After years of watching rivals from England, Spain and Italy grab the limelight, Germany clubs can be forgiven for believing they have finally cracked the Champions League.
Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich both won this week to book places in the last 16 of Europe’s top competition. And though Borussia Dortmund lost again after seeing talisman Mario Goetze limp off against Arsenal, they still have an outside chance of going through.
Bayer Leverkusen’s qualification with a match to play has surprised everyone at the club. Their 2-1 victory against Chelsea means that whatever happens in the final round of games, coach Robin Dutt can count on Champions League football in the new year.
Die Werkself were perhaps lucky to plunder a late winner against Chelsea (former Stamford Bridge star Michael Ballack admitted as much), but Manuel Friedrich’s towering header might just be a turning point in their season.
”This is a big victory for us, but we believed in it for every minute,” a beaming Ballack told journalists after the match.
Dutt hasn’t changed too much on the pitch since taking over at Leverkusen last summer, but off it he has sought to impose his own ideas. He even banned much-loved chocolate spread Nutella from the club canteen.
The former Freiburg supremo’s job was in peril after a listless home defeat to Schalke a month ago, but team malcontents Simon Rolfes, Gonzalo Castro and Stefan Kiessling are now letting their football do the talking. Seven points from three Bundesliga games and Champions League qualification has silenced the critics.
Like some Leverkusen players, Uli Hoeness isn’t a big fan of modern healthy-eating fads: the Bayern president is a very wealthy man, but his riches come not from his wonderful goal scoring with Bayern in the 1970s but from a hugely successful sausage business.
Hoeness recently told a business magazine that he had ”never seen a happy vegan.”
Like the rest of Bayern’s hierarchy, Hoeness was delighted to see their team seal top spot with a match to spare in what was labelled the ”group of death.”
Bayern swept aside a dangerous Villarreal side 3-1 with a performance full of a pace, determination and teamwork.
Franck Ribery was particularly bullish after match. “I want to play in the final in Munich. That is a dream for us. We should not fear anyone.”
His coach Jupp Heynckes also saw the match as a statement of intent. “It was a very difficult group with teams from the four best leagues in Europe and we have marched through. It was important that we could decide the group before the last match day.”
What’s particularly satisfying is seeing moneybags Manchester City struggle to make it through the same group. It’s long been a bone of contention for Germans that while they must balance the books, their English, Italian and Spanish rivals can run up massive losses.
And Manchester City are the biggest villains of the piece, having last week announced an English record loss of £195 million.
“After winning such a tough group, all you can do is pay compliment to the team and the coach,” said Chief Executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Now Bayern want to eliminate City by beating them in their final group match.
“We are not going to give anything away in Manchester,” Rummenigge insisted. “First of all, there are points for the five-year ranking at stake, and then there is €800,000 to the winner.”
In the week City announced their staggering loss, the Bavarian club posted profits of €1.3 million, loose change for City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan but a figure Hoeness and Co. are proud of in the current economic climate.
But how good are Bundesliga teams on the pitch?
After the Dortmund match, Arsene Wenger said he believed the standard of the Bundesliga has risen sharply, while Benfica coach Jorge Jesus this week insisted the Premier League was below the standard of the Bundesliga.
Alex Hleb, who has played in Spain, England and Germany isn’t so sure: ”Barcelona and Real Madrid are fantastic teams. I don’t think Bayern stand a chance against them.”
Still, the signs are good for the Bundesliga. In each of the three seasons between 2006 and 2009, Germany had only one Champions League quarterfinalist, but in 2009-2010 Bayern reached the final and last year Schalke surprised everyone by reaching the last four. The Bundesliga is now the third strongest league in the UEFA classification so will have an extra Champions League spot from next year.
With Schalke and Hannover set to qualify for the knockout stages of the Europa League, perhaps the tide is turning in favour of German teams in Europe.
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This weekend’s Bundesliga action gets under way Friday with Cologne against in-form Moenchengladbach (20:30 CET). On Saturday, we have the big Dortmund v Schalke derby as well as Hannover against Hamburg live. Then on Sunday catch Werder Bremen v Stuttgart and Mainz v Bayern. Coverage in North and East Europe. Highlights of all matches at 19:30.