Cologne - The upper floor of the Bundesliga house has, arguably, had something of an as-you-were aspect to it over the past few years. Now, though, VfL Wolfsburg are knocking at the door. Last Saturday's 4-0 victory at VfB Stuttgart made it five league wins running for the Wolves and lifted them to second in the table, above Borussia Mönchengladbach on goal difference and still just four points shy of defending champions FC Bayern München.
Krasnodar brushed aside
A club of renowned high ambition, Wolfsburg are now walking the walk as well as talking the talk, in what is shaping up to be their best campaign since they stormed to a debut Bundesliga title in 2009. “At the moment, it's just great fun watching the way we play football,” head coach Dieter Hecking enthused in the wake of a “brutally efficient” performance, as Stuttgart defender Daniel Schwaab put it, at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. After Sunday morning training, Hecking gave his charges “a bit of a breather” until Tuesday afternoon, when their focus switched to Thursday's UEFA Europa League encounter against FK Krasnodar.
The extra day's rest seemed to do the trick, as a five-star second-half display cemented the Wolves' place in the top two of Group H. Hecking's side are now four points ahead of third-placed LOSC Lille, who slumped to a 3-0 defeat to group leaders Everton FC on Matchday 4. Midfielder Ivan Perisic had branded the Krasnodar clash as the “most important game so far in Europe so far” in the build up to the game, and despite riding their luck in an evenly-matched first half, the Wolves ultimately emerged as comfortable 5-1 victors.
The next domestic guests at the Volkswagen Arena are Hamburger SV on Sunday. As far as the Bundesliga goes, Wolfsburg are already very much on the right track, with no-one making a more telling contribution to their impressive upward surge than Perisic's fellow creative talent Kevin De Bruyne. As well as opening his own scoring account for the season, the 23-year-old Belgium international teed up two more goals for team-mates as Stuttgart were put to the sword. That put him on seven assists in ten games, a division best with something to spare.
De Bruyne shifting into top gear
De Bruyne, moreover, is now flourishing in the box-to-box midfield role Wolfsburg had in mind when they signed him from Chelsea FC in January. Giving due credit to his more defensive-minded colleagues Luiz Gustavo and Josuha Guilavogui, whose covering work “lets me get forward more and concentrate on playing my own game”, he acknowledged the team's high-tempo, short-passing game meshes perfectly with his own style and “for an attacking player like me, this is just a really good time”.
It is an increasingly good time as well for the VfL defence, who have leaked just five goals in their last eight Bundesliga outings and racked up a clean sheet in three of the last four. As in all other areas of the pitch, Hecking now has the luxury of genuine strength in depth, with Sebastian Jung and Vieirinha both available at right-back and Marcel Schäfer a more than handy stand-in down the left for the recently indisposed Ricardo Rodriguez. Alongside defensive coordinator Naldo, Robin Knoche - who also got on the scoresheet at Stuttgart - has an able deputy in Timm Klose. And, as the highly promising Germany U-21 international pertinently stressed: “Nobody's put out when they have to take a turn on the bench. We're all in this together, working for each other and giving it everything.”
After a hiatus too protracted for their own liking, the Wolves once again appear positively ravenous for some tangible success. Getting back onto the European stage this season was just the start and De Bruyne and Co. are determined to leave their stamp on the UEFA Europa League. At the current rate of progress, however, an upward glance in the direction of the Champions League might seem more than a little justified. Without overstating the case, Hecking is quite happy to admit he “wouldn't deny that”.