One quarter into the Bundesliga season, the Champions League slots have a very surprising look. Bayern Munich tops the standings, of course. But the next three slots are taken by a newcomer, a team that barely escaped relegation last season and the unfancied Cologne.
Bayern is only two points clear of RB Leipzig, which is making its debut in the Bundesliga and is still undefeated after nine matches, the best starting record for a promoted team.
Next comes Hoffenheim, which is also still undefeated, after finishing last season one point above the danger zone. Cologne completes the top four, five points behind Bayern.
Leipzig and Hoffenheim have similar histories. Hoffenheim was a village team until a local son and software billionaire started pumping money to steer its march through the lower tiers into the Bundesliga. Hoffenheim took the Bundesliga by storm and was leading the table halfway into its rookie season in 2008.
Hoffenheim struggled in recent years and appeared headed for relegation last season until the management took a bold decision and turned to coach Julian Nagelsmann, who was still 28 but guided Hoffenheim to safety.
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Nagelsmann will have his biggest test on Saturday when Hoffenheim travels to Munich to play Bayern in what has turned out to be the match of the week.
RB Leipzig started out as a rebranded fourth-tier local side bankrolled by an Austrian energy drink maker. It quickly rose through the ranks by signing talented players lured by promises of rapid Bundesliga glory.
Leipzig and Hoffenheim are also bound by more than similar histories. Ralf Rangnick, who was coach of Hoffenheim in its early Bundesliga days, is now Leipzig’s sporting director. Leipzig plays the high-pressing, quick-transition game that was a hallmark of Hoffenheim in early days that is coming back under Nagelsmann.
Leipzig, like Hoffenheim, faces a hostile reception at most away matches because of fans who prefer “traditional” clubs with long histories over new-money parvenus.
When Leipzig played in Darmstadt last weekend, the home side played in retro-looking kits and used a manually operated scoreboard to emphasise its long tradition. It didn’t help – Leipzig won 2-0.
Unlike Leipzig and Hoffenheim, Cologne is very long in tradition but also very short in success, at least in recent decades.
Cologne was one of the founding clubs of the Bundesliga in 1963 and its first champion. It won the title again in 1978. It has been without a title since the German Cup in 1983.
The club was relegated for the first time in 1998 and kept moving back and forth between the two divisions.
Finally, it stabilized under coach Peter Stoeger, who returned the team to the Bundesliga in 2014. It finished 12th and then climbed to ninth at the end of the last season.
Now, Cologne is looking at a place in Europe and the main reason for it is Anthony Modeste, the Bundesliga’s hottest striker.
Modeste, a 28-year-old Frenchman, scored a hat trick last weekend against Hamburg – and missed a penalty – to bring his total to a league-high 11 goals after nine matches. He also scored the goal that knocked out Hoffenheim, his former club, from the German Cup.
Cologne visits Eintracht Frankfurt, another surprise team, on Saturday, while Leipzig hosts Mainz on Sunday.