Mönchengladbach - With FC Bayern München once again setting a searing pace at the top and VfL Wolfsburg looking an increasingly safe bet for a top-two finish, the battle for the Bundesliga's third automatic UEFA Champions League berth looks like being one of the most intriguing of the lot down the season's home straight.
Hungry for another shot at Europe's elite
Matchday 23 was a good one in that regard for Borussia Mönchengladbach, whose own 2-0 home win against SC Paderborn 07 was supplemented by defeats for the two sides directly behind them, FC Schalke 04 and FC Augsburg.
That leaves the third-place Foals now four points clear of new closest pursuers Bayer 04 Leverkusen, and buckled a notch tighter into the driving seat in the race for that coveted place in Europe's premier club tournament. Their appetite to attain it had only been further sharpened a couple of days earlier by a 3-2 home loss to Sevilla FC, which saw them tumble out the UEFA Europa League at the Round of 32 stage 4-2 on aggregate.
“In footballing terms, we were the better team in both games,” head coach Lucien Favre said in summary of his side's overall showing against the title holders. Midfielder , who spoiled a fine individual performance by getting sent off in the 68th minute, agreed, saying: “It wasn't the better team that advanced, but the one that was a bit craftier.”
Victims of their own success
That analysis speaks volumes for the new path Gladbach are self-confidently forging these days under Favre's stewardship. Plunged in at the deep end four years ago, the Swiss tactician started off by steering the club clear of relegation in dramatic fashion via the play-offs. His first full season in charge ended with a sensational fourth-place finish and a qualifying shot at the Champions League.
That unexpected success was, however, also the catalyst for the departure of defensive coordinator Dante to Bayern, star forward Marco Reus to Borussia Dortmund and midfielder Roman Neustädter - a player every bit as essential to the team in Favre's view as Xavi for Barcelona - to FC Schalke 04.
Xhaka's progress 'emblematic'
In a nutshell, Gladbach were still operating in accordance with their long-standing reputation as a finishing school for gifted players on the way to true stardom elsewhere. No sooner had Favre put together a team that looked truly capable of competing with the best, than he effectively found himself faced with a rebuilding job. He has gone about in typically meticulous fashion and after very respectable eighth- and sixth-place finishes in each of the last two campaigns, the fruits of his labours are beginning to show at a higher level again.
Xhaka, now in his third season at the club, is getting ever closer to achieving the kind of status his coach once accredited to Neustädter. The Swiss box-to-box midfielder “is already a big influence on the team,” Favre noted recently. Sporting director Max Eberl, the other half of the management duo that has revitalised Borussia's fortunes over the past few years, went even further, describing Xhaka as “emblematic of our development and general stability. Even though he's only 22, he's happy to take on any amount of responsibility, and he demonstrates that out on the pitch.”
Hazard on board for the long-haul as well
The Basel-born son of Kosovo Albanian parents acknowledges he sometimes played like he “had too much to prove” after swapping his hometown club for Gladbach and the Bundesliga in 2012. Now, “I do what (Favre) asks of me, and it's working fine.” So much so that the coach felt moved to pronounce “we're very, very satisfied” when the 33-time Switzerland international last month put pen to paper on a contract extension through to 2019.
That satisfaction intensified a few weeks later when Thorgan Hazard's one-season loan deal from Chelsea FC was upgraded to a full contract, valid until 2020. The wide midfielder, who turns 22 later this month, is rated one of Belgium's brightest up-and-coming prospects and while most of his 19 Bundesliga appearances so far have been off the bench, Eberl sees great things ahead for a player who “has already demonstrated over the past few months what a huge talent he is” - not least in the form of five direct assists.
Stay put and prosper
In years past, the likes of Hazard and Xhaka would likely have given considerable pause before committing longer-term to Mönchengladbach at this stage of their fast-blossoming careers. Now, though, the mindset has changed. For other widely coveted Foals, such as homegrown midfield wizard Patrick Herrmann, staying on at the Borussia Park is also an increasingly attractive sporting option.
Disappointed as he was by the last-32 Europa League exit against Sevilla, Xhaka was not alone in seeing the upside to it, noting that, “maybe after this game we can finally come out and say that we're aiming to stay right up where we are in the Bundesliga”. Spain international Alvaro Dominguez, another top talent evidently more than happy with his lot in Mönchengladbach, agreed that turning the focus 100 percent on domestic matters might be no bad thing, “because we want to hang onto that Champions League place”. Rather being a stop-off for rising stars en route to bigger things, Borussia are in the process of becoming a bigger thing in their own right.