Borussia Mönchengladbach's journey from faded institution to credible force again is the Bundesliga's story of the season
It was not even close to the biggest win this season, the best part of the second half had fizzled out badly and there were only three points at the end of it. Still, Borussia Mönchengladbach's 3-0 destruction of Schalke 04 felt exactly like the sort of game that can come to define a season. Not just a club's season. The season as a whole.
The hosts played the perfect opening half-hour, shooting down the Royal Blues with goals of individual brilliance – Marco Reus in the second minute, Juan Arango in the 32nd – and collective intelligence. Mike Hanke's goal between those strikes to make it 2-0 was the product of two consecutive one-twos, executed with miraculous precision and at full throttle. If Germans weren't so in love with ballistic prowess, preferring shooting over thinking, this would make a strong contender for goal of the season. It was more of "a play", to use an Americanism, than a goal, really: a move that looked so spontaneously, effortlessly beautiful that it could only be the product of hours of painfully repetitive training exercises. That's what they do under Lucien Favre, a little Swiss man, who hides a technocratic fervour – the belief that matches can be planned and that brilliance can originate from the drawing board – behind an easy-going, slightly buffoonish disposition.
A year ago, on 14 February, the 54-year-old took over 18th-placed Borussia. To many supporters and experts, that wasn't a particular funny valentine. Some viewed Favre's arrival as a sign that the club had effectively given up on the relegation fight and were looking to set themselves up for a revival in the second division. The studious, softly spoken Favre didn't fit the firefighter-type manager that clubs tend to turn to in desperation. Twelve months later, his team are three points off the top of the table and have Champions League participation all but guaranteed – all without any significant moves in the transfer market. Favre lost his way somewhat after a similarly great season with Hertha in 2009, when he tried to assume larger responsibilities for the transfer policy. But as a coach, charged with the simple but devilish work of getting the most out of his players, he must be on a par with Jürgen Klopp or maybe even better.
It is not simply the results that prove Favre's genius. Players talk freely about his training regime, and open access to the sessions makes it possible for outsiders to evaluate his work. You wonder how he would fare in the much more secretive Premier League, for example, where press-conference witticisms, alpha male posturing and sideline passion are routinely mistaken for managerial competence as few people have any real insight into what goes on between games.
On Saturday night, it was all much too fast and clever for Huub Stevens's side. Faced with a less talented but clearly better-coached side, the Dutchman somewhat predictably, went into 1980s mode and proceeded to blame a lack of willpower and effort for the defeat. "The way some of them ran across the pitch today, they're not worthy of playing for Schalke," barked Stevens. "When I see their body language, I wonder what they're doing at Schalke." The visitors perhaps offered too little resistance during the onslaught but the most robust, expletive-strewn body language would not have been able to shout down the much more fluent, eloquent lecture from the Foals. "It was fantastic to see our goals, those were dreamlike combinations," said Favre. "We are very, very efficient."
In the light of so much good stuff, the sporting director, Max Eberl, felt no longer able to talk down his side's progress and departed from the official "wait and see" line. "When you play like that at home, when you see the kind of performances, when you see who we're beating and how, then anyone who is able to put two and two together is allowed to dream and hope," he said. "We've tasted blood now," he added. Eberl's fortune has turned around completely over the past nine months, along with those of players such as Hanke and Arango, who have come from being seen as flops to getting praised as a "magician" (Welt) and "better than Günter Netzer" (Rainer Bonhof), respectively.
Eberl, a 38-year-old former player, had looked like a dead man walking in May, when Stefan Effenberg tried to mount a coup in the Borussia-Park. "Effe" sniped against the club's leadership, fronted a consortium of business experts and gunned for Eberl's post. He wanted to replace Favre with the veteran manager Horst Köppel and bring in Berti Vogts as a consultant. The Bundesliga model of democratic control and fan ownership can appear a little too pleased with itself at times, especially when all sorts of exceptions and rule-bending are taken into account, but it worked fantastically well in Gladbach's case. Effenberg and his money men could not simply make the embattled president, Rolf Königs, an offer he could not refuse, as the club wasn't his to sell. They had to put their takeover to the vote of the suspicious members, who promptly shot it down by a wide margin. The Effenberg group won the backing of only 7% of those polled at the EGM. These days, the "Tiger" can be found hailing Borussia's "world class" performances as a pundit for German Sky, while Berti Vogts and Horst Köppel sit around waiting for their phones to ring.
