What a difference a month makes. Having closed out an eminently forgettable 2015 with a promising 3-1 home victory over VfL Wolfsburg, VfB Stuttgart managed to at least haul themselves off the bottom and just over the drop-zone line heading into the winter break.
Four more wins on the spin since league action resumed has now propelled the club from the Baden-Württemberg capital up to the fringes of the battle for Europe, in an improbably short space of time. The architect of this sea-change in fortunes has a name: Jürgen Kramny.
Bumped up from the U-23s in an initial caretaker capacity after the club parted ways with Alexander Zorniger in late November, Kramny has succeeded in turning around VfB's plummeting fortunes at remarkable speed. The team's former defensive frailty has been shored up and a forward line that showed undoubted promise under Zorniger continues to flourish, playing to the new coach's more counter-attack oriented brief.
The upshot is that Stuttgart head into Matchday 22 , and seven ahead of Bremen in the play-off berth. “We've given ourselves a bit of breathing space,” said Kramny, “that doesn't mean we have to start talking about new targets.”
But success breeds at the very least an appetite for more success. Last weekend's well-earned 2-0 victory over high-flying Hertha Berlin confirmed VfB as the form team of 2016, extending their unbeaten league run to seven games – the last five of them wins.
The one blemish on that recent record was a 3-1 home loss to Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-final of the DFB Cup. That potential route into Europe has been closed off but should they extend their current Bundesliga victory roll on Sunday away to the other Ruhr district heavyweights, FC Schalke 04, Kramny's reinvigorated Stuttgart will have to start seriously considering an upward adjustment of their season target.