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Resurgent Gladbach will present Bayern Munich with a stern test

The Bundesliga’s Friday fixture is an eye catcher, as Borussia Monchengladbach host champions Bayern Munich (2:20 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae believes Gladbach’s return to prominence in recent years represents a true feelgood story in German football.

People familiar with this commentator will know that as someone who has more than a soft spot for the cathedral city of Cologne and all things Kolsch, I’m supposed to have enmity towards the local club’s true football rivals. That would be Borussia Monchengladbach, a club full of history and tradition less than an hour’s drive away.

The truth of the matter is that I actually have nothing but respect for the club’s ingrained tradition. Some of my most enjoyable days at German football venues have been spent in the underrated Niederrhein region, whether at the chaotic old Bokelberg, wide open to the wind and the rain as it was, or the modern Borussia Park, located in the green fields to the southwest of the Monchengladbach city centre. They are friendly folk to watch football with, and fans of the Foals know following them is not a task for the passive or half-hearted.

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In Monchengladbach, you are always conscious of a living, breathing football history focusing on the giddy 1970s, when greats like Gunter Netzer, Jupp Heynckes, Berti Vogts and Rainer Bonhof starred in a considerable and entertaining show. Five Meisterschale trophies, two UEFA Cup wins and an appearance in the 1977 European Cup final, where they lost to Liverpool, speak to an astonishing decade of success.

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Like many similar provincial clubs across Europe, a fallower period ensued. As a young student, I recall being glued to a television set in eastern Hessen in 1984 as Gladbach went toe to toe with Bayern, only to lose on penalties. In an important piece of symbolism, Borussia’s star player Lothar Matthaus missed in the shootout, his final act before leaving to join the Munich club.

It almost seemed to usher in years of relative decline. By the late ’90s and into the early 2000s, the Fohlenelf had devolved, to use the wonderful German word, into a Fahrstuhlmannschaft (literally, “a team going up and down an elevator”). Bouncing from the top division to the 2. Bundesliga had become commonplace.

One of the club’s players during this troubled period was a Bavarian right-back who had come through the Bayern Munich youth ranks, but failed to make the grade. Max Eberl served Gladbach for the last six years of his on-pitch career before looking after youth and amateur football matters for the Fohlen. By 2008, he had been appointed sporting director, and with a keen eye for a player and a pleasant-but-determined manner, got to work restoring the fortunes of this proud club.

Recently, Eberl’s contract was extended until 2026. Coaches have come and gone, but the wily Eberl has been the fixture throughout as Gladbach have booked a Champions League place four times in the past eight years. There have been various flirtations with his old club Bayern, but you sense both Eberl and Gladbach know they are good for each other.

Nearly two years ago, Eberl made what proved to be a masterstroke of a decision, yet one that carried some risk. Dieter Hecking had been a solid coach for more than two years with the Foals, but Eberl announced in April 2019 that no new contract would be offered to the highly respected tactician. Instead, Eberl wanted a bolder, faster, more power-based pressing style, and needed a fresh mind to implement it. Enter Marco Rose, a German who had worked with a similar approach at FC Salzburg in Austria, and who had been linked with various Bundesliga clubs. Gladbach believed by acting quickly they could get their man, and they did.

The main goals were to use this new Rose-infused football to improve the substance and clinch a Champions League place for 2020-21, which they did, at the expense of Bayer Leverkusen in a race that went down to the wire. Gladbach had never reached the knockout stages of the modern form of Europe’s premier club competition, but Rose put that right this season, perhaps against the odds in a challenging group consisting of Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk. Now they can take a swing at Manchester City in the round of 16 next month.

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It would be fair to say Borussia’s determination to take a giant step on the continental stage was to the detriment of their league form. Performances have been patchy and incomplete, understandably given the burden of having to cram games into a much narrower window than usual. Only fleetingly have Gladbach played to their real potential in the Bundesliga. Too many points have been frittered away with late concessions, such as against Augsburg, when they drew, and Hoffenheim when they contrived to lose from a winning position.

Keeper Yann Sommer hasn’t been his usual commanding self, Marcus Thuram’s performances have tailed off and is currently serving a ban for spitting at Stefan Posch, while midfield energiser Denis Zakaria has taken time to bounce back from a long-term knee injury.

Not everyone has been below par, though. Matthias Ginter remains one of the steadiest defenders in the Bundesliga and Florian Neuhaus with his midfield dynamism and goal threat is one of Germany’s most improved players. Higher up, captain Lars Stindl is more than standing the test of time, while Jonas Hofmann is another who has dazzled when fit — it was he who exquisitely set up Breel Embolo’s winner in Bielefeld last week.

Beating Bayern at the Borussia Park is something Gladbach did as recently as last season, before the Rekordmeister went on their otherworldly charge to an eighth straight title. Ramy Bensebaini, who showed nerves of steel to dispatch the 92nd-minute penalty winner on that occasion, is unlikely to start as he continues his recovery from COVID-19. Definitely out is Valentino Lazaro due to a muscular problem, but Alassane Plea could give Rose an additional option in attack from the outset.

Can Borussia overcome Bayern? In the ’70s, that question was always answered in the affirmative when the sides locked horns. Hoffenheim have emphatically this season, and others have come close, scoring first against the champions in eight successive Bundesliga games. Gladbach are well capable of making a dent. We’re in for a fascinating Friday.

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