Mirko Slomka's hardworking side have overcome tragedy to give themselves a chance of Champions League football
If Stoke City's Tony Pulis complains about a lack of coverage, what are Hannover 96 supposed to do? The Lower Saxons are playing the best-ever season in the history of their club and will embark on the last five games of the season in third place, yet their remarkable progress keeps getting somewhat ignored – including, it has to be admitted, by this column.
They probably don't mind though. While Mainz 05 flickered brightly before running a little out of steam, 96's more stealthy ascent has continued to catch both the media and opponents off-guard. Champions League at the AWD-Arena next year is now a very distinct possibility, a feat that was about as likely before the season as Thomas Schaaf going on a stand-up tour, Lothar Matthäus turning down a Bild interview request or one of Europe's best teams calling up a pensioner from Essen for goalkeeping duties. (OK, scrap the last example)
Here Hannover are, all but guaranteed midweek action come 2011-12. "We'll be playing in Europe", said the Portuguese midfielder Sérgio Pinto after their impressive 2-0 win over Mainz on Saturday, when the crowd were alternating La Ola madness with delirious chants of "Europapokal, Europapokal". Goals from the top Ivorian striker Didier Ya Konan (or Konan Ya, views differ on this matter) and the outstanding enforcer-cum-virtuoso playmaker Pinto were enough to see them re-take third place from Bayern, who could only muster a lame 1-1 draw at Nürnberg. Europa League, at a very minimum, is on the cards for a side who were widely tipped for relegation and managerial uncertainty. "There used to be a club that was evoked pity all over the country for mourning its goalkeeper (Robert Enke) so strongly", wrote Süddeutsche Zeitung a couple of weeks ago. "In their grief, the players didn't seem to care that much about their football anymore. Its manager and sporting director were also grieving, and fighting a power struggle. Its fans stayed at home. Its future was destined to play out in Bundesliga 2. This club was called Hannover 96. It doesn't exist anymore".
In its place, the head coach Mirko Slomka has put together a side who have made the twin forgotten German traits of efficiency and defending their forté. "We win the ball and play it up very quickly," is how Pinto sums up their tactical default mode. They won't win the plaudits of too many purists, to be sure. And the odd heavy defeat also suggests that this extreme form of counterattacking football has severe limitations when the opposition take the lead. But Hannover are easily more than a 2011 version of 2009's Hertha BSC who so nearly catenaccio'ed all the way to the title with mind-numbingly tedious anti-football. As the last 15 exhilarating minutes against Mainz on Saturday demonstrated, defending well is just a means to an end for Slomka, the starting point for going forward, not an aim in itself.
The incredibly sad Enke story and its repercussions aside, Hannover used be chiefly known for the rebellious stance of their president, Martin Kind, who wants to abolish Bundesliga restrictions on investments and takeovers. Success under Slomka has ironically undermined one of the central tenets of his argument, namely the view that a ban on outside investments makes it almost impossible for medium-sized teams to compete with more established, wealthier rivals. One would suspect that's a price he's happy to pay, however, and the same goes for a (relative) lack of media exposure. Bayern might have again stolen all the headlines by pulling off the trick of firing Louis van Gaal for a second time inside a month but no one cares in north-west Germany. Life in the shadows has suited the Bundesliga's under-cover Spitzenmannschaft (top team) just fine.
• They may be fourth in the league and on course for Thursday nights in Bratislava but Bayern made at least sure they remain the undisputed champions of publicity. Louis van Gaal's slow-motion dismissal was abruptly brought forward in the wake of the listless performance in Nürnberg on Saturday. Arjen Robben had made matters worse by insulting the referee Knut Kircher after the final whistle ("You're too pedantic, you Vollpfosten!"), the fact that young goalkeeper Thomas Kraft, 22, had handed the hosts a point with a lazy clearance probably proved the final straw though: Van Gaal had installed Kraft in January, much to the annoyance of the board – who had decided on Schalke's Manuel Neuer as the long-term solution - and to the surprise of sporting director Christian Nerlinger, until then his staunchest ally outside the dressing room.
Van Gaal got news of his impending exit on the bus home from the EasyCredit-Stadion and accepted his sacking without much emotion, unlike president Uli Hoeness, who used Sunday's pressconference to stick the boot in. "Putting Kraft in goal was the beginning of all this shit, that really unnerved the defence," said the 59-year-old, not putting too fine a point on it. "Lack of success is one thing but the players also weren't having any fun more. It's a myth that the team was behind him." The players were frightened and felt intimidated, Hoeness added.
