Bundesliga surprise: Karlsruher off to great start
Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's easy to glance down the Bundesliga standings and get a little confused when you reach Karlsruher.
It doesn't take long to find the club, sitting in fourth place, sandwiched by perennial league powers Werder Bremen and Schalke.
After all, "newly-promoted teams shouldn't be gunning for anything else" but to avoid relegation, Karlsruher midfielder Tamas Hajnal told bundesliga.de.
Not seven points behind unbeaten Bayern Munich 11 games into its first season in Germany's top division in almost a decade.
Karlsruher has a solid history in the Bundesliga, but you've got to knock the dust off old record books to uncover it.
From 1992-97, Karlsruher finished in the top half of the league six straight times and played in three UEFA Cups.
But in 1998, Karlsruher started a downward spiral that took the club all the way into Germany's third division. Although Karlsruher spent just one season in complete obscurity, it took years to reshape the club.
Last season Karlsruher won the Bundesliga 2 to climb back into the top flight and has easily been the surprise of the Bundesliga so far this season.
"We know exactly what we have to do to stay up there; fight first, then play football," Karlsruher striker Christian Timm said. "We have already proved that we can do that."
Since starting the season with losses in two of its first three games, KSC is unbeaten in seven of its last eight - its only loss is to Bayern Munich - including a current five-game unbeaten streak.
To Karlsruher's credit already this season are shutout wins against defending champion Stuttgart and runner-up Schalke.
"At the very least we should be pleased with ourselves," Hajnal said. "But we do need to keep our feet on the ground and continue to work hard on our game, and thereby ensure that we have a good season."
Karlsruher may not challenge Bayern Munich, and nobody else will either.
But challenging for a top-five finish and a berth in the UEFA Cup, or even a top-three placing and a Champions league berth, is certainly possible.
Hajnal, who signed just before the start of the season, has been the spark in midfield, playing a part in eight of the team's 13 goals with three goals and five assists.
"He played an excellent match and is the brain of the team," Schalke manager Andreas Muller said after a 2-0 loss to Karlsruher on Oct 6.
Although Hajnal has drawn praise as the top midfielder in the league early in the season - even ahead of Bayern's Franck Ribery - he's not the only unknown helping Karlsruher.
Captain Mario Eggimann, Maik Franz, Massimilian Porcello and Timm all have two goals on a low-scoring (Karlsruher is 11th in goals), but balanced offense.
Eggimann, a defender, has also held together a defensive unit that has allowed the fifth-fewest goals. And of the 11 goals Karlsruher has surrendered, four were in the loss to Bayern Munich.
But the biggest setback for the club this season was suffered last week when starting goalie Markus Miller tore the cruciate ligament in his knee in a 0-0 draw against Rostock.
Miller was injured in the second minute but played the entire game to post his sixth shutout of the season.
"Markus is a total team player and has already gotten points for us," Eggimann said. "We're going to be missing an important man ... someone very difficult to replace."
Jean-Francois Kornetzky, who played two games for Karlsruher last season, will likely replace Miller against Duisburg on Saturday.
How well he plays could determine if Hajnal was right. Will Karlsruher stumble and struggle just to avoid relegation, or can it really be one of the biggest surprises in Bundesliga history?
Hajnal, who didn't want to get overconfident about the great start, does think Karlsruher is capable of more than just staving off relegation.
"Additionally, and this might sound a bit far-fetched, we finish with a top- nine placing," Hajnal said.
If Karlsruher avoids more injuries, don't be surprised if it's still mingling with Germany's elite at the end of the season.
Stuttgart is off to a horrible start, although Saturday's 1-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen - which came at a cost - pulled it clear of the relegation zone.
German international Roberto Hilbert tore an ankle ligament against Bayer and will miss two-to-three weeks. He could also miss two upcoming EURO qualifiers for Germany.
Stuttgart's win did give it 13 points and helped it climb to 12th through 11 matches - 14 points behind first-place Bayern Munich.
But Stuttgart is just four points in front of Nurnberg, Bochum and Duisburg, which each have nine points to tie for 15th in the league.
WINLESS ENERGIE MAKES CHANGE
Tomislav Piplica made 246 appearances as Energie's top goalkeeper, but he was benched Saturday in favor of Gerhard Tremmel. Although Energie couldn't snap a 14-game winless skid dating back to last season, Tremmel played well in a 1-1 tie at Arminia Bielefeld. Things may get worse (if that's possible) as Schalke visits this week and a trip to Werder Bremen awaits in three weeks. Energie's best hope to snap the winless streak is at promoted Rostock in two weeks.
RELEGATION MATCHES TO RETURN
Relegation matches to determine promotion and relegation positions will return for the 2008-2009 season. The 16th-place team in the Bundesliga will play the third-place club in the Bundesliga 2 in a two-game series. Relegation matches between the top two leagues in Germany were last played in 1991.
A GLANCE AT THE BUNDESLIGA 2
SV Wehen Wiesbaden's Benjamin Siegart scored in just eight seconds on Oct. 5 against SpVgg Greuther Furth to register the fastest goal in German history. ... Borussia Monchengladbach, which was last in the Bundesliga last season, leads the second division through 11 games.