More than two horses: The German sides following Bayern & BVB into Europe

The Champions League final has given the world the idea that there's only two sides in Germany, but Bundesliga expert Matt Hermann says otherwise...  

With two teams in the Champions League final, Germany’s top flight is enjoying a moment in the international spotlight. Bundesliga fans have always found plenty to like, but German clubs’ relative lack of European success in the Champions League era has kept the league from attracting anything like the worldwide interest garnered by La Liga or the English Premier League. Now that Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have have beaten a few English and Spanish clubs on the way to an all-German final at Wembley, a new line of criticism has arisen: that the Bundesliga is a two-team league.

It’s not that simple. Yes, either Bayern or Dortmund have won the league in each of the past four seasons. And yes, while those two sides reached the Champions League final, the other German participants Schalke 04 lost in the first knockout round to unfancied Turkish side Galatasaray. But a closer look shows the Bundesliga is much closer to a one-team league, and that it boasts a number of teams who could be a threat to Dortmund’s status as a second power and make a deep run in the Champions League.


Bayern and BVB: Marching on together?

Bayern won this year’s title by an unprecedented 25-point margin, also racking up records for points (91), wins (29), goal difference (+80), goals conceded (18) and clean sheets (21). Bayern had a banner year, and more are likely to follow. The club’s revenues are not far short of double those of Dortmund, and with new coach Pep Guardiola luring the likes of Mario Götze (and perhaps Robert Lewandowski as well) to move south from Dortmund to Munich, Bayern’s position on the top of the heap looks safe.

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Not so for Dortmund. BVB were only one point clear of third-place Bayer Leverkusen, and while Schalke were 11 points behind their arch-rivals, the Royal Blues beat Dortmund home and away in the league. Dortmund’s margin over these two clubs is anything but safe. But are Leverkusen and Schalke ready to do well in Europe? Recent trends would suggest that both have been gathering strength to make a splash in continental competition.

UEFA’s five-year performance metric paints an interesting picture when applied to Germany’s domestic competition. Over the past five seasons, Bayern and Dortmund have had the most success: each has won the Bundesliga title twice, Bayern have never been out of the top four, and Dortmund have three top-four finishes. Over the same period, while Schalke and Leverkusen haven't managed to win the league, each club has racked up three top-four finishes of its own.

If the Bundesliga set out to expand its European influence by hiring candidates with a proven track record, Leverkusen and Schalke would be the first two picked, with a few other hopefuls getting a phone interview and a ‘let’s stay in touch.’ Let’s take a look at them.

Bayer Leverkusen
Leverkusen can brag that they were the only team to defeat Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga this season. It shouldn’t be a big surprise – the third-place finishers’ squad is outstanding. Striker Stefan Kiessling’s 25 goals led the Bundesliga; midfielders Simon Rolfes and Gonzalo Castro reminded fans why they used to earn regular Germany call-ups; Philipp Wollscheid and Ömer Toprak gelled into one of the best young centre-back pairings in the Bundesliga; and Germany U-21 international Bernd Leno continued his development into an elite keeper.

Leverkusen’s problem, in as much as they have one, is depth. It looks increasingly likely that they will sell 11-goal, seven-assist forward Andre Schürrle to Chelsea; they’ll get Chelsea money for him (at least €22m), but may need to hit the market for a replacement.


Leverkusen levitate hitman Kiessling

Or do they? In Sidney Sam, Leverkusen have another goalscoring threat who likes to come in from a wide position. Although Sam was only roughly half as productive as Schürrle this season (contributing five goals and five assists), he played in just 22 league matches to Schürrle’s full 34. If Leverkusen can keep Sam healthy enough to play through the season, they might not miss Schürrle as much as is feared.

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Another player under question is Spanish right-back Daniel Carvajal. The 21-year-old has excelled since joining the Rhineland club last summer from Real Madrid – but the sellers kept in a buy-back clause. Carvajal says he wants to stay with Leverkusen for next season's Champions League campaign, but he’ll be on his way back to Madrid if the Spanish giants – under new management – pony up €6.5m.

If Leverkusen can keep most of their present squad and add a few players for depth, their prospects in Europe look bright. Sporting director Rudi Völler and chairman Wolfgang Holzhäuser appear to agree: they’re driving a hard bargain on Schürrle and crossing their fingers about Carvajal; they’ve bought right winger Robbie Kruse from Fortuna Düsseldorf; teenage Greek left-back Kostas Stafylidis will be called back from his loan to PAOK; Werder Bremen, in rebuilding mode, may find it hard to turn down Leverkusen’s bid for central defender Sokratis Papasthopoulos.

Leverkusen also have a Champions League pedigree; they were serial participants around the turn of the century, reaching the final in 2002. In their last Champions League campaign, in 2011-12, they did more than make up the numbers, qualifying for the knockout stage from a tough group that included Valencia and eventual winners Chelsea. They lost in the round of 16 to Barcelona, 10-2 on aggregate – an unlikely margin in the future, considering the present trajectories of both clubs.

Schalke 04
There are fewer ifs around Schalke’s chances of following the top two on a European tour. The Gelsenkirchen club have already made it to the Champions League semis in 2010-2011, came within a whisker of the quarter-finals this season, and reached the last eight in 2007-08.

The Royal Blues have put in some mighty efforts in the Champions League, but this season they made hard work of having another crack. They limped into the Bundesliga’s winter break on a five-game winless run, and continued to struggle after selling playmaker Lewis Holtby to Tottenham in the January window. By February they were tenth, and only on the final day did they confirm their Champions League qualifying place.

