Wolfsburg - What a difference a week makes. VfL Wolfsburg's Bundesliga season got off to a singularly inauspicious start as they went down 2-0 at Lower Saxony rivals Hannover 96 and had two players sent off for good measure.
Bundesliga trumps the competition
The following Saturday, UEFA Champions League aspirants FC Schalke 04 came calling and found themselves on the wrong end of a 4-0 thumping, all the goals coming after the interval as the Wolves spectacularly kicked their campaign into gear. And one man who played a key part in that dramatic form turnaround had come on board at the Volkswagen Arena barely 24 hours beforehand - Luiz Gustavo.
Praising the new signing from Bayern Munich's "class, quality and calmness" on his in-at-the-deep-end debut for VfL, sporting director Klaus Allofs reckoned Gustavo's overall contribution was "a big help, it might even have made the vital difference to the team, giving the other players more confidence." For his part, the 26-year-old holding midfielder was first and foremost feeling "very good. I've played football!"
That, indeed, was the core issue which set in motion what Gustavo described at Friday's official unveiling as "the most difficult month of my life," as the transfer market machinations cranked into gear. Arsenal FC and SSC Napoli were just two of the "numerous" top foreign clubs Wolfsburg edged out in the race to acquire the current Brazil international, Allofs said, adding that, "it just underlines again the pulling power of the Bundesliga. We're glad we were able to convince Luiz about what we're doing at VfL Wolfsburg."
Hecking not raising the bar too high
Gustavo confirmed the impression gained of a "very good project" being underway at a "top club." Alongside his obvious desire for more regular action than he was likely to have seen in Bayern's ever more crowded midfield, and while acknowledging the importance of that factor with an eye to retaining his place in the Brazil set-up ahead of next year's FIFA World Cup finals, he also cited his and his family's attachment to Germany and the "new philosophy with my new coach" as reasons for going with Wolfsburg in the end.
Having got his man, the coach in question, Dieter Hecking, not for the first time warned against unrealistic bar-raising along the lines of "now we're going to automatically finish second, third or fourth." Over-ambition has been one of the few constants at the club since they swept to an unexpected debut title success under Felix Magath in 2008/09 and Hecking's low-key approach certainly makes sense in that context. Inevitably, however, the thumping victory over Schalke, a club with precisely that level of expectation themselves, has rekindled visions of a Wolves side back in the mix at the top - and not just among their diehard fans.
Diego on song again
For many a pundit, the capture of Luiz Gustavo could prove the vital piece in Wolfsburg's heavily Brazil-tinted jigsaw. Alongside Naldo, who delivered another reminder at the weekend of his credentials as one of the league's most free-scoring central defenders, it was Diego above all who was powering the Wolves' creative engine in the attacking midfield department. Signed from Juventus in 2010, the 33-time Brazil international was long unable to recapture the consistency that had made him one of the league's outstanding playmakers at Bremen, and was even farmed out to Atletico Madrid for a year. Under Hecking, however, the gifted No10 is evidently blossoming again.
As far as Gustavo is concerned, though the "Brazil factor" is irrelevant in the context of Wolfsburg's Bundesliga aspirations. "We've a lot of good players and we have to operate as a unit," he said in the wake of that highly promising start against Schalke. As to the ease with which he appeared to slot into midfield at the drop of a hat, he stated: "I'm a straightforward guy, I know what I can do. But my team-mates made it as easy as possible for me as well - after all, Wolfsburg are a top-quality side."