Munich - Ahead of Matchday 20’s short-haul trip to fellow Swabians VfB Stuttgart, FC Augsburg sporting director Stefan Reuter stressed that regardless of the team's fine recent form: “What we need at the end of the season is three teams behind us in the table.”
New club record
In the wake of Saturday's clinical 4-1 victory at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, the former Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern München star and five-time Bundesliga title winner was sticking to his guns, insisting: “We still have a way to go to achieve our season target, namely to avoid relegation. We've been saying it week-in, week-out and everything else remains off the agenda for the moment.”
The “everything else” most intriguing to followers of the German game right now is whether the modest provincial outfit, far from battling the drop, might actually be capable of finishing high enough up the table to claim an unlikely place on the international stage next season.
In stretching their club record unbeaten run in the top flight to eight games at Stuttgart - and netting four goals on the road for the first time in their admittedly still-young Bundesliga history - Augsburg edged to within two points of the two sides currently occupying the UEFA Europa League qualifying slots, VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
What a difference a year makes
It is all a far cry from the position the club found themselves in this time last year. Back then, they began the second half of the season joint-bottom of the standings with a paltry nine points to their name, ten shy of safety and realistically aiming for the last-chance saloon of 16th place and a play-off shot against a Bundesliga 2 promotion hopeful.
The first six months in the coaching hot seat had turned out to be a top-flight baptism of fire for Markus Weinzierl, freshly arrived from SSV Jahn Regensburg in the summer to replace the Hertha Berlin-bound Jos Luhukay.
Far from panicking, the management kept faith with the promising young tactician and brought the vastly experienced Reuter on board to team up with him as sporting director. It has proved a winning combination. Weinzierl's bold counter-pressing strategy started to pay off as soon as the 2012/13 campaign got back underway and a final-day victory over already doomed Greuther Fürth left the Bavarian Swabians safely ensconced in 15th place on 33 points.
24 of those had been earned down the back straight and they replicated that tally precisely ahead of the latest winter break, in stark contrast to the miserable start made in each of their two previous seasons in the Bundesliga.
Hahn on a roll
With confidence understandably growing in proportion to their on-going success, the side put together by the coach over the past year and a half is inevitably starting to produce some potential Bundesliga stars of its own. Chief among them is Andre Hahn, whose brace at Stuttgart took him up to nine goals for the season, making him Augsburg's top scorer with something to spare.
A virtual unknown to the wider football public on his arrival from Kickers Offenbach last winter, the 23-year-old right-sided midfielder has evidently added potency in front of goal to his other creative talents this season, happily noting after his latest double-pack: “Whatever I do at the moment, the ball seems to end up in the back of the net.”
Youth and experience in ever-greater harmony
On the opposite flank, six-year Augsburg stalwart Tobias Werner also played a blinder against VfB, laying on the opener for Arkadiusz Milik and netting the fourth and final goal himself. Far from a household name, the 28-year-old former Carl Zeiss Jena attacker typifies the continued upward form curve of the team as a whole. So, too, do Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker and Estonia skipper Ragnar Klavan, who are gelling into one of the most reliable centre-back pairings in the division.
In front of them, Daniel Baier and coveted 22-year-old prospect Kevin Vogt have been delivering grade-A performances in the vital deep-lying midfield roles. Germany Under-19 international Dominik Kohr, signed on a long-term loan from Bayer 04 Leverkusen over the winter break, made an assured impression stepping in for the injured Vogt at Stuttgart and offers Weinzierl a further youthful option in front of the defence.
Bright future for Augsburg
Further up the pitch, Bundesliga old hand Halil Altintop, snapped up from Trabzonspor last summer, has proved an inspired signing, buzzing around to great effect in the gaps between the opposition's midfield and defensive ranks. Dong-Won Ji, back on another half-season deal from Sunderland FC, might never have been away as he marked the first game of his second stint with a late leveller at Dortmund, the very club the South Korean forward has agreed to join next season.
It seems nigh on inevitable that others will also leave for pastures new, such is the price of success for the Bundesliga's smaller clubs. But like those in a similar boat - 1. FSV Mainz 05, SC Freiburg, 1899 Hoffenheim et al - Augsburg will not stand or fall by the availability or otherwise of an individual player.
An adaptable working system is in place, the youth academies are churning out fresh, hungry talent across the board and the aforementioned clubs are all in the process of “earning respect and greater recognition”, as Weinzierl recently put it, among their more established Bundesliga peers for sure and fans of German football in general. However modest their nominal aspirations may remain, the future looks bright for FC Augsburg.