The development of a few key young players should strengthen their hand. After 75 Bundesliga games and 25 in Europe, Julian Draxler is no novice, but the attacking midfielder hadn't proved he could carry the weight of a top team until recently. In his first full season for Schalke Draxler scored a meagre two goals, and his account this season was stuck on five in late February. Doubts began to grow as to whether the 19-year-old was up to the task of leading the Schalke attack in the absence of Holtby.


Tor! Schalke celebrate a Huntelaar goal

Over the last two months, Draxler silenced that talk. He scored five more goals to bring his season tally to 10 – often crucial strikes to put his team in the lead. Draxler helped the Royal Blues sneak a 1-0 win in an otherwise sub-par performance at Borussia Mönchengladbach, and got the opener in the team’s Champions League decider against fifth-place Freiburg. It’s not for nothing that Schalke drove trucks with Draxler’s boyish likeness around the Ruhr region when they got him to sign a new deal – one with a release clause set at €45m.

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In addition to the late-season blooming of a new bona fide star in Draxler, Schalke have seen two more youngsters break into the senior side. Three months older than Draxler, Germany U21 cap Sead Kolasinac has just about muscled left-back Christian Fuchs out of Schalke’s starting XI. Promising No.10 Max Meyer is just 17 years old; with only five first-team appearances in the Bundesliga thus far, Meyer may not be ready to contribute much at the Champions League level, but he’s shown flashes of enormous promise and should help deepen the squad for a long season fighting on multiple fronts.

Schalke have good young players in spades, and a midfield corps that chipped in 20 goals this season. What they don’t have is a reliable strike force. In 2011-12 Klaas-Jan Huntelaar looked a like world-class striker, scoring 29 league goals; this season he was much less impressive, having two six-match dry spells and finishing on just 10 league goals. Schalke’s other strikers Ciprian Marica, Chinedu Obasi and Teemu Pukki were unable to fill the gap, chipping in just six goals between the three of them.

If Schalke want to go further in the Champions League or surpass Dortmund, buying another first-rate forward is essential. Sporting director Horst Heldt said last month he’d look into acquiring Mainz striker Adam Szalai – as long as Schalke could count on Champions League football and the riches that come along with it. That’s now taken care of.

Clubs worth watching
In the short term, it’s hard to see any clubs beside Leverkusen and Schalke challenging Dortmund and distant Bayern, much less threatening Europe. But at a few clubs, the potential is there.

VfL Wolfsburg, VfB Stuttgart, and Werder Bremen have all won Bundesliga titles within the past decade, and Wolfsburg are backed by the financial muscle of Volkswagen – an advantage well known to Leverkusen, backed by the chemical giant Bayer. Sadly but somewhat crucially, none of these clubs currently have the players to bring them back into contention any time soon.

Along with cup finalists Stuttgart, SC Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt qualified for the Europa League and threatened to supplant Schalke in the top four. But neither Freiburg nor Frankfurt have the financial stability to challenge for Champions League football year after year. The clubs with the best chance to crack into Germany’s elite group are Mönchengladbach and Hamburger SV.

Gladbach have a good combination of coach and sporting director in Lucien Favre and Max Eberl, a surprisingly loyal nationwide fanbase inherited from the club’s 1970s glory days, and a newly-bulging wallet. In 2012 the club notched a record €15m profit on revenues of €122m, on the fringes of the Deloitte Football Money League top 20. If they can learn to get as good at scoring goals as they are at keeping them out, Gladbach could build on their fourth-place finish in 2011/12 and become a power again.


Gladbach all over: More celebrations needed

Hamburg’s potential is all about money. While an isolated Champions League run can give Bundesliga clubs a rich-list cameo (Werder and Stuttgart are good examples), Hamburg have become a Deloitte fixture despite not having participated in Europe's premier competition since 2006-07.

They rake in money through match-day earnings on a modern 57,000-seat stadium that often sells out despite higher-than-average ticket prices, through the loyal patronage of more than 71,000 club members, and most of all through commercial earnings helped by the club location in Germany’s second-largest city.


Hamburg's Imtech Arena: Open for business

HSV should have no problem challenging for Champions League football, but they’ve made a mess of things the last few years. Since 2008, no fewer than eight coaches (five permanent and three interim) have led the Rothosen on the touchline.

Moreover, despite their half-decent seventh-place finish this season, it’s far from clear whether their current coach Thorsten Fink (in place since October 2011) is the right man to take the club to the next level. He’s built a reputation as a fiery motivator – one whose outward bluster might be masking a few deficiencies in the department of tactical nous.

Günter Netzer, who led the club to its only European Cup win in 1983 as sporting director, has been sparing in his praise for Fink, and he recently joined a string of former players (Uwe Seeler, Stefan Schnoor, Jimmy Hartwig) in calling out sporting director Frank Arnesen for his poor record on the transfer market.

Arnesen looks all but certain to be shown the door, which would normally be a bad sign that Hamburg are slipping back into old, impatient habits. But if they can get one of their leading candidates, former Hanover 96 Sporting Director Jörg Schmadtke, to sign it will have been worth it. Schmadtke's canny buys turned Hanover around over the past four seasons, and the club would probably have been worth including as a long-term top-four candidate had they been able old on to Schmadke. Without him, Hanover's prospects look less bright.

Some fans have responded that after a relegation scrape and 15th-place finish in 2012, seventh place is good enough. Considering Hamburg’s massive potential, it isn’t. German football would benefit from another club joining the battle to make a mark in the Bundesliga – and beyond.

Matt Hermann has been covering German football since 2006 and is the co-host of the Bundesliga Show podcast. He's written for a broad range of publications and is a presenter/producer on DW-TV. He's on Twitter @MrMattHermann 

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