Pitchside Europe

Germany’s magnificent seven

Dortmund fans (Reuters)

More than a decade after a German team last won the Champions League, the Bundesliga believes it is back at the top table of European football.

For the first time, three of their teams were table toppers in Europe's premier competition, thanks to Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke.

If Stuttgart become the fourth Bundesliga club to reach second round of the Europa League, Germany will become only the second country to have seven representatives in the knock-out phase of European football, three years after Spanish teams achieved the same feat.

Bundesliga teams won 11 and drew six of their 18 combined Champions League matches, a record superior to that of Europe's other big leagues:

Germany: 39 points from 18 matches (2.17 points per match).

Spain: 49 points from 24 games (2.04 points per match)

Italy: 20 points from 12 matches (1.67 points per match).

England: 35 points from 24 matches (1.46 points per match).

"All three German teams deserved to win their groups. It's nice to see that the Bundesliga is alive and catching up with the very best leagues," said Bayern goalscorer Mario Gomez after an easy 4-1 win against BATE Borisov.

While Bayern's pool, which included Valencia and Lille, was one of the weakest, the same could not be said of Dortmund's group of death, which saw them pitted against Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax.

But Juergen Klopp's men finished three points clear, and fully 11 ahead of a City outfit much criticised by Borussia chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke for selling football's soul down the river.

''Dortmund, the real European champions,'' beamed ''Bild'' after the 1-0 victory against the English champions.

Schalke's achievement was no less impressive given the youth of their team: Arsenal, Olympiacos and Montpellier were all made to look second rate at times by the team led by gruff Dutchman Huub Stevens.  Even the man dubbed the "Grunter from Kerkrade'' raised a smile or two during his team's unbeaten campaign.

But can one of these teams become the first Bundesliga team to win the Champions League since Bayern in 2001?

Gomez believes so.

"In terms of strength across the board, I'd say the Bundesliga is the best at the moment. The top teams are all performing strongly in Europe." Roberto Mancini, Jose Mourinho and Alex Ferguson all believe Dortmund are among the favourites for this year's title.  So what's behind the improving form?

Ottmar Hitzfeld, who led Bayern to that 2001 triumph and Dortmund to the crown four years earlier, told Kicker that Bundesliga teams are reaping the rewards for investing in youth.

"Bayern have Mueller, Kroos and Badstuber. Dortmund have Goetze, Reus and Hummels, and Schalke have Holtby, Draxler and Matip, to name a few.''

Former Dortmund and Schalke star Steffen Freund, now assistant coach at Tottenham, told Eurosport that that there has been a change in the mindset of German teams in Europe, especially when playing away. Whereas they used to play in their shell, he believes, Bundesliga teams now feel that they can attack any team anywhere and ''without fear.''

That entertaining nature can be traced to the 2006 World Cup. That tournament also meant refurbished stadia, and Bundesliga attendances are now the highest of any football league in the world.

"The German stadia are filled. Therefore, the good record of German clubs is logical," Hitzfeld added.

The €700m invested in youth academies over the last decade from the German Football Federation also looks to be paying off.

Still, it's easy to get carried away after a couple of great months, so back to the numbers. This season's group phase points total of 39 compares to 27 last season, 31 in 2010-11 and 26 in 09-10.

If things go on like this, the Premier League will soon be overtaken in the rolling five-year UEFA coefficient. While Spain's stat is 83.882, England's is 77.106, with Germany third, and catching up fast on 74.328.

But delve deeper and you'll see that once the 2008-09 season is taken out of the equation, the English coefficient should tumble, because in that season the Premier League had three Champions League semi-finalists.

What also helps Germany's cause is that their clubs take the Europa League seriously. Hannover, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Monchengladbach have already made the knockout phase, while Stuttgart have a great chance to join them.

What's all the more remarkable is that the Bundesliga's rising fortunes have come without the sugar daddies of the Premier League (and Paris Saint German) or the largesse of Spanish lenders. With the exception of Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim (owned by German companies or in Hoff's case a romantic local billionaire) all 36 clubs in the top two flights are controlled by members. Tickets are cheap. Clubs remain close their roots.

Still, German teams' performances in the first round will help bridge the financial gap with England and Spain. Dortmund have already earned €17.1m in Champions League prize money this season, with Bayern and Schalke seeing their coffers filled by more than €16m apiece. Bayern's run to the final last season brought in a cool €41.7m.

But that promise must be converted into trophies, warns 1997 Champions League winner Matthias Sammer, now Bayern's sporting director.

''We are celebrating this like we have actually won something,'' he said when asked about German teams' success in the group phase. ''Of course I am happy for German football but we must ask ourselves what are our real objectives. Considering the ambitions of Germans, we should stay be humble. This should all be normal.''

Andreas Evagora

Deputy Head

Eurosport 2