The Bundesliga's Surprise Challenger: Borussia Monchengladbach

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The Bundesliga's Surprise Challenger: Borussia Monchengladbach
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It may come as a shock to all but the most avid Teutophiles that when the Bundesliga entered the winter break, the team ensconced in third place was not one of their four Champions League contestants.

Bayern Munich, of course, are clear at the top, and Bayer Leverkusen have recovered from a slow start to lead the chasing pack but only four points back are Borussia Monchengladbach.

The Foals stunned Germany by claiming a place in Europe’s most distinguished competition in 2012.

Manager Lucien Favre built his team around the rising star of Marco Reus.

Appointed to a struggling Monchengladbach in February of 2011, Favre put his faith in Reus, who responded by scoring the decisive goal in the relegation playoff victory against Bochum. The following season, his goals carried them beyond expectations, but when he returned to his boyhood club (the double-winning Borussia Dortmund), they fell back to reality as they failed to even progress through the qualifying round when they were eliminated by Dynamo Kiev.

Initial attempts to rebuild the team stalled.

Despite the funds garnered from the sale of Reus and European qualification, Monchengladbach slumped to eighth.

The purchases of youth internationals Luuk De Jong and Peniel Mlapa failed to adequately replace Reus’ strike power. Swiss international Granit Xhaka, another promising youngster, was a fine addition but unable to drive the team to repeat its 2012 heroics.

Last summer, Favre changed tack in the transfer market and struck gold.

His two signings, the 28-year-old Raffael, £4.4m from Dynamo Kiev, and 25-year-old Max Kruse, £2M from Freiburg, brought maturity and experience that have lifted them above the floundering Dortmund. Combined, they cost less than half of the fee outlayed on De Jong alone but have registered 16 league goals already.

The pair have been the catalyst to Monchengladbach’s resurgence.

Kruse scored in each of his first four appearances at Borussia Park. They won them all.

Raffael’s start has been even more impressive.

After scoring in a 4-1 win over Werder Bremen, he has added to his tally in seven matches with Monchengladbach winning all but one. His brilliant individual effort against former club Schalke alone virtually justified his fee. The pair have been so prolific that only last season’s Champions League finalists have scored more goals than Monchengladbach’s 35.

Favre’s men couldn’t have had a more difficult start as the season’s first sacrifice on the altar of Allianz Arena, and after nine games, they were struggling with only four wins.

As the new signings found their feet and, more often than not, the back of the net, they sprinted towards the winter break with six consecutive wins.

That run stalled with back-to-back draws to end 2013, but crucially, they leapfrogged Dortmund on the final round of the year.

The experience of the new signings has helped Favre’s younger players to develop.

Raffael, a true number 10, has reduced the pressure on Xhaka, allowing the 21-year-old to play in a deeper role and utilise his combative skills as much as his creative ones.

Kruse, taking the lead strike role, has reduced De Jong to an impact substitute, although the Dutchman seems disgruntled in that role. Even Mlapa hit an equaliser in a friendly against Besiktas during the winter break.  

It remains to be seen whether the nascent Foals can sustain their impressive season, but with their renewed strength in depth, blossoming strike partnership and maturing squad, they seem well placed.

They are part of a top seven in the Bundesliga that have already begun to move clear, and so Lucien Favre can be confident of challenging for a place in next season’s European competitions.

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