They might be competing above expectations, but do not expect complacency from Eintracht Frankfurt.
A 2-0 win at Hamburg SV on Saturday evening kept them in contention for fourth place in the Bundesliga and the illustrious reward of Champions League football. Armin Veh has led The Eagles to their best league start in 24 years, prompting ambitious dreams of flying the flag for Germany in Europe once again.
Their rapid rise over the last 12 months has been surprising to most given their promotion from the second division—and a signing policy of mainly 2. Bundesliga players—but the former VfB Stuttgart head coach is beginning to focus on establishing their position at the top end of the table.
"It's getting a bit harder for me now to say our aim is to avoid relegation," he told Sky Deutschland.
"We have a poster in the dressing room which had 40 points on it and we kept changing it, and now there are only four points left until we reach 40 and we are delighted about that."
Srdjan Lakic, who was making his debut at the Volksparkstadion, scored twice in 14 minutes, ending a 21-month barren spell in front of goal since he netted for 1. FC Kaiserslautern. The 29-year-old is a prolific marksman, hitting 16 league goals for the Red Devils in his last season at the club before making a big-money move to VfL Wolfsburg.
Inside less than a quarter of an hour, the Croatian forward surpassed Olivier Occean’s record of only one goal so far this season. The Canadian striker has been a regular since joining from Greuther Fürth in the summer, but his total of just one goal from the squad’s tally of 38 forced Armin Veh to swoop for a striker to lead the line and bolster the side's challenge for the Champions League.
Lakic’s progress might have stagnated at the Volkswagen Arena, as well as at Hoffenheim on a short-term loan contract, but the striker’s strong aerial presence and positioning make him a competent match for a side that is in no shortage of attacking ammunition, as Eintracht have closed the gap on their challengers to one point with Bayer Leverkusen succumbing to their first home defeat since April under Sascha Lewandowski.
The Eagles had plunged to the 2. Bundesliga in 2011—their first relegation in eight years—but they returned to top-flight prominence in April of the following year. Eintracht gained promotion from the second spot, having scored 76 league goals in their spell outside of the Bundesliga. The club had already been building in the right direction despite their relegation, with a number of young talents finishing the last match of the 2010-11 season at Signal Iduna Park.
Current captain Pirmin Schwegler was already forming a fantastic midfield partnership with Sebastian Rode, with full-back Sebastian Jung learning his trade as a 20-year-old. Eighteen months on, the aforementioned Eintracht Frankfurt trio has become the crutch of the side that fills fourth place in the Bundesliga. The relegation might have strengthened them mentally, but their time in the 2. Bundesliga almost certainly nurtured their development at a crucial point in their careers.
Furthermore, the continual progress under Veh has been maintained during their return to the top-flight. Eintracht Frankfurt shrewdly signed up the "best of the rest" from the 2. Bundesliga, piecing together a fine squad that balances experience, solidity and youthful exuberance in attacking positions—and contains a vast excess of creativity.
The four Eintracht players deployed in the wide positions—Bastian Oczipka, Sebastian Jung, Takashi Inui and Stefan Aigner—have been involved in 37 of the squad's 38 Bundesliga league goals this season. From the left-hand side, ex-Leverkusen full-back Oczipka maintains a formidable arsenal of crosses and long, swooping passes with his cultured left foot. The 24-year-old has acquired nine assists in the league this season, whilst left-side colleague Inui has scored five and created an extra six from midfield.
On the opposite side, though, right-midfielder Aigner has scored seven goals and set up eight, complementing the more defensively-assured Jung, who has only added the single assist this season. The excessive armament from wide positions is thrilling for talisman Alexander Meier, who has scored 12 goals this season—and even recent arrival Lakic will enjoy superb service in the Frankfurt shirt.
Barring any change to the Bundesliga table next weekend, Eintracht Frankfurt will return to the scene of their relegation in 2011 on Matchday 22 to face Borussia Dortmund in a massive clash that could allow The Eagles to close the gap with the current German champions.
The Frankfurters have never qualified for the Champions League in its 20-year existence—but they do possess some glittering European honours, such as the 1980 UEFA Cup and the 1967 UEFA Intertoto Cup, in addition to their runners-up prestige in the 1960 European Cup, where they lost to Real Madrid in Glasgow.
This is a club steeped in history and tradition, and the present generation will be itching to emulate the folklore tales of Eintracht’s previous exploits on the European scene during the landmark times in the 1960s.