Last year's drop-dodgers clash as rejuvenated title challengers

From avoiding relegation to aiming for the stars – it's very possible in Germany, says Stefan Bienkowski

This weekend’s Bundesliga promises a game of local and national interest as Schalke travel 40 miles south-west to face fellow surprise package Borussia Moenchengladbach in a ripe encounter between third and fourth.

Having vastly improved since last season’s flirts with relegation – Schalke finished 14th out of 18, while 16th-placed Gladbach only stayed up after a play-off with VfL Bochum – the two Northern Rhineland sides are chasing Dortmund and Bayern Munich in a four-way race for the title.

From the outside, the Bundesliga seems pleasingly erratic. Eschewing the usual European model of regular champions or settled elites, it has produced four different winners in the last five seasons, and none of them are the team which perhaps best depict that unpredictability: Schalke 04.

The team from Gelsenkirchen have truly turned it round from last season. Despite an impressive run to the Champions League semi-finals, they suffered abysmal league form. After replacing Felix Magath in March 2011, makeshift manager Ralf Rangnick was trying desperately to keep the club from falling apart.

Despite Magath’s pantomime-villain persona within German football, his role was undermined by their inability to perform in the league. Magath’s men failed to pick up a single point in their first four games of last season, and Schalke lost 12 further times to rack up 16 defeats in 34 games.

Under Rangnick, the club began the 2011-2012 campaign in better form, winning three of their first four games of the season and topping the table with Bayern. In typical Schalke fashion, they lost their next two games, dropping to ninth.

At this point, Ralf Rangnick decided he could no longer put up with the pressures of the job, and resigned with immediate effect. But every cloud has a silver lining which came in the form of a Dutchman by the name of Huub Stevens. Since his appointment, the club have only lost two of 13 games and have maintained a level of form equalled only by champions and leaders Borussia Dortmund.

The changes under Stevens are evident from the manner in which the former Netherlands international gets the most out of his players. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – a player seldom praised under Magath – has already scored twice as many goals as he did last season, with six games to spare. Similarly, Raul has contributed 13 goals in 28 – remarkable considering it took him more than 50 games to reach 19 under Magath.

KJH (centre) and chums celebrate a win at Koln

This strike partnership has been the cornerstone to Stevens’ success, as the coach has done all he can do distinguish his side from the regimented, defensive side of Magath’s tenure. Schalke's goals-against column is almost twice as bad as their title rivals, but nobody has won more games.

And so to this weekend's trip to Gladbach. Like Schalke, Borussia have been entertaining this season, have experienced a comparable renaissance under new coach Lucien Favre, after an unpleasant experience in the last campaign went as far as to threaten the clubt’s Bundesliga status.

Michael Frontzeck had an unfortunate season with the club, winning only four games before losing his job in February 2011, when Favre then took over. At that point, Gladbach were dead last in 18th position, with a goal difference of -24.

Favre won his first game in charge – against Schalke – and the club won six of their last 11 games to drag them out of the automatic relegation spots. They then fought for their Bundesliga lives in a play-off against VfL Bochum, winning the two legged tie 2-1 on aggregate – a young Marco Reus scoring the late equaliser to ensure the victory and his club’s safety.

Gladbach's young bucks (Reus second right)

Swiss coach Favre has rejuvenated die Fohlen (the Foals), distilling his excellent tactical knowledge into a squad full of fantastic young players. The very definition of a counter-attacking team, Gladbach have been admiringly termed the ‘sit and hit’ side.

Of course, all this hasn’t simply been down to tactics. If Favre has built a stage for the promising young performers, Marco Reus has certainly been the star attraction. The midfielder has contributed 12 goals and three assists in 17 games, and despite agreeing to join Bayern in the summer, the 22-year-old shows no sign of letting it get in the way of his duty for Gladbach.

Schalke travel to Monchengladbach after dropping their first points in six games last weekend when they were held to a 1-1 draw against relegation battlers FC Mainz. Likewise, Gladbach dropped two points to Wolfsburg last Saturday after brushing aside Bayern and Stuttgart in the two weeks prior to the game.

Whatever the result, goals and attacking football are promised from two sides who seem determined to put as much distance between themselves and their dark past.

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