Wolfsburg - The team currently making the strongest case for being FC Bayern München's potential number-one pursuers this season will be aiming to underscore that claim at the Veltins Arena on Saturday - and it is not hosts FC Schalke 04.
A 2-0 home victory over Hamburger SV last time out made it six Bundesliga wins in a row for VfL Wolfsburg. That leaves them second in the table, just four points shy of the defending champions, ahead of their Matchday 12 trip to Gelsenkirchen.
If one player epitomises the 2009 title-winners' resurgence at the very top end of the German game, it is Kevin De Bruyne - even if the 23-year-old Belgian midfielder does prefer to talk up the collective effort, noting only that, “It's maybe going a bit better for me than last season, but it's the same for the rest of the team.” Modest words from a man whose assists on both goals against Hamburg took him up to nine for the season, level with Chelsea FC playmaker Cesc Fabregas at the top of the providers' pile across Europe's major leagues.
“That's quite something and there's no reason to talk it down,” sporting director Klaus Allofs noted, while head coach Dieter Hecking was equally effusive about his star creator's consistent demonstrations of “the extra class you need to play at the top level.” This weekend's visitors were able to witness it on Matchday 11 against Hamburger SV, not least in the form of an 80-yard sprint and inch-perfect pass into the channel for Aaron Hunt to seal the 2-0 win.
Top four pedigree?
An incessant bundle of energy out on the pitch, despite his heavy schedule for club and country, De Bruyne is, as Hecking put it, “no world champion when it comes to training. He just wants to play.” And that is what he is best at - playing, and getting results. In his own words, more matter-of-fact than boastful, “I'm a winner.” As far as that goes, he is in good company. Under the stewardship of Hecking and Allofs, Wolfsburg have markedly improved the quality and above all strength-in-depth of their squad. They have a top-drawer alternative in nearly every position and even the absence of a few key players has not interrupted their triumphal march to the top.
If nobody at the club is talking, at least in public, about locking horns with Bayern in a title race, Ivica Olic has confirmed one definite target this year. “A run like this can only help your confidence. We want to make the Champions League,” the veteran Croatian forward asserted. Should the Wolves further extend that run at the weekend against one of their would-be rivals for a place in Europe's top club tournament, the 'Bayern hunter' label will be looking even more made-to-measure for them.