RUNAWAY 2. Bundesliga leaders Eintracht Braunschweig travel to fellow unbeaten side 1860 Munich this weekend looking to make it six wins out of six. The Lower Saxony minnows – who were in Germany’s 3. Liga as recently as last May – didn’t spend a cent on transfers over the summer, which makes their start to the 2012/13 season all the more impressive. Goals and assists have been spread out among the squad so far too, which bodes well for the rest of the campaign, because Braunschweig don’t have any star names in their squad, let alone a 20-goal-a-season striker.
Torsten Lieberknecht’s side will face their sternest test of the campaign to date in travelling to the 69,000-seater Allianz Arena on Sunday. Laying in wait are an 1860 Munich side who boast a number of ‘star’ names and have only conceded in one of their six games so far this season (ditto Braunschweig). The Bavarian side have also been more prolific in front of goal than the league-leaders, who have scored eight goals to 1860’s ten. However, although the visitors netted just 37 goals in 34 games last season, they conceded the third least amount of goals in 2. Bundesliga: therefore, this match promises to be tight, but also a real litmus test for both sides.
Despite their current small stature, Braunschweig, who play in the not-especially-glamorous 25,000-capacity Eintracht-Stadion, spent all but three seasons in the top division between 1903 and 1985. During that time, they won the four-year-old Bundesliga in 1967, and went on to beat reigning Italian champions Juventus at home later that year in the European Cup. Since the mid-1980s, the club have alternated between the second and third tiers of German football. Braunschweig signed four players of note during the summer transfer window, all of whom are young, and all of whom arrived on free deals. Chinese striker Chengdong Zhang has come to the club on loan from Portuguese second-tier side Mafra, Jonas Erwig-Drüppel, a right-sided attacker, has moved to Braunschweig from Schalke II, Kevin Kratz, a centre-midfielder, has joined the club from third-division side Aachen, left-winger Björn Kluft has moved from 3. Liga team Munster, and Swiss striker Orhan Ademi – who scored a memorable winner on his home début against Cologne – comes to Braunschweig from Austrian team SCR Altach. A deal for Swiss side Basel’s 19-year-old North Korean striker Kwang-Ryong Pak, however, fell through.
Leaving the club were several players, none of them particularly pivotal to Lieberknecht’s plans. They were centre-forward Mathias Fetsch (3. Liga team Kickers Offenbach), right-wingers Nico Zimmermann and Julius Reinhardt (2. Bundesliga outfit Aalen and Offenbach respectively), and full-back Benjamin Fuchs (Turkish team Maniaspor). All four players left on free transfers.
Going into this weekend, the second division’s sixth matchday, Braunschweig were four points clear at the top having won their opening five games (they also beat Lübeck in the DFB-Pokal first-round 3-0). Braunschweig have scored eight goals and conceded one in 2. Bundesliga so far, defeating Cologne, Union Berlin and Jahn Regensburg by a goal to nil, Aalen by three goals to nil, and Paderborn 2-1. If you were looking to be a party-pooper, you might say this weekend’s match against 1860 Munich will be their first real test of the season, because the Bavarian side certainly have one of the better squads in the division, and unlike, say, Cologne, are not in disarray. On the other hand, you might also argue that a team can only beat whoever is put in front of them on any given weekend, and Braunschweig have at least looked solid in the process of picking up those 15 points.
Despite not scoring, striker Domi Kumbela has been key to the team’s fantastic start, and has been praised for his hard work by Lieberknecht. Goals have been shared out among the team, although Dennis Kruppke and Mirko Boland lead the way, with two each. Assists have also been spread out among a variety of players, although Kratz and Ken Reichel have two each.
Unlike their opponents this weekend, 1860 Munich – and sporting director Florian Hinterberger in particular – had a very busy summer on the transfer front, complete with numerous significant departures and arrivals. As a result, 52-year-old coach Reiner Maurer has been able to call on the likes of Grzegorz Wojtkowiak and Moritz Volz (full-backs who joined on free deals from Polish side Lech Poznań and 2. Bundesliga rivals St Pauli respectively), Argentine playmaker Ismael Blanco (a freebie from Polish side Legia Warsaw), attacking-midfielder Moritz Stoppelkamp (signed for several-hundred thousands pounds from Hannover), Greek international centre-midfielder Grigoris Makos (signed for €465,000 from Greek outfit AEK Athens) and Croatian right-winger Marin Tomasov (signed from Croatian side NK Zadar for the same fee as Makos) so far this season.
