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Hoffenheim Bolster Title Bid with Keeper Hildebrand

They're top of table but not resting on their laurels. DW's Jefferson Chase says Hoffenheim have made one of the acquisitions they need to challenge Bayern Munich for the league championship.

Stuttgart's Timo Hildebrand, punches away the ball

Hildebrand plugs Hoffenheim's one real hole

Hoffenheim and Hildebrand make a great fit, to judge from the keeper's and his new coach's remarks at a press conference on Wednesday, December 10, when his signing was officially announced.

"I want to start again in Hoffenheim and find my way back to my previous top form," Hildebrand told journalists. "And Hoffenheim's overall model completely convinced me."

"For me, he's an ideal keeper," said Hoffenheim coach Ralf Rangnick. "He's got a strong personality and, among keepers, he's probably the best on the football."

Hildebrand won the Bundesliga title with Stuttgart in 2007 before transferring to Spanish side Valencia. But his Spanish tenure was joyless, and the former German national drifted down in the hierarchy to third choice, and a permanent spot on the bench, before being given permission to leave on a free transfer.

The move also drew the praise of Germany coach Joachim Loew, who dropped Hildebrand from his squad for Euro 2008.

"After twisting in the wind the last few months in Valencia, he's now going to a coach who's counting on him," Loew said told the sid sports news agency. "In general, it's important for a player to know that."

No longer missing piece

Vedad Ibisevic celebrates scoring

First-division debutantes Hoffenheim have been the story of the season

Before Hildebrand can mount a campaign to return to his national side, though, he'll be trying to win a title with his new club. And with Hildebrand minding the back, Hoffenheim may be in a position to do just that.

Goal has been the one weak spot in Hoffenheim's otherwise spotless starting eleven. As Hoffenheim's narrow 2-1 loss to Bayern last week showed, keeper Daniel Haas was never likely to be much more than adequate.

Haas was not to blame for Luca Toni's last-second game-winner, although it could be argued that a bigger or more experienced keeper might have been able to deflect that shot away from goal.

More worrisome was Haas' tendency to stay rooted to his line after crosses and set pieces. Toni had a number of close-range headers in the second half of that match, including one from three meters out after a free kick that the keeper should have been able to pluck down.

In the 29-year-old Hildebrand, Hoffenheim get someone both athletic and experienced to mind the posts and maintain air superiority in the penalty area. Hildebrand still holds the Bundesliga record for most consecutive minutes without conceding a goal.

Hildebrand's contract runs until 2010 and reunites him with Rangnick, the coach who gave him his first-ever Bundesliga start, also at Stuttgart.

Work to be done

Stuttgart's Ricardo Osorio from Mexico, countryman Pavel Pardo and Timo Hildebrand, from left to right, celebrate with the German soccer championship trophy

Hilde and Hoffe hope for more "Ole, Ole's" at the end of this season

But Hoffenheim probably need more than just Hildebrand, if they want to give Munich a run for the title.

As was evident in last Friday's match, Hoffenheim's starting eleven is every bit as good as Bayern's, making up for what little they may lack in individual talent with fantastic passing and intelligent positional play.

But league titles in soccer are won not by starting elevens, but by squads. And Hoffenheim's lack of depth made itself felt as the second half waned on, contributing directly to Bayern's equalizer as the visitors' young legs appeared to grow tired.

The current league leaders would thus be well advised to acquire a couple of veteran, defensively oriented midfielders in order to be able to close out tight matches.

If they do that, and Hildebrand does indeed return to form between the posts, there is no reason why Hoffenheim can't top the table in late May.

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