Cologne - This Sunday's game between Borussia Mönchengladbach and 1. FSV Mainz 05 as a meeting of second and fourth in the table would barely have been conceivable a few short weeks ago.
Downed at the first on two fronts
Both started into the Bundesliga season with back-to-back draws but while Lucien Favre's Gladbach already had the vibe of a team itching to shift up a gear from solid to spectacular, his counterpart at Mainz was enduring a fairly torrid introduction to life at the cutting edge of German football.
Before the league campaign had even got underway, Kasper Hjulmand's first three competitive outings in charge had resulted in Mainz crashing out of first the UEFA Europa League, then the DFB Pokal. Both exits were painful. The hard-earned European place that saw out Thomas Tuchel's five-year tenure at the helm on an appropriate high note was frittered away in the play-off round as Mainz went down 3-2 on aggregate to Asteras Tripolis, the Greek underdogs nabbing the decisive goal minutes from the end of the second leg.
The DFB Cup dismissal at the hands of Chemnitzer FC went even closer to the wire, as the 3. Liga outfit squeezed through on penalties – but only after an incredible 5-5 draw which exposed some serious fault lines in the Mainz defence. It was a less than auspicious start for Hjulmand, but fast-forward all of a month and he could be found reflecting that he was “not completely satisfied” in the wake of a clean sheet and three points bagged at the expense of the mighty Borussia Dortmund.
In with the new
The Danish tactician, moreover, still saw “huge potential for further improvement” in his new charges. In fact, the improvement already in such a compressed timeframe has been highly commendable following those early teething problems, which in themselves were perhaps only to be expected given that Tuchel's end-of season departure was accompanied by that of several key players. The loss of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Nicolai Müller was offset by the late transfer window acquisition of two new specialist flank raiders in Jonas Hofmann from Borussia Dortmund and Spain Under-21 international Jairo from Sevilla FC.
Pablo De Blasis, signed from Euro-conquerors Asteras, and old familiar Sami Allagui offer Hjulmand further fresh options up front, where Shinji Okazaki continues to lead the line with aplomb. The coach, who made his name guiding unfancied FC Nordsjaelland to a debut Danish title in 2012, is however currently more concerned with building from a solid foundation. “Our defensive play has been improving all the time and I think we're doing better and better in our system,” he stressed after last weekend's goalless home draw with 1899 Hoffenheim.
‘Can use every point we get’
That game, and the goalless home draw which preceded it at Eintracht Frankfurt, both served as well to reaffirm the strength-in-depth of a league which is already shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable and open contests for years. “We can use every point we get in the Bundesliga, it's a very, very competitive league,” Hjulmand noted with a wry smile.
That said, he was happy to report that “the development of the team is very good and [so is] the spirit of the players... If we keep working and improving, we'll have a win here and there.” Should they manage one at the Borussia Park against the on-form Foals on Sunday, the rapidly fading memory of Kasper Hjulmand's early travails will already be verging on the indiscernible.