Van Gaal's assistant, Andries Jonker, will take charge until the rest of the season. "I expect an explosion," said Hoeness, "and I expect that the straitjacket the players have been in for months will be taken off." It was all pretty unedifying and smacked of "I told you so" but then perhaps van Gaal shouldn't have dismissed every transfer suggestion in pre-season quite so brusquely. Recommending his autobiography to the board "so that they can learn something about football" was also not the smartest move in the world. Once you rub Hoeness the wrong way, you're usually toast - or in this specific case, Stroopwafel.
No one emerges too well after this sorry mess of a season. The board's attempt to bring Van Gaal back into the fold by extending his contract in September was a costly mistake, as was the bungled sacking; Hoeness's populist rant on Sunday demonstrated why coaches tend to have a shortlife at Säbenerstrasse. The irony is that Bayern's second attempt to install a coach with greater authority after the failed Jürgen Klinsmann experiment will have strengthened both camps: those who warn against the dangers of "one-man-shows" in modern football and those who feel that Bayern's elephants in the boardroom prevent the club from fulfilling its true potential.
In the end, Van Gaal's pathological stubbornness and idiosyncrasy would just about have been forgivable, provided that he could back up his arrogance ("We don't need Khedira, we have Alaba," he notoriously claimed) with results on the pitch. From a promising starting position - Bayern were only one or two defenders short of posing a genuine threat in Europe before the season - the team have instead regressed in the face of his intransigence. You can be a bastard, a madman or (a little) unsuccessful in Munich, but perhaps not all of it at the same time.
• Dortmund's erstwhile unassailable lead came down to a very assailable, will-they-bottle-it-after-all? five points following their 1-1 draw away to Hamburg on Saturday. But it would be disingenious to speculate about a black-and-yellow collapse in the face of an excellent performance that warranted a draw at the very least. All sorts of misfortunes conspired against Jürgen Klopp's men in the Volksparkstadion. They, though, impressively kept their cool and short-passing patience all the way to the last-minute equaliser by Jakub Blaszczykowski. "This is our own little World Cup today," said Nuri Sahin, thereby carefully avoiding all as-yet-still-banned talk of winning the title.
• Leverkusen, meanwhile, were equally reluctant to talk up their chances despite coming almost within striking distance when they won a difficult home match against spirited St Pauli 2-1 on Sunday. Taking a leaf out of Arsène Wenger's book - or maybe the Frenchman has taken a leaf out of Bayer's? - goalscoring midfielder Lars Bender insisted that "We're only looking over our shoulders, securing that second place remains our aim." Simon Rolfes was a tad more forward though. "The strangest things can happen in football," ventured the midfielder.
• The Bundesliga's bottom doesn't quite look as big as the Premier League's, where this year's nether regions seem to start right below the neck-line. But by Franz, things are so tight that the kind of wardrobe malfunction that José Mourinho suffered after winning the Champions League with Inter seems inevitable. Kaiserslautern, doomed two weeks ago, are up in 12th place after a rather splendid win at Stuttgart, who were gripped with a strange sort of fear after going 2-1 up. "All of a sudden, nobody wanted the ball," said Bruno Labbadia, Two goals from the Croatian striker Srdjan Lakic won it for the Red Devils in the Mercedes-Benz-Arena on Sunday but Lakic is unlucky, he'll still find himself in Bundesliga 2 come August. The 27-year-old has agreed a transfer to VfL Wolfsburg, 16th in the table after a 1-0 defeat away to Felix Magath's old club Schalke. "I'm deeply concerned," said the 57-year-old Magath, after emphasising his hand in S04's remarkable season, naturally. And yes, even Gladbach (18th) are somehow back in it. The Foals were all over Köln in a remarkable Rhein derby. 51 it said in the end.
Results: Frankfurt 1-1 Bremen, Freiburg 3-2 Hoffenheim, Hannover 2-0 Mainz, Schalke 1-0 Wolfsburg, Hamburg 1-1 Dortmund, Stuttgart 2-4 Kaiserslautern, Nürnberg 1-1 Bayern, Gladbach 5-1 Köln, Leverkusen 2-1 St Pauli.