Nuremberg. Yes, Nuremberg

Nuremberg is the Bundesliga's surprise package. And if Bayern won't win tomorrow, it will have to settle for the Champions League title

It is easy to guess that Bayern Munich, having to make good on an embarrassing first round, is the Bundesliga’s best team so far in the second around. But can you guess which team is the runner-up?

It is FC Nuremberg, a team that was destined for relegation according to preseason predictions. Nuremberg shattered those predictions about a month into the season.

Who are the names behind this achievment? 19-year-old Ilkay Gündogan whom top European clubs, headed by Manchester United, are scouting his every move. Mehmet Ekici, a 20-year-old midfielder on loan from Bayern’s reserve team.

Ekici is another link of Nuremberg’s creative ways to sustain its place in the first division. Unable to afford buying such players, Nuremberg had loaned two players from Bayern also last year: Breno, a young defender and Andreas Ottl. Both of these players could find minutes at Bayern last year, they were loaned to Nuremberg and helped the team to escape relegation. Both are enjoying substantial amounts of minutes in Munich this year.

Scorer Julian Schieber, 21, is on a loan from struggling Stuttgart. Schieber has scored seven goals and assisted on another nine of Nurmberg’s 34 goals this season. How much is Stuttgart missing Schieber? Whatever happens, said Fredi Bobic, Stuttgart’s Sports director, Schieber will have to return at the end of the season.

But the main reason behind Nuremberg’s surprising season (the team is currently ranked seventh and could actually represent Germany in European competition next year) is coach Dieter Hecking.

Hecking has built his squad around youngsters such as Jen Hegeler, 22, or the newly acquired Christian Eigler, 26. Completing the line-up are Andreas Wolf, Tommy Simmons and Javier Pinola. Those varmints are giving the team the fighting spirit and the practical mentality.

Those attributed were proven viral with other cheap buys, like Alomg Cohen and Juri Judt. “Such markets as Slowakia and Israel are interesting for us, as the prices there are still affordable,” Martin Baader, athletic supervisor at the club, had told me.

Hecking has cooked a delicious stew out of these ingredients – a defty, ambitious, and varied squad that plays superb defence. “Everybody knows, what he has to do, and does it. We defend aggressively, and upfront,” says Pinola. In the six matches played in the second round, Nuremberg has surrendered only three goals.

Hecking has continued to work his magic after the injuries to Gündogan and Schieber, and the ban of Ekici, circumstances that forced the coach to infuse young talent (Philipp Wollscheid, Dominik Maroh, Marvin Plattenhardt, Timothy Chandler, Robert Mak, Markus Mendler and Robin Okotie) into the squad. Each of these players became a success story.

“We have to start working on developing young players, we can’t take them on loan and lose them after a year anymore, it has no future”, said Dieter Hecking.

On Saturday, Nuremberg, coming off four consecutive victories, will get a true measure to its strength as it will face Schalke, the last team Nuremberg lost to in a cup fixture. But just like Nuremberg obscured ascending, hardly anyone will notice Nuremberg next match.

The reason is that the incumbent champion, Bayern Munich, will host tomorrow Dortmund, the team that is most likely to inherit Bayrn’s crown.

Bayern is tired but elated after scoring a revenge victory in San Siro against Inter during Wednesday’s Champions League match. Dortmund might prove to be even a bigger challenge, and not just because of its quality of play.

In order to maintain any theoretical chance to get back to the championship race, Bayern must win on Saturday. Any other score will force the Bavarian club to look for comfort in Champions League play.

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