With Holstein Kiel leading the way in Bundesliga 2 at the halfway stage of the season, bundesliga.com looks at how they've managed to set the pace going into the new year...
The story so far
A regular in the Oberliga Nord, the former regional top level of the German pyramid prior to the Bundesliga's formation in 1963, Kiel are hoping to celebrate 60 years of the league's formation by joining the elite for a first time in the club's history. And it's a case of so far, so good in that regard - a run of five successive victories took Kiel roaring into the winter break in top spot, where they hold a two-point advantage over unbeaten St. Pauli in second place.
That is despite losing four times already this term, but Kiel's ability to pick up all three points has ensured their lead. So far, there have been 11 victories for The Storks, with six of those coming on their travels. In fact, their away record has been key to their Hinrunde success so far (W6, D1, L1), with 19 points collected on the road compared to 16 (W5, D1, L3) on home soil.
Watch: Kiel beat Hannover 3-0 to earn Christmas No.1 - highlights
Key player: Benedikt Pichler
Surprisingly for league-leaders, just one Kiel player features in the top-10 list of scorers and, even then, six-goal Benedikt Pichler is behind six other players. It's not necessarily a bad thing, though, with Fiete Arp and Steven Skrzybski also chipping in with five league strikes to round out an exciting front-three in a team that enjoys sharing the workload.
"It was clear from the start of the season that everyone was up for it, pitched in and worked together," said Lewis Holtby after the 3-0 Matchday 17 victory over Hannover. "This is a real team. Our results are the result of hard work."
It's Pichler who spearheads that attack, though, and he has scored a number of important goals. Five of his efforts have come in victories and just one in defeat, while Pichler has opened the scoring for Kiel on three occasions and his 94th-minute equaliser away to VfL Osnabrück on Matchday 12 secured them a valuable point that kickstarted the club's current five-game winning streak. He missed the final two games of that run through injury but will again be a central figure at the turn of the year when he returns to full fitness.
The coach: Marcel Rapp
Having joined the club in October 2021, Marcel Rapp led the team to ninth in the 2021/22 campaign before an eighth-place finish in his first full season in charge last term. He is now hitting new heights by topping the table at the end of 2023 and Rapp, told the news that his side had clinched the winter championship while with family at a Christmas market, is delighted at what his team has achieved so far.
"That's crazy," he said. "We can be proud of what we have achieved with hard work as a collective. But it goes on, we'll stay true to ourselves and do our thing."
Rapp, who previously made his name at Hoffenheim first as a youth coach and then caretaker coach of the first team, has a penchant for developing young, hard-working players. He explained his approach, and that of his team, as such: "Basically, it's part of our DNA to play intensively, especially with sprints and deep runs. And if there are more sprints on our clock at the end, then I'll actually be a little happier."
Kiel's efforts thus far have already created club history. Never before have they collected as many points (35) after 17 games of a Bundesliga 2 campaign, putting them well and truly on course for a potential debut in the top-flight next season. If Kiel can go on to secure promotion, they would become the 58th team in history to feature in the Bundesliga.
Their aforementioned away form is the best in the division, while just Fortuna Düsseldorf (37) have scored more times than Kiel (33) after 17 rounds of fixtures. With a four-point jump to third place, and still 17 games to go in 2023/24, there is still a lot of work to do but Kiel fans will be looking at the glass as being very much half full right now.
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