However, these players – many of whom have gone straight into the first XI -have had to fill a number of noticeable holes caused by several quality defenders, midfielders and attackers moving on over the summer. Versatile veteran Collin Benjamin retired after just one season at the club, although this was somewhat inevitable given his injury history. Young striker Kevin Volland, who formed one of the best strike partnerships in the second-tier alongside Benjamin Lauth last season, returned to parent club Hoffenheim, where he now holds down a first-team spot. Serbian right-back Antonio Rukavina moved to Spanish side Real Valladolid, centre-midfielders Eke Uzoma, Stefan Buck and Jonathan Kotzke left for Hungarian side Pécsi MFC, Bayern Munich II and Jahn Regensburg respectively. Serbian striker Đorđe Rakić has been released, left-winger Sandro Kaiser joined big-spending 3. Liga side Heidenheim (before quitting them one month into his three-year contract), and centre-back Daniel Hofstetter joined Heidenheim’s divisional rivals Unterhaching.
Right-winger Stefan Aigner, meanwhile, is one of the reasons Eintracht Frankfurt have started the 1. Bundesliga season so well, and his loss will be felt over the course of the season as much as Volland’s. 1860 Munich didn’t receive any money for the players who left the club over the summer, but then the club’s expenditure on transfers came in at under €1million.
Like Braunschweig, 1860 Munich progressed comfortably into the next round of the DFB-Pokal, beating lower-league team Hennef 6-0. In the league, meanwhile, Maurer’s side have beaten Jahn Regensburg 1-0, drawn 2-2 with Dresden, and 0-0 with both Kaiserslautern and Bochum, and have also beaten Duisburg 3-0 at the Allianz Arena. They currently sit six points behind Braunschweig in sixth spot.
Both sides finished in mid-table positions last season, despite each looking like they had a chance of finishing in one of the three promotion positions at different points of the campaign. The similarities don’t end there, as both Lieberknecht and Maurer have set their sides out with four-man backlines and single-striker systems this season (the latter settling on 4-2-3-1 in recent weeks, with Stoppelkamp behind the wily Lauth, and the former veering between his signature 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-1-1). Despite it being easy to deem 1860 the bigger club, it should be noted that more than 22,000 people watched Braunschweig win their home league fixture 3-1 against 1860 last season, while just 16,400 fans showed up at the Allianz Arena to see 1860 Munich win the return game 3-0 in December. This season, though, 1860 Munich – who unveiled a new Oktoberfest shirt during the week – got more than 45,000 people in for the opening day win over Jahn Regensburg, before 22,600 attended the home match versus Duisburg. Braunschweig, meanwhile, got just under 22,000 in for the opening day win against Cologne, although that number dropped to 19,670 for last Saturday’s victory against Jahn Regensburg. It should be noted, however, that the club is limited in the number of tickets it can sell at the moment due to renovation work taking place at Eintracht-Stadion, although the club is looking at putting more standing season tickets on sale next month.
For the home side, defensive-midfield action-man Makos is expected to be absent again through injury. As for Braunschweig, defender Matthias Henn, midfielder Oliver Petersch and Kluft are all still convalescing after surgery on leg injuries. Key defender Deniz Doğan has a 50 per cent chance of playing after coming off in the 18th minute last weekend with an adductor problem.
Lieberknecht, still only 39 years old, used his pre-match press conference to diminish some of the hype surrounding Eintracht Braunschweig right now. The nine-time Germany U21 international – who has been with the Lower Saxony side in various capacities since 2003 – has said for him, the most important thing he is taking from his side’s 100 per cent record is that it has put them 13 points clear of the relegation zone.
The referee this Sunday will be Tobias Christ. The 36-year-old’s second game this season, 1860 Munich fans will remember him from refereeing their home fixture against Dynamo Dresden last season. The hosts were 2-0 down but working hard to get back into the game when Christ gave a needless red card to Buck, totally killing 1860 Munich’s chances. Maurer’s side went on to lose the game 4-2.
1860 Munich against Eintracht Braunschweig takes place on Sunday at 12.30pm (UK time). The match can be watched, live, on Bet365.com.