Munich - When UEFA Champions League berths are dished out at the end of the season, the usual suspects will already be standing at the top of the line waiting for their dues, but not always does glamour and history guarantee a ticket.
In 2012, a year after avoiding relegation in a play-off, Borussia Mönchengladbach grabbed a winning ticket, while 12 months previous, it was Hannover 96 who went agonisingly close to denying none other than FC Bayern München a seat at European football's top table. Likewise, SC Freiburg almost upset the Schalke applecart last May.
This year, 1. FSV Mainz 05 are bidding to jostle their way in among the Bayerns, Dortmunds, Schalkes and Leverkusens to steal that permit to prestige and riches. If the current top four – Bayern excluded – have not yet seen Mainz coming up on their radars, they had better give their systems a check-up. Thomas Tuchel's men are not to be taken lightly.
"We've just got to see things through," Tuchel said with an air of cryptic intelligence, neither committing his team to a push for glory, nor ruling them entirely out of the running. "We're not going to let our will and determination levels drop." Pretty much business as usual, then, for a side who already know how to spring a surprise by finishing fifth in 2011 to clinch a UEFA Europa League berth.
The expectations were low back then, and they are no higher now. In fact, after struggling until late last season, and with Adam Szalai leaving for Schalke in the summer, more were predicting a relegation battle than a return to the upper echelons for the Karnevalverein. How wrong they were. In Shinji Okazaki, Mainz have struck it rich.
Unable to score with such regularity for VfB Stuttgart, the man who had underlined his eye for goal with 38 goals for Japan has found just the right surroundings in the Rhineland-Palatinate capital. With 11 goals to his name, including four match-winning braces, the Japanese international is inspiring Mainz's charge up the table. Exactly where that run will end will become clear at the end of the final straight.
Approaching the finishing line
"We're in a 400-metre race and we're just finishing the final curve," said Tuchel. "You tell me which athlete reveals their target with a quarter of the way still to go to the finishing line." It is safe to say that behind that cautious mask, there is an ambitious coach as keen as anybody to welcome the likes of Sevilla FC to the Coface Arena, like in 2005, when fair play earned them a shot at Europe.
This time around, fair play is not going to be the real key to their qualification; good, effective play is. This is the result of long-term planning and persistency which should not be undervalued. In the near five years since Tuchel took over in 2009, only four clubs in German football have picked up more points than Mainz.
Unsurprisingly, that table reflects the current state of affairs in the Bundesliga, and what they have built up in those five years, they now want to defend until May, with a return to Europe the reward. Mainz are punching very much at their weight, not above it.