Under Dieter Hecking, Borussia Mönchengladbach hope to become a force in German football again. DW speaks to Oscar Wendt about the club's hopes of setting themselves apart from the chasing pack and qualify for Europe.
Since their great escape in the relegation playoff in 2011, Gladbach haven't looked back.
The Foals have not finished lower than eighth in the Bundesliga and in each of the last three seasons they've been in European competition. With five games remaining, they are ninth and have the chance to qualify for Europe once more. Under the leadership of coach Dieter Hecking, they're out to prove they are a German team Europe should take seriously again.
Known for their fluid attacking play, Gladbach have done well to keep their Jekyll and Hyde act a secret for so long. Failure to qualify for European competition would be a nightmare for the Bundesliga's fifth-most expensive squad, something Swedish left-back Oscar Wendt does his best to avoid admitting.
"Nightmare? I don't know. It depends on how the season ends. If we feel we gave it our all and we couldn't do better then maybe we will feel differently, but I mean it's vital for us,” Wendt tells me after midweek training.
In flip-flops and suddenly wishing he had shaved when he sees the camera, the 31-year-old is as relaxed as he sounds. Mahmoud Dahoud is one of the biggest talents he has ever seen, watching the NFL and the NBA provide a welcome break from his football life and he isn't surprised that fellow Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still scoring goals at 35. "He's the best number nine in Europe in the last 15 years.” In the last six, Wendt has been a Gladbach player and he knows better than most what this club has become in that time – and how bumpy the ride has been.
Last season, Gladbach lost their first five games. "You can't explain why. I think that's also a little bit to do with the charm about football,” Wendt says. Gladbach's "charm” continued this campaign, when they picked up just six points between matchday six and 16. It was a run that cost Andre Schubert his job.
"At the end, the last four or five games of the season before Christmas I think the fear of losing was bigger than the will to win,” Wendt says.
Since Dieter Hecking's arrival, Gladbach haven't had any trouble winning, collecting the same number of points (22) as Leipzig. "We just the pushed the reboot button and started from the beginning, started to work more on the basics and fundamentals of our team, because we know with the ball in offense we are almost always good,” Wendt says.
Time away from football proved timely, particularly for Gladbach's then-frail mind. "The winter break has always been more important to rest your mental health and your head more than your body because your body will recover because we've been training all our lives,” Wendt says.
Despite losing players, Gladbach have continued to give themselves a chance (Max Eberl really is fantastic at recruiting talent). "Most of the players who come here used to play for other German clubs and they always talk about the atmosphere in the team and how friendly we are with each other, how easy it is as a new player to come to us. I think the atmosphere and the team spirit we have is really something special,” Wendt says.
Now, Cologne's arch-rivals are part of a four-team group that have spent the best part of the last five years trying to cement themselves in Germany's top four. While the Bundesliga has sprung some surprises this season, Gladbach look set to be the only one of the group left standing.
Going back the same six years since Gladbach's resurgence and Wendt's arrival, Bayer Leverkusen haven't finished lower than fifth, Schalke haven't finished lower than sixth since the 14th-placed disaster six years ago and Wolfsburg have had finishes in the last six seasons ranging from 15th in 2011 to second in 2015. This season, Leverkusen have paid the price for Roger Schmidt's gung-ho approach, Schalke are struggling to adjust to new faces and Wolfsburg remains an expensive mess.
Gladbach have a real chance to stand out, and somewhat ironically, under the man who led Wolfsburg to that second-placed finish - and German Cup win - two years ago.
"He has a lot of experience. You could really sense that from his first day when he walked in the dressing room," Wendt says of Hecking.
"He had a long talk the first day, about himself at first and what he expects from us, and a little bit about the situation and how we're going to succeed from our position at that time in the league. Just you know, calm, and experienced, no stress, methodically. He knew quite fast where we needed to improve and he gave us the time and the right instruments to solve those problems."
"I mean he's hard and fair in trainings and games, but he's also a very funny guy. I don't think a lot of people expect that, but he's serious when he needs to be, jokes a lot when there's opportunity for that as well. The experience of being a Bundesliga coach for so many years and being with different teams is something you can really see. I think he was the perfect man for the job at the right time.”
Gladbach's time is approaching. Hosting Dortmund will be a tough ask on Matchday 30, but with Mainz, Augsburg, Wolfsburg and Darmstadt to finish, it is safe to say Europe is on. "It would be a shame if we didn't play internationally because we really do belong in those top six spots in the Bundesliga,” Wendt says.
It is time for someone other than Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund to fly the flag for Germany in Europe at this stage of the season. There's no reason why Gladbach can't be that club once more.