Shock leaders Hoffenheim ready for trip to to Bayern

Five years ago this week, an unknown team from the amateur leagues recorded a shock 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen to reach the quarter-finals of the German Cup... and promptly slipped back into obscurity.

Fast forward half a decade and Hoffenheim are three points clear in the Bundesliga and preparing to defend that lead against resurgent Bayern Munich in front of a 69,000 sell-out crowd at the Allianz Arena on Friday.

"The whole of Germany is waiting for this one," Bayern's in-form Frenchman Franck Ribery said in the build-up. "I just hope we can win it."

Hoffenheim's rise from nowhere to the top of the Bundesliga has been bankrolled by one of Germany's richest men, the software pioneer Dietmar Hopp, but the money hardly detracts from this outlandishly enjoyable story.

Hopp, co-founder of SAP, began putting money into his local club, where he had played as a child, in the 1990s when they were just another local league team with no real aspirations.

By the start of the current decade their steady rise had taken them into the regional leagues, and in 2006 their improvement went into overdrive as Hopp brought in former Schalke 04 coach Ralf Rangnick and several experienced players.

They won successive promotions to the second division of the Bundesliga and to the top flight.


Completely unfazed, they announced themselves to the Bundesliga with a 3-0 win at Energie Cottbus and they have been playing with the same infectious self-confidence ever since.

Rangnick's team are the league's top scorers with 40 goals and even when they have lost games they have done so in style, going down 5-2 at Bayer Leverkusen and 5-4 at Werder Bremen.

Hoffenheim's resources are deep and Hopp was the target of abuse by rival fans earlier in the season.

While some may still resent them as 'arrivistes', one thing that is starting to endear them to neutrals is that they have not thrown money at the transfer market in a bid to buy instant glory.

This is essentially the same team that won promotion as second-division runners-up last season.

Key players such as Vedad Ibisevic (pictured at front), with 17 goals already, Carlos Eduardo and Chinedu Obasi may be on the wish lists of a lot of big clubs but this time last year they were unknowns.

"We know what we're doing," Rangnick said recently. "The team has been together for over a year, with just a couple of changes."

Victory on Friday would guarantee them first place at the halfway stage of the season, meaning that when they move into their new 30,000-capacity stadium at the end of January they will do so as winter champions.

Hopp's money means Bayern may well have cause for concern that their status as German football's only superpower could be under threat but their own good form under Juergen Klinsmann has put them in a confident mood.

Klinsmann is finally coaxing good performances out of a talented squad and with Ribery back at the top of his game they are unbeaten in 13 matches in all competitions and have racked up seven wins and two draws from their last nine in the league.

"If Hoffenheim win the whole of Germany will be laughing," Bastian Schweinsteiger told reporters this week, adding: "But we're not scared of them. We're Bayern Munich."