired Finn, Teemu Pukki. Pukki was brought to Gelsenkirchen from HJK Helsinki after impressing in a match between the two clubs, and has been a stellar performer in the Konigsblau at every opportunity.
Schalke will have enjoyed watching the weekend’s fare, as two of their major rivals made unexpected slips. Augsburg has begun to show belated signs of becoming accustomed to the demands of football at this level, having finally managed a home league win over Wolfsburg. They met Monchengladbach at a good time, the foals clearly struggling to come to terms with the absence of young maestro Marco Reus. A scrappy game was decided by the scrappiest of goals, a free kick from Jan Callsen-Bracker taking an enormous defection past Marc-Andre Ter Stegen in the Gladbach goal. Lucien Favre looked dispirited; the performance was a forbidding reminder of the challenges he will face when Reus departs permanently. On Sunday, Dortmund expected a routine assignment at home to Kaiserslautern, and visibly eased back once Shinji Kagawa gave them a first half lead. From nowhere, however, Olcay Sahan produced a stunning, back shoulder volley into Roman Weidenfeller’s net, stealing a point in front of the fabulous travelling support.
Bayern have shown some alarming inconsistencies of late, particularly outside Bavaria. Perhaps their rivals’ missteps buoyed them, but they looked much better at Stuttgart. Bayern had already missed two excellent chances when they fell behind, against the run of play, to a third goal in two games from Christian Gentner. The visitors shrugged this off impressively, and were soon level through Mario Gomez. Gomez, returning in style to his former stomping ground, sealed the points on the hour. This was Bayern back at their best, and their challengers will need to find much greater consistency in the New Year if they are to come close. Bayern need just a point on Friday night to seal the unofficial Winter Championship; and it should come, against a Koln side coming off only three days’ rest.
At the other end of the league, Hamburg secured a hard fought point in Mainz, adding further oil to the Thorsten Fink bandwagon. They will strongly fancy their chances of pulling clean away from the relegation battle when they host Augsburg on Saturday. Mainz plays their third game in a week on Sunday at suddenly-struggling Monchengladbach, in what could end up being rather a turgid affair for TV viewers. One team on a relentlessly downward spiral is Nurnberg, four defeats in the last five, including a comprehensive home loss to the hardly mesmeric Hoffenheim last week. Their visit to Leverkusen will be headlined by Philipp Wollscheid’s trip to his next employers, but will surely end in a very long day for the entire Nurnberg defence. Vedad Ibisevic looked to be back to his razor-sharp best with a brace at Nurnberg, and Hoffenheim will look to him to spearhead a victory against inconsistent Hertha.
Freiburg’s hammering atKoln saw them drop to the foot of the table, and things are unlikely to improve much with a visit from Borussia Dortmund.Freiburg has rallied against accusations of being a one-man team for a long time; about as long as they had a win not inspired by Papiss Demba Cisse.Wolfsburg’s diabolical away form continued with a 4-1 defeat at WerderBremen. 2009’s Bundesliga champions are now just two points above the relegation zone, and things are starting to get desperate for their coach Felix Magath.Stuttgart will provide obstinate opposition in the Volkswagen Arena on Saturday.Bremen’s loose approach yields lots of goals, both for and against, and could prove costly inGelsenkirchen. On Sunday, the mid-table epitomes, Hannover 96, travel to Kaiserslautern, in what promises to be one of the duller live TV offerings of recent times.Every match, though, is crucial, as these are the last Bundesliga matches for a month. The winter break is upon us, and points are more crucial than ever.