Dortmund should get used to view from top

By Brian Westfall, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp summed up his side's first half in the Bundesliga well, saying, "it's certainly better to be on top at Christmas than not." The 43-year-old should get used to the view.

Dortmund claimed Germany's Herbstmeister, German for autumn champion, with one of the most impressive stretches in the league's history. And although history has shown how meaningless the unofficial title is, this year looks different.

Klopp's squad, which regularly features a first-team with an average age under 24, went more than three months without a loss. After starting the season with a defeat, Dortmund won 14 of 15 games from August 29 to December 11.

Although the first half was bookended with another loss, the 10-point lead the young side established in the first half makes a second-half collapse the only way Dortmund doesn't end a recent trend in the league.

Hoffenheim and Bayer Leverkusen led the league at the winter break in the last two seasons, but neither could hold the lead. However, neither accumulated anywhere near the 43 points - just eight off the maximum - Dortmund has this season.

In his third season at Dortmund, Klopp has assembled a relatively unknown set of players and transformed them into a great unit that plays well together and at a fast pace that puts opposing sides under pressure.

In his third season at Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp has assembled a relatively unknown set of players and transformed them into a great unit.
So it's not surprising that Dortmund's closest challenger at midseason is Mainz, where Klopp earned his first coaching job. Klopp lifted the team, where he played for more than a decade, to the Bundesliga for the first time in its history before leaving.

The same philosophy Klopp used to turn Mainz into a solid team has produced a great side in Dortmund. One that should claim its first Bundesliga title since 2001-02, barring a second-half miracle from defending champions Bayern Munich or another challenger.

Although Bayern will be healthy, and likely in much better form, in the second half, the Munich side is still alive in the Champions League and Pokal Cup. It is clear sailing for Dortmund, which is out of the Europa League and Pokal.

And consider, Dortmund's best offseason addition was Shinji Kagawa, a 21-year- old Japanese midfielder who has emerged from J-League 2 unknown to Bundesliga star in less than a year. He cost well under $1 million.

Like Kagawa, now destined for greatness with Japan, Klopp has unearthed a host of German players that international manager Joachim Loew couldn't ignore. The group of four players Loew called up includes nobody over the age of 22.

Left back Marcel Schmelzer (22 years old) and midfielder Mario Gotze (18) both earned their first cap in Germany's last friendly, while Mats Hummels (21) and Kevin Grosskreutz (22) earned their seconds caps. Only Gotze didn't start.

Amazing what happens when a club manager just gives younger players a chance - something seen even at prestigious clubs such as Bayern, where coach Louis van Gaal gave Thomas Muller a chance last year. Muller was integral with his club, then won the Golden Boot as the top scorer in the World Cup at 20.

Barcelona is another example of how well youth pays off, as, despite the great amount of money invested in transfers, Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta - the three FIFA Ballon d'Or finalists - were all raised in the youth system.

Klopp knows Dortmund doesn't have the money to toss around like Real Madrid or Manchester City has in recent years, or on a lesser scale even Bayern, but the emerging coaching star knows that's not the only way to build a winner.

Lukasz Piszczek and Antonio da Silva joined prior to this season on free transfers and both have played big roles. Robert Lewandowski, the most expensive signee, has been limited to just one start, proving price doesn't always produce.

Now, Dortmund's long-term prognosis is a little tougher. Keeping the core, one that produced the Bundesliga's top attack and defense in the first half, Klopp has assembled - not to mention Klopp - will be a financial struggle.

But, Gotze has spurned interest from Real Madrid by signing a four-year deal, while defender Neven Subotic stated earlier this season when Liverpool showed interest he would be foolish to leave Dortmund to join the English side.

If Borussia can hold onto its players - and more importantly its manager - the view from the top may become a familiar place for Dortmund beyond this season. But for the next five months at least, Dortmund can enjoy the lofty perch atop the Bundesliga.

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Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com.

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