Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Dortmund's youthful revival

In recent times, Germany's Bundesliga has established a reputation as the most open and competitive of Europe's major leagues.

With three different champions in the last four seasons, and an average of just 12 points separating the top four teams over the same period, it is a refreshing counterweight to Chelsea and Manchester United's prolonged domination of the Premier League, or Barcelona and Real Madrid's perpetual superiority in La Liga.

But in this most unique of seasons, the landscape of European football appears to be shifting slightly.

Ok, so Spain's Clasico rivals continue to outclass their domestic opposition with an almost comical level of ease, but the title race in England's top tier promises to be the most unpredictable in recent memory, with the top six sides separated by only eight points. 

And as long as Rafa Benitez struggles to fill Jose Mourinho's considerable shoes at Inter Milan, Serie A can boast a competitive edge as well.

While England and Italy may be following the traditional Bundesliga example, however, the Germans are not practising what they preach at home. In fact, with barely half the season gone, their championship already appears to be a one-horse-race.

But more surprising still is that the team responsible for this deviation from the established Bundesliga dynamic is not any of the usual suspects - Germany's most famous team, Bayern Munich, or recent winners Wolfsburg or Stuttgart. It's Borussia Dortmund.

Jürgen Klopp's young side have become one of the biggest talking points in European football after making a blistering start to the domestic campaign. In doing so, they have managed to shatter not only pre-season expectations, but also all-time Bundesliga records.

16 games into the season, both Dortmund's record of 14 wins and tally of 43 points are unmatched in German top-flight history, and victory over Frankfurt this Saturday will set a new points record at the league's halfway stage.

The Ruhr-based club lead the Bundesliga by an incredible 11 points and, what's more, appear to be doing it in style. They have scored 39 goals whilst conceding just nine, and have secured 12 of their 14 league victories this season by a minimum of a two-goal margin.

This Dortmund side's phenomenal start to the season has given it's loyal fans reason to hope that a club which had begun to run the risk of being lumbered with the dreaded moniker of 'a sleeping giant' may finally be rousing from it's slumber.

In the rich tapestry of German club football history, Borussia Dortmund have unquestionably been one of the bigger players. Six-time winners of the top flight (three in the Bundesliga era), Dortmund also became the first German club to win a European honour with victory in the now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup in 1966.

The club's finest hour came in 1997, with a 3-1 triumph over Juventus in the Champions League final, in a match remembered primarily for super-sub Lars Ricken's first-touch lob over legendary Juventus keeper Angelo Peruzzi which made the game safe. 

The victory placed Dortmund in the elite company of Bayern Munich and Hamburg as the only German sides to have won Europe's premier club competition.

Since the turn of the milennium, Dortmund fans have had little to shout about. A 2002 Bundesliga title aside, the last decade has been predominantly characterised by underachievement on the pitch and poor financial management off it. The club almost went bankrupt in 2005, and briefly flirted with relegation in 2007.

But while this season's success is astonishing, it is not completely unexpected. Since the appointment of Jürgen Klopp in the summer of 2008, Dortmund have been steadily improving.

They defeated Bayern Munich to win the DFB-Supercup in Klopp's first season in charge, as well as finishing a respectable sixth in the Bundesliga. Last year, they finished one place higher to secure Europa League football.

Off the field, the misguided policy of buying established stars and paying them exorbitant wages has been ditched in favour of securing talented youngsters from other clubs, as well as investing in the club's own youth system. The eventual aim is what every club craves - sustainable success.

That this shift in philosophy has paid swift dividends is there for all to see.

Dortmund's commanding position in this season's Bundesliga has been achieved with a squad which has an average age of just under 25, and Jürgen Klopp's regular first team line-up is a combination of highly-rated academy products such as Mario Götze and Nuri Şahin, and recently acquired young talents such as Neven Subotić, Sven Bender and Shinji Kagawa.

Could the good times be on the way back for Dortmund?
With such a young squad, inexperience of pressure may represent the biggest obstacle to Dortmund building on their lightning start to maintain a serious title challenge.

TSG Hoffenheim might be the most appropriate cautionary tale in this respect - the minnows were in the title hunt for the majority of their first season in the Bundesliga in 2008/9, only to fade back into sixth in the final stages.

But Dortmund's young squad have already hinted that they possess resilience beyond their years. Six of the nine goals they have conceded this season have come in the first half of matches, but Jürgen Klopp's side have scored 26 of their 39 goals after the interval. Even when tested, this young team has the belief and the ability to fight for a win.

Off the field, the Dortmund management have done their best to keep expectations to a minimum, with Klopp refusing to even contemplate a title challenge just yet.

"I can read the table - just like I could on Matchday one," he said. "The team is playing exceptionally, but I don't care about the words of others. We will not let it get to our heads if they say how fantastic we are supposed to be or that we have now got to win the league."

General Manager Hans-Joachim Watzke echoed his coach's sentiments, saying: "We're ambitious, obviously, but we won't be drawn. We don't want to weigh the team down with great expectations, the only plan is to keep focusing on the same objective - winning the next game!"

But there remains another problem which, to a large extent, is out of the hands of either Klopp or Watzke: it is that Dortmund may become a victim of their own success in the January transfer window.

With so many talented youngsters and in-form players currently plying their trade at Signal Iduna Park, it is almost inevitable that bigger clubs will come calling. Götze has already been linked with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Şahin with Bayern and Subotić with a move to the Premier League.

But the good news so far is that Dortmund's prized assets appear to want to see what they can achieve together before seeking out pastures new.

Both Götze and Sven Bender have recently signed contract extensions, while Şahin and Subotić have both gone public to rubbish stories predicting their imminent departure.

Klopp himself has also committed his future to the club, signing a new contract which runs until 2014. "I'm incredibly happy about the trust that the club has shown me and my training team and I'm very proud to be a part of the whole thing," he said.

The stability afforded by this move may serve to convince some of Dortmund's highly-rated youngsters that their immediate ambitions can be achieved without the aid of a transfer.

In the end, however, the death blow to Dortmund's Bundesliga dream may come from the unlikely figure of Gonzalo Higuain.

The Argentine striker's lengthy predicted absence courtesy of a back injury means that Real Madrid are in the market for a new frontman.

And with reasonably-priced options few and far between, reports suggest Jose Mourinho has put Dortmund goal-getter Lucas Barrios at the top of his wish-list.

The loss of Barrios would be a significant blow to Dortmund's title chances - after all, any club would miss their joint-top scorer.

Having said that, no one in Jürgen Klopp's side has a league scoring tally in double figures, despite the fact that the team as a whole has averaged well over two goals per game.

This suggests that, even were the Argentine-born Paraguayan to leave, Dortmund carry enough of a goal threat all over the pitch to compensate.

So, provided Dortmund manage to keep this team together beyond January, are they legitimate title contenders? There are certainly those elsewhere in the Bundesliga who are in no doubt as to their credentials.

After seeing his side defeated by Jürgen Klopp's youngsters, Hannover coach Mirko Slomka described Dortmund as "worthy of a top team in every department." 

And Nürnberg keeper Rafael Schaefer would go even further. "Dortmund have an unbelievable team at the moment, which is very united. I would go as far as saying they will be champions."

They may be young, but if Dortmund's kids keep winning, their fans may soon have more than past triumphs to celebrate.     

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