They are in the semi-final in the DFB Cup, and a first championship in 35 years would cap the "white miracle" (Bild). But it almost doesn't matter anymore. Even by the standards of the fairly fluid Bundesliga, Gladbach's journey from life as a faded 70s institution to becoming a credible force again was so unpredictable that it has become the romantic story of the season. If you don't have a better date on Tuesday, consider them worthy of your affections. You won't find a more lovable, more deserving bunch of men this spring.
• It was fitting that Michael Skibbe's five-week-reign at Hertha Berlin would come to an end after a 5-0 disaster away to Stuttgart on Saturday. 5-0 was also his personal tally: five matches played, nil wins, with 12 goals conceded and one scored. The 46-year-old was left speechless by the team's latest horror show and was publicly snubbed upon the return to Berlin when his players left him alone at the airport in spite of an order to board the team bus together.
Michael Preetz was forced to fire his third manager since he took over as sporting director in the summer of 2009. But unlike his predecessors Favre and Markus Babbel – who was incidentally installed as Hoffenheim's coach in the wake of Holger Stanislawski's dismissal in midweek – Skibbe was so out of his depth from the get-go that Preetz, who accepted the blame but promised "to fight", must himself be on borrowed time. The fact that he even paid Turkish club Eskisehirspor compensation to get his man in the winter break reflects incredibly badly on his judgement. And somehow, these kind of errors seem to happen more often at Hertha, a club "devoid of openness, hospitality, imagination and experiments," according to local broadsheet Tagesspiegel. A lack of openness seemed less of an issue on Sunday morning however, when close to 200 extremely unhappy supporters invaded the training ground and forced the players to listen to their grievances. The meeting/inquisition ended with the players promising to pull their socks up from now on. The former Hertha midfielder René Tretschok will take over as caretaker manager before Preetz can try to make amends with his next appointment.
• Dortmund (1-0 over Leverkusen, who warmed up – without the injured Michael Ballack – with a half-decent show of pressing for their 2-1 defeat by Barcelona at the BayArena on Tuesday night) and Bayern (2-0 against Kaiserslautern) turned in regulation wins against pretty negative opposition. As you'd expect, they still managed to turn the game into a biggish story in Munich, since Arjen "Ego" Robben was left out of the starting line-up for a second successive game. In his place, Thomas Müller put in a good shift on the right side, and scored Bayern's second with a header.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge ("he's a really important player, everyone in the club knows that") and Jupp Heynckes ("he's world class when at the top of his game") made sure to pat him on the back, metaphorically, after a decent 34 minute intermezzo after the break. But Franz Beckenbauer fanned the flames even further by suggesting that Robben's "selfishness" had cost him "recognition" inside the camp. In truth, the Dutchman's selfishness has always rubbed up people the wrong in the dressing room but it won't be an issue at all if and when he puts a couple past FC Basel in coming weeks.
• Lukas Podolski, currently out injured, still managed to put a couple of feet wrong this weekend. The Germany striker accused FC Köln (1-0 losers at home to Hamburg on Sunday) of breaking promises since his return in 2009. "They told me they wanted to build a team around me that could establish itself among the top eight, then top six. You're trying to get ahead every year. But it's disappointing when it's another relegation fight," said the 26-year-old. "This is an insult to the club," replied CEO Claus Horstmann. "[He] always pleads for calmness, then gives such an interview [while he's injured] – I don't understand the sense of that." The striker was fined for his words. Poldi accusing his favourite club of not fulfilling its potential was accompanied by the sound of several large glass panels getting smashed by hard, round objects. But supporters won't see the funny side: the Bild am Sonntag interview smacks of a pre-calculated move, designed to justify his refusal to sign a new deal and seek out other "promises" in more exotic confines.
Results: Wolfsburg - Freiburg 3-2, Mainz - Hannover 1-1, Werder Bremen - Hoffenheim 1-1 Gladbach - Schalke 3-0, Dortmund - Leverkusen 1-0, Bayern Munich - Kaiserslautern 2-0, Stuttgart - Hertha 5-0, Augsburg - Nürnberg 0-0, Köln - Hamburg 0-1.