It hasn't always been an easy ride in football for Werder Bremen's Germany striker Niclas Füllkrug, who is poised to take Robert Lewandowski's mantle as Bundesliga top goalscorer in 2022/23. bundesliga.com looks at his winding route to the top of the scoring charts...
It was a late summer's day in 2019 in Bremen and Füllkrug was giving his absolute all in training - as usual. He went into a testing challenge and fell to the ground in agony. The consequences were bitterly disappointing. Ligament damage was confirmed to his left knee following an MRI scan.
The words of the Werder Bremen coach at the time, Florian Kohfeldt, were a clear reflection of the sombre mood: "It's the absolute worst case, and I'm incredibly sorry for Lücke [Füllkrug]. We will move together even closer as a team with the entire Werder family now in order to deal with this bitter blow and difficult situation."
While a knee ligament injury is always a significant injury for a footballer, the context of September 2019 made it especially sad. Füllkrug had only just returned to his boyhood club the previous summer, having had a promising spell at Hannover cut short by a cartilage problem.
Other words Kohfeldt chose in the difficult moment sound prophetic now: "We will always be there for him in this difficult time, and are convinced that he will come back even stronger."
Watch: All of Füllkrug's 22/23 Bundesliga goals and assists
The recovery from the injury was actually far from straightforward - Füllkrug returned nine months later in June 2020, playing nine matches before having three separate injury issues the following season. That backdrop makes the manner in which the striker has pressed on since then an even more inspiring tale - one that has taken him to the World Cup and the top of the Bundesliga goalscoring tree.
Füllkrug had emerged at Bremen back in 2012 as a young striker with talent. They had seen off competition from a number of other clubs to sign him as a 14-year-old after he had reportedly scored an average of 160 goals per season in youth football.
The young Füllkrug was able to clock up regular playing time, albeit mostly from the bench in a Werder squad packed with attacking talent, including Kevin De Bruyne, Marko Arnautovic and Nils Petersen. Goals came against Augsburg and Gladbach - until injury struck in January 2013 to rule him out of the remainder of that season.
It would be another four years until the battle-hardy centre-forward would play in the Bundesliga again, after demonstrating his scoring ability in steady, if not yet spectacular fashion for Greuther Fürth and Nuremberg in Bundesliga 2.
Having recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him for latter parts of the 2014/15 season, the then 23-year-old enjoyed his best goalscoring campaign yet in 2015/16, firing 14 goals to rank among Bundesliga 2's top five scorers.
That earned Füllkrug a transfer to Hannover - his hometown club - and eventually a return to the Bundesliga after they gained promotion in 2016/17. As ever in the Niclas Füllkrug story, one step forward was followed by another step back, with the forward struggling to get playing time under then coach Daniel Stendel.
His hard work and persistence eventually paid off - not for the first time in his career, as a new coach in Hannover, Andre Breitenreiter, recognised Füllkrug's knack for goal and regularly picked him. He scored five goals to help earn Hannover promotion, and was the club's top scorer in their first campaign in the top flight, netting 14 times to guide them to safety.
The future looked bright, but then misfortune struck. Injury kept Füllkrug out of the most part of 2018/19 before he returned home to Werder, and soon sustained the bitter knee ligament injury.
Füllkrug was able to shine during his injury-free spells, netting a Bundesliga hat-trick at Schalke in September 2020. Remarkably, it wasn't until 2021/22 that he was completely over his numerous injury setbacks and able to play over 30 matches of a season for the first time in four years. It didn't take him long to show German football what it had been missing, as he smashed 19 goals in Bundesliga 2 to help propel Werder back to the top flight.
Füllkrug himself was certain it was the break from injury misfortune that was finally allowing him to demonstrate his true potential. "I think you saw my performances constantly improved through to the end of the season," he told bundesliga.com in August 2022, soon after winning promotion. "Even at a time when I’d scored, I think I was getting more assured with each game, more assured on the ball, even more components came into my play. And that happens when you’re in a rhythm, when you play regularly, when you don’t have any breaks.
"But I’m glad I’ve overcome that period where I unfortunately had one injury after the other at Werder. Previously in my career it was mostly a case of, if I got injured, then once and then nothing for two or three years. That period was annoying. Now I’m glad it’s not the case anymore, and I don’t have the feeling it could happen again."
An additional quirk of fortune had also been required in the promotion-winning 2021/22 season to get the striker's career back on track. Markus Anfang, the Bremen coach at the start of the campaign, had used Füllkrug sparingly.
Following Anfang's departure in November 2021, his successor, Ole Werner, favoured deploying Füllkrug in what turned out to be a formidable front two with fellow big frontman Marvin Ducksch. Ducksch more than matched Füllkrug for scoring in Bundesliga 2, hitting 20 goals as Werder finished second.
Füllkrug himself coined a self-deprecatory nickname for the strike partnership - the Ugly Ducklings. He said: "It was only meant as a joke. Werder.tv recorded it and made a headline out of it, and it just spread like wildfire. Luckily, I think it comes across in a friendly way, that we don’t take ourselves too seriously and can laugh about ourselves. So, I think it’s a good fit for us."
Stepping up to the top flight also proved to be a good fit for Füllkrug, who smashed five goals in Bremen's first five fixtures of the 2022/23 season. His flurry of goals continued - with braces in the autumn against Bochum and Gladbach taking him to 10 goals after the first 14 fixtures. That fine early-season form earned him successive Bundesliga Player of the Month Awards in September and October 2022.
Watch: Füllkrug: "It's been a mad year" - speaking after Matchday 15 of 2022/23
Suddenly the biggest stage of all was becoming a possibility for Füllkrug. With Timo Werner injured, he was the most prolific centre-forward available for German national team coach Hansi Flick, who responded positively to a clamour for his selection.
Having marked his first international appearance - a World Cup warm-up friendly against Oman - by scoring the winning goal, it was clear Füllkrug would be taking his businesslike scoring class to the finals. He came on as a substitute in group stage matches against Spain and Costa Rica, scoring twice before Germany exited the competition. Further strikes in friendly internationals against Peru and Belgium took Füllkrug to six goals in his first six international appearances.
A prolific career in international football therefore beckons for Füllkrug, who turned 30 in the course of 2022/23. His 16 goals in his first 26 Bundesliga appearances meanwhile sent him on track to be Bundesliga top goalscorer - the first of the post-Robert Lewandowski era.
While the power, physicality and clinical finishing of Füllkrug are obvious reasons for his success, his no-nonsense application and determination shine through when he talks about his goalscoring. He told bundesliga.com: "I think that every goal is hard work. They are not all gifts I keep receiving – apart from the penalties that the other boys keep winning for me. Everything else, I have to fight for and get through the duels to be able to arrive at these goal-scoring opportunities."
One other defining feature of Füllkrug is his grin, which Bundesliga followers have rarely gone long without seeing in 2022/23 as he wheels away to celebrate another strike.
His nickname is Lücke, which is German for 'gap' - referring to the one in his front teeth. As you might expect of a player who made light of his own and his strike partner's appearance in another way, he says being associated with that does not bother him.
"That’s the way it is," he told bundesliga.com. "I'm missing a tooth, and then I turned professional, and it didn’t bother me. I was positively treated and never had problems because of it. Marco Arnautovic started calling me Lücke. It kind of stuck, especially here in Bremen.”
Something else that appears set to stick is Füllkrug's name on the Bundesliga top-scoring list. If fortune grants him a well-earned spell free of serious injury, the assurance that has taken him through all the bumps along the way to the top will almost certainly make him continue to shine.
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