Last May, Eintracht Frankfurt weren't even the best team in the 2. Bundesliga. After finishing runners-up to Greuther Fuerth in the German second division, the team underwent an incredible metamorphosis over the summer. And now, one game into the second half of the 2012-13 campaign, they stand fourth, poised, it seems, to compete in the Champions League next season.
What Frankfurt have achieved thus far is improbable to say the least. Fuerth are last in the table, while the third promoted side, Fortuna Duesseldorf, stand 14th.
The difference between Frankfurt and the other clubs promoted from the 2. Bundesliga is that die Adler conducted some tremendously shrewd business in the transfer market last summer, and coach Armin Veh was able to integrate as many as seven new starters as the likes of Alex Meier, Sebastian Rode, Sebastian Jung and Pirmin Schwegler have all taken their performance to the next level.
Goalkeeper Kevin Trapp signed from recently-relegated Kaiserslautern for a bargain price of €1.5 million, just a year after 1.FCK rejected a €7 million bid from Schalke. The ex-Germany U21 international has started every game this season and along with Rene Adler has arguably been the Bundesliga's best goalkeeper.
Two out of the four defenders in Frankfurt's ranks are newcomers, with Jung the only player to have had a part in the club's promotion last season. A surplus player at Leverkusen, left-back Bastian Oczipka cost just €500,000 and has since given seven assists. Right-back Stefano Celozzi came for free from Stuttgart, while centre-backs Carlos Zambrano and Anderson Bamba cost €1.2 million and €800,000 from St. Pauli and Gladbach respectively.
Of the four defenders, Celozzi was the only to play in the 1. Bundesliga last season (Anderson was on loan at Frankfurt), yet all have been very successful. Jung has started all 18 games, while the other three have each started in an average of 13.3 matches.
On the wings, Stefan Aigner signed from 1860 Munich on a free transfer, while Takashi Inui's release from Bochum cost €1.2 million. Both came from the 2. Bundesliga but have been solid contributors to the Frankfurt attack, with the former scoring six goals and giving five assists, while the latter has found the net five times and given as many assists.
Not all of Frankfurt's newcomers have been entirely successful: Martin Lanig (free transfer from relegated Koeln) has mostly come off the bench, while €1.3 million ex-Fuerth man Olivier Occean has scored just once in 10 starts.
Even so, Veh's integration of a motley crew of second division players has been nothing short of the incredible. Even with a few new players, most clubs take time to adjust.
For example, Gladbach had more than just teething problems as they tried to replace Marco Reus, Roman Neustaedter and Dante with Luuk de Jong, Granit Xhaka and Alvaro Dominguez. Of the three, only the Spaniard has started more than half his team's games, and BMG entered the winter break eighth in the Bundesliga table—a far cry from their fourth-placed finish last season.
The brilliance of returning players Jung, Schwegler, and especially Rode and Meier cannot be underestimated. The four have performed at a very, very high level and perhaps their stability has provided enough of a foundation for the newcomers.
There is, however, reason to believe that Frankfurt are another of Veh's half-season wonders. The trainer won the Bundesliga with Stuttgart in 2007, but thanks only to an incredible second half of the campaign that saw them win their final eight games. Since then, Veh's record has been dire.
He was sacked from his position at stuttgart less than half a season after winning the title, and lasted just 27 and 28 games at Wolfsburg and Hamburg respectively before taking the helm at Frankfurt.
Veh is not the only man punching above his weight class at Frankfurt. Although Trapp, Rode, Jung and perhaps Oczipka are classy players who are only now reaching their potential, there are others who spent years playing at a very ordinary level before suddenly looking like world-beaters in the fall.
Alex Meier, who has found the net 12 times in 18 games is a perfect example. Never before had he scored more than 10 goals in a Bundesliga season, yet at age 30 he is suddenly prolific at a high level. Simply put, there is probably a reason why most of Frankfurt's players have spent years in the 2. Bundesliga.
How will Frankfurt finish the season?
And indeed on Saturday, Frankfurt were outplayed in a 3-1 loss away to Leverkusen. It was only one match, but it highlighted the fragility of the visitors' defense and their creative limitations.
Frankfurt's loss was Schalke's gain as the Gelsenkirchen side's thrilling 5-4 win over Hannover on Friday saw them advance to just two points behind die Adler. Schalke are not the only side hot on Frankfurt's heels. Freiburg and Mainz are three points behind, and a very talented Gladbach side are just four points adrift of fourth place.
If Frankfurt do finish fourth in the Bundesliga, it won't be entirely a surprise. After all, Hertha Berlin managed an improbable fourth-placed finish in 2009. Still, the odds are against Veh's side. It's a matter of time before the overachievers come back down to Earth, and with their hold on fourth so narrow that there is precious little room for error, Champions League qualification looks to be a step too far.
Frankfurt will in all likelihood qualify for the Europa League, but this season a place at Europe's top table looks to be out of reach.