Munich - What a difference a game makes. Having all begun 2013/14 with the avowed aim of being right up among the European contenders, FC Schalke 04, VfB Stuttgart and Hamburger SV approached Matchday 4 with nary a Bundesliga win between them.
Schalke back on track
Schalke and Hamburg were on a paltry point apiece - the spoils of their pulsating Matchday 1 head-to-head - while Stuttgart's campaign opening had misfired even more spectacularly.
So much so, in fact, that on the back of their third straight loss, 2-1 at FC Augsburg, the club from the Baden-Württemberg capital promptly parted company with head coach Bruno Labbadia, appointing Thomas Schneider in his stead. And if the erstwhile U-17 coach went into last Sunday's regional derby against 1899 Hoffenheim with the breathing space afforded any newcomer, his counterparts at Schalke and Hamburg enjoyed no such luxury.
Jens Keller's Royal Blues took to the pitch for their home meeting with Bayer 04 Leverkusen buoyed nonetheless by a hard-earned UEFA Champions League play-off round victory over PAOK FC, securing that all-important place in the group phase. In a productive period between that midweek success in Greece and the Saturday evening kick-off against the Werkself, Schalke also managed to bolster their ranks with the addition of Dennis Aogo on a season-long loan from Hamburg and the dramatic acquisition of Kevin-Prince Boateng from AC Milan.
New faces make their mark
Coincidentally or not, with Aogo and Boateng pitched straight in for their respective debuts at left back and in the hole behind frontman Adam Szalai, the upshot was an impressive 2-0 victory over on-form Bayer, ending the visitors' club-record eight-game Bundesliga winning streak. Now Schalke are looking to belatedly get a run of their own going and sporting director Horst Heldt is confident that, after having negotiated their first Champions League hurdle, the victory over Leverkusen "can only give us a further boost. But the team have earned this as well, through sheer hard work."
Earlier in the afternoon, Hamburg had likewise finally got up and running with a comfortable 4-0 home win against Eintracht Braunschweig. Head coach Thorsten Fink's decision to give Hakan Calhanoglu a late run-out off the bench took on the retrospective aspect of a tactical masterstroke as the 19-year-old midfielder found the net within a minute of coming on, before wrapping up the scoring with a beautifully executed free kick.
Red Shorts improving from back to front
Fink pronounced himself "well satisfied" with the way his side refused to sit on their 2-0 advantage and continued to get forward over the course of the second half. And while Calhanoglu, freshly returned from a loan spell at Karlsruhe, justifiably snagged most of the headlines, Johan Djourou's league debut for HSV was perhaps at least as significant, the Switzerland international combining effectively with Heiko Westermann in the centre of the defence to help the side to their first clean sheet of the campaign. The key to that, Djourou subsequently stressed, had been "the performance of the whole team," while the Abidjan-born defender was positively rhapsodic about the home support: "The atmosphere and the noise are just unbelievable. Hopefully we can give the fans a lot more games like that."
On Sunday, it was then Stuttgart's turn to blow away the early-season Bundesliga cobwebs in even more spectacular fashion. If Schneider's debut as head coach had ended in the disappointment of a last-second UEFA Europa League exit at the hands of HNK Rijeka, a thumping 6-2 home success against 1899 Hoffenheim more than made up for it.
Ibisevic on fire
Frontline duo Vedad Ibisevic and Alexandru Maxim stole the limelight on the day, the Bosnian forward nabbing a hattrick against his former employers and his Romanian partner in crime chipping in with a brace, as well as two assists. Asked afterwards whether there had been a psychological aspect to VfB's early-season travails, Ibisevic said he didn't know and it mattered not - "All anyone's talking about now is that we won 6-2, thanks in large part to the sheer enthusiasm of our younger lads. They're a joy to play with."
Schneider meanwhile was happy and relieved in equal measure, noting that "there were a lot of elements (to the performance) that gave genuine grounds for pleasure." The ever-reliable, newly-established captain Christian Gentner praised the new boss for "preparing us optimally for the game - the players are really enjoying the work with the coaching team. This was a small step with a big result." A sentiment doubtlessly shared at the moment by the once-again upwardly-mobile Schalke and Hamburg camps.