A late winner from Igor De Camargo this weekend meant that the wheels were firmly back on Borussia Monchengladbach’s Champions League bus.
After picking up just two points in their previous three games and looking set to draw 1-1 away at Leverkusen, themselves in the hunt for Champions League place, it looked like the Gladbach bubble was set to burst. However, Marco Reus released the Belgian international De Camargo in the 88th minute and he rounded the ‘keeper to give Lucien Favre’s team all three points and keep Gladbach in third position – 11 points clear of Leverkusen.
Favre realised how important the goal was as he raced down the touchline to join his players in celebration in front of the corner flag. It is moments like this that can define a season. Snatching wins from what looks inevitable draws is a major characteristic of Champions League teams.
What makes Gladbach’s probable achievement even more astounding is that they finished last season in the sole relegation play-off place. That meant, to preserve their Bundesliga status, they would need to overcome Vfl Bochum in a two-legged play-off. They duly won the first leg at Borussia-Park 1-0 thanks to a last-minute goal from, you guessed it, De Camargo. Their survival was sealed when Marco Reus scored an equaliser in the second leg to hand them a 2-1 aggregate win.
In February 2011, despite having a talented squad, Gladbach were defensively unstable and bottom of the league. Having thrown away a 2-0 lead over Stuttgart they then lost 3-1 to St. Pauli and manager Michael Frontzeck was duly sacked on the 13th. Just a day later, on Valentine’s Day, the Swiss Favre was appointed and that is where the revival and love affair began.
Having rescued Gladbach by the skin of their teeth, Favre was looking to build around the talented set of players already at his disposal. His first job was to shore the defence up and that is where Gladbach have based their successes this season. They have conceded just 16 goals in 26 games this campaign – a record matched only by leaders and reigning champions Borussia Dortmund. A lot of praise for that goes directly to Favre, Brazilian defender Dante and the latest in the production line of young and talented German goalkeepers – Marc Andre Ter-Stegen.
The goalkeeper has been nurtured by Gladbach since the age of four and came to prominence last season. When Favre took over, he gave Ter-Stegen his chance to help his hometown club survive. It proved to be an inspired piece of management as the youngster conceded just four goals in the eight games in Borussia’s relegation battle. His best game in that run was in a 1-0 win over eventual champions Dortmund where he made a string of world-class saves to earn his side three mammoth points. Like his idol Oliver Kahn, he is not afraid to shout at his defenders and is very brave in coming off of his line to thwart chances. Reports of interest from Barcelona have lead to him being given a renewed contract until 2015, but if he continues to progress at this rate, it is unlikely he will stay at the club.
The solidity of the team means they do not score a plethora of goals, their 39 is the joint-lowest in the top 6, but they play a style of football that is pleasant to watch. They move the ball quickly, play one-touch passes and move, always looking to receive the ball again.
“The automatism’s we practice during training are paying off in our matches. I’m sure the fans in the stadium and people watching on TV enjoy our football and that is our goal. Modern football is becoming one-touch football and we can always get better. The passing can be more accurate, you can improve your weaker foot,” says striker Mike Hanke.
One player guaranteed to be playing Champions League football regardless of Gladbach’s finishing position is the jewel in their crown; Marco Reus. The German international has agreed to join his hometown club Dortmund in the summer for a fee of €17.5 million, signing a five-year deal in the process. It has been no surprise to see Reus courted by the biggest names both in Germany and across the continent having scored 14 goals and notched six assists in 24 games this campaign. Nine Man of the Match appearances have pointed to the fact that he is the main instigator of Gladbach’s attacking play and his dribbling speed makes him almost impossible to stop. With the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Mario Gotze, two players in the mould of Reus, already plying their trade at Dortmund, it is easy to see why he has chosen to join the reigning champions.
It is easy to think that Gladbach are a one-man team when you investigate Reus’ stats and watch how they play, but that would be an insult to one of their other playmakers; Juan Arango. The Venezuelan attacking midfielder has been equally as impressive as Reus this season and has created more goals (nine) for his teammates than anybody else, whilst also notching five times. His lethal left-foot is dangerous from free-kicks and from range – you let him shoot at your peril.
Wednesday sees a big test of Gladbach’s Champions League credentials as they face a rampant Bayern Munich side in the semi-final of the DFB-Pokal Cup. Bayern have notched 20 goals in their last three games and are showing no signs of relenting as they look to close the five-point gap on Dortmund. However, Gladbach are no strangers to overturning Munich having defeated them on the opening day of the season at the Allianz Arena when De Camargo, again, scored a late winner. Bayern dominated the corresponding fixture in Gladbach but were hit on the counter-attack and lost the game 3-1.
This is the biggest game of the season, and for some the careers, for Gladbach’s squad and Brazilian defender Dante, who has been linked with a move to Munich in the past, is determined to keep the Foals’ fairytale season going.
“For a lot of players it’s the game of their lives. I desperately want to get to the final in Berlin. That would be a dream and we’ll give our all to make it come true… Last season we were nearly relegated. Now we’re third in the table and a game away from the cup final. It’s unbelievable, for the fans above all,” said the defender.
Despite the turnaround, Favre remains the most cautious man in Gladbach, reminding the fans that they need ‘to stop dreaming’ before the win over Leverkusen. His reaction to the weekend winner shows that he is a dreamer at heart and should his team beat Bayern and qualify for the Champions League, it will be a story from the deepest realms of any Foals fans fantasy.
* Stats on Arango and Reus from the excellent website www.whoscored.com*