Back in September 2010 Mainz and Borussia Dortmund were setting the new Bundesliga season alight, their young teams displaying an attacking brand of football that was bringing in wins galore and plaudits from around Europe.
These two very different clubs, both led by youthful coaches, started the last campaign in stunning style: tiny Mainz (who finished the season in fifth place) equaled a Bundesliga record by winning their first seven matches, while sleeping giants Borussia Dortmund won six straight before running away with the title.
This season’s start wasn’t so pretty: both teams quickly lost their status as media darlings after garnering only seven points from their first six games. Cynics wrote off Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund as one-season wonders and Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz as relegation fodder.
But last weekend may have marked a turning point in the two teams’ seasons.
Dortmund gave Wolfsburg a football lesson with a fifth win in six matches to go second in the table. Mainz snapped a run of nine matches without a win by beating in-form Stuttgart with a performance of bravery, teamwork and, perhaps most importantly, a thick slice of luck.
Dortmund’s famed south terrace was covered in a giant banner of a scary skull before the Wolfsburg match and it quickly became evident that Felix Magath’s team were dead men walking.
Dortmund displayed the quick passing and deft movement that made them such a force last season. Shinji Kagawa was the key man, putting in his best performance since a metatarsal injury at the Asian Cup in January threatened his career. A pass which set up Robert Lewandowski’s goal drew parallels with the legendary Günter Netzer.
“Shinji has found his energy of the past season again,” Klopp beamed. ”The game against Wolfsburg was his best this season.”
Kagawa isn’t alone in hitting his peak: with eight goals, Lewandowski is coming into his own and keeping last season’s top scorer Lucas Barrios on the bench.
Sven Bender scored his first goal of the season in the 5-1 win and insists defeats on matchdays 5 and 6 were the turning points in Dortmund’s season.
”The games against Hertha and Hannover were eye-openers for us. Klopp drilled home the point that our game has to be based first and foremost on a solid defence.”
Adds Marcel Schmelzer: “Now we’re more compact, making very few mistakes at the back, switching upfield quicker and pressing well again.”
“We are the old Borussia again,” insists Kevin Grosskeutz . ”We are on par with Munich.”
Indeed, Dortmund can’ wait for their next match — a mouthwatering clash at Bayern Munich after the international break. After the Wolfsburg match, Dortmund was ringing to the chant of “off with Bayern’s lederhosen.”
Still, Dortmund had to spill blood for the win: Neven Subotic was on the receiving end of Sotirios Kyrgiakos’ sizeable elbow and needed facial surgery that will keep him out of action for six weeks. The image of the Serb with blood pouring from his face was not for the faint- hearted.
“I look like Quasimodo,” he said after the match.
The Greek sent Subotic a consoling text but the recipient wasn’t impressed.
“You cannot just say sorry by text message after something like that. It was totally unnecessary of him to reach out backwards with his elbow. I have three plates in my face and am lucky nothing happened to my eye.”
The two 1.93meter (6 ft 4) defenders are due to come face to face in the return fixture on 7 April 2012. Bloodthirsty readers may want to make a note in their diary.
Meanwhile Mainz found a new hero in striker Anthony Ujah. The 21-year old Nigerian, bought from Lillestrom, made only his second start against Stuttgart. After a forgettable first half, the stocky number 13 proved unlucky for Stuttgart in the second, scoring two goals in 11 minutes.
Mainz fans were beginning to fear a curse at their new Coface Stadium (their last home win was on 7 August). Superstitious supporters fretted that their new home is named after a subsidiary of an investment bank deeply mired in the international financial crisis.
Mainz haven’t been playing badly, but have been unlucky in front of goal. And another defeat was on the cards when Mainz shipped their 15th home goal in 7 matches, but Ujah had the last word. His crafty header made it 1-1. Then Mainz won the dodgiest of penalties when Stuttgart defender Maza was punished for the slightest of pushes.
”I can fully understand Stuttgart’s frustration,” a somewhat embarrassed Tuchel said after the match.
Still, Andreas Ivanschitz banged in the resulting spot kick and the effusive Ujah finished off Stuttgart with a third. Then the match boiled over, Eugen Polanski getting a red card just before the final whistle and Maza just after it.
”It never felt hopeless for us, but of course it’s a relief,” Tuchel admitted. “I’m happy the required luck went our way today.”
Lucky, perhaps, but the kind of match that Mainz might need to bring back memories of that golden autumn of 2010.
For more Never Mind The Ballacks http://uk.eurosport.yahoo.com/football/the-ballacks/
There’s no Bundesliga action this week but join us on 18 November for Kaiserslautern v Leverkusen (20:30).