Bundesliga quarterly review
Biggest surprise of the season is the dynamic performance of Mainz
Perennial champion Bayern has disappointed, as has Borussia M'Gladbach
A couple of coaches have been fired, and Hamburg's Armin Veh could be next
Nine of 34 games have been played, yet the Bundesliga season is still an amorphous blob, unwilling to take any shape. Here's a quarterly review to guide you through the Germanic madness.
Senegalese striker Papiss Demba Cissé has scored eight times in nine games for modest SC Freiburg even though his individual match ratings haven't been spectacular. The 25-year-old is like a Bundesliga Diego Milito: incredibly prolific but strangely overlooked at the same time. Freiburg won't mind. In a way, the worst thing that might happen to Robin Dutt's team would be for Cissé to strike again at Bayern Munich on Friday night. The German champions have long had a habit of buying players who do well against them. It's surprising they haven't tried with Milito (yet).
Newcomer of the season
Schalke 04 midfielder Lewis Holtby was tipped for great things 12 months ago but a loan spell at relegation-bound VfL Bochum was not conducive to his particular game -- all the best bits from Mesut Özil (Real Madrid) and Thomas Hässler (1990 World Cup winner). This year, the 20-year-old starlet was lucky to avoid a season at relegation-bound Schalke -- I jest, possibly -- by securing another loan move, to the season's miracle team, Mainz 05. Next month will see him make his full Germany debut, too. Only a late, late phone call from Fabio Capello -- Holtby is still eligible to play for England -- can get between him and greatness now.
The Samuel-Jackson-as-Mr.-Glass-in-Unbreakable-Award for Bad Breaks
Michael Ballack was the nation's darling and great hope but then came five months in which everything fell apart. First, his ankle buckled under the weight of a nasty challenge from Kevin-Prince Boateng in the FA Cup final. Then Germany's captain didn't get a new contract with Chelsea, saw the national team thrive in his absence in South Africa and was all but ousted by manager Joachim Löw. Ballack, 34, played poorly for Bayer Leverkusen in his return to the Bundesliga before getting injured (broken shinbone) again. He'll be back next year but it'll never be the same. Lurid rumors about his private life have cruelly taken away his off-the-pitch halo, too.
André Schürrle, 19, has gone from virtual unknown to "the new Thomas Müller" in the space of three months. It seems as if only Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Völler knew about the Mainz 05 striker's fabulous potential: Schürrle was quietly signed for $15 million (including add-ons) in the preseason. Four goals in eight games and the imminent promotion to the national team make that a bit of a bargain.
A champion with Wolfsburg (two years ago) and nearly champion with Schalke (last season), Felix Magath was a managerial god before the first ball was kicked in August. His attempt to remake Schalke has been courageous -- and bordering on nuts. Overnight, the Royal Blues have changed from dull and dependable to (fairly) attacking and incompetent. Granted, strikers Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Raul are pretty good, but any coach who builds a new defense around Christoph Metzelder has had it coming.
Next head on the block
Stuttgart's Christian Gross and Köln's Zvonimir Soldo have already been dismissed, so Hamburger SV's Armin Veh must be the favorite for the next managerial firing. The 49-year-old, a surprise appointment, seems ill-suited to manage the notoriously difficult squad of players. Hamburg has an outrageously talented team but no discipline or togetherness. One or two more defeats and it won't have the same coach, either.
Campiones, campiones, oy vey, oy vey, oy vey
Bayern Munich was bad at the beginning of last season but not quite as bad as this. Stats that read W3 D3 L3 translate as awful by Bavarian standards. In fact, the club's never had worse opening results in its Bundesliga history. A post-World Cup hangover and injuries to key men Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery are to blame, along with manager's Louis van Gaal's view that no additions were needed in the transfer window. Bayern, stuck in 11th place, will turn it around and be back in contention soon, but at the international level, this already looks like a season lost for last year's Champions League finalist.
Worst performer -- team
Twenty-seven goals is nine games is pretty decent, 27 goals conceded considerably less so. Sadly, 17th-place Borussia Mönchengladbach has managed the latter, leaving itself exposed a few too many times. Michael Frontzeck's men must now contend with being seen as an easy conquest.
Worst performer -- individual
Bankrupting one team might have been funny (Dortmund, early 21st century), but repeating the trick surely isn't. 1. FC Köln sporting director Michael Meier is a man with a Midas-in-reverse touch when it comes to buying players. Supporters who have belatedly realized his follies are about to hound him out of a job. "Thank you for nothing -- and goodbye," a fan banner read on Tuesday night.
Second-place Borussia Dortmund has done brilliantly, but this one's no contest: little, modest Mainz, with an 8-1-0 record, has taken the role of plucky underdog to a whole new level. Thomas Tuchel's "boy band" fights, presses, runs, plays and deals with the pressure like a veritable top team, and who's to say it won't still be doing so come May? There will never be a more romantic, deserving winner if it manages to hang on to first place.