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Sense of entitlement wins out in the Champions League

The German football clubs showed once again that league form has little if any bearing on how a team fares in European competition. Somehow experience and more than a little good fortune won out for the German sides.

Bayern and Cluj players fight for the ball

Bayern's famous luck came to their rescue against Cluj

The Champions League is a different ball game for different teams. For those struggling in the domestic campaign, it can either offer the chance to get a much-needed fillip in a different environment, or else it's an unwelcome distraction for teams determined to shore up their ailing sides. Attitude is everything. When sides are below par at home, their approach to their European duties is a good measure of their ambition.

All three German teams in this season's Champion League are struggling in the Bundesliga. The best-placed of them, Bayern Munich, is currently in 10th spot in the table - with 11 points from eight games - basically an unendurable humiliation for Germany's mega-club.

A place below them languish Werder Bremen - with the same points to games ratio, but leaking goals at an alarming rate. Only one team - Borussia Moenchengladbach in 15th - can offer a more pathetic defensive record.

But Werder's domestic troubles are envied by Germany's other representative in the Europe's major competition - Schalke 04. With eight games gone, and big name signings like Raul failing to spark, Schalke are looking up at their rivals from the relegation zone, five defeats and one win to their name.

Schalke's Raul, center, celebrates scoring with Jose Manuel Jurado

Raul showed he still had it against Hapoel Tel Aviv

Different attitudes

But the differing performances of the three stricken 'giants' of German football in the latest round of Champions League group games are telling. While all three can at least point to consistent appearances in Europe's top competition in the last few years, only one team showed enough sense of entitlement to defy current form.

Bayern were unconvincing, to say the least, in Tuesday's 3-2 victory over their Romanian guests CFR Cluj. Cluj scored the first three goals of the game - the only trouble being that two of them were at their own end, and Bayern limped to the interval with a 2-1 advantage.

They re-grouped in the second half, and managed to extend the fortuitous lead through Mario Gomez, who - if media hype is to be believed - has apparently turned his entire career around with two good performances and four goals in two games. But while the Romanians piled on the pressure in the last few minutes - scoring one more to set up a precarious finish - it was Bayern who came out on top. Of course. That's three wins out of three and a place in the knock-out stage virtually assured. Thank you very much.

Champions League veteran turns it on for Schalke

Schalke's 3-1 victory over Israeli champions Hapoel Tel Aviv, on the other hand, can only be described adequately with that beautiful German expression, the Befreiungsschlag - literally, the 'liberating blow.'

With the pressure mounting after their miserable Bundesliga form, it was already obvious before the game that the team saw this as a potential confidence-booster. Though manager Felix Magath was careful to respect Hapoel's nothing-left-to-lose threat, his players focussed on how this match could influence domestic form.

"This is a different competition where we're in a good position after the win against (Benfica) Lisbon," said goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. "We have to build on that and gain confidence for the league."

Christoph Metzelder made the priorities even clearer.

"At the moment, it's all about freeing ourselves in the Bundesliga, and nothing else," the newly-signed defender said in a pre-match interview. "That is more important than the Champions League."

Magath's comments after the comfortable victory - in which Hapoel played neatly but never threatened the Germans - were a mixture of elation, relief and defensiveness. "The win gives all who have criticized us a sign that we can play good football. We didn't only change the players this summer, but also our style of play too, and that's difficult," the manager said in the post-match press conference.

And it was the former Real Madrid star Raul - with three winner's medals, the one man in Schalke's squad who can claim a real sense of entitlement when it comes to international club competitions - who provided the necessary injection of brilliance. Besides giving Schalke the win, his accomplished brace lifted him above AC Milan's Filippo Inzaghi to become the European Cup's top goal-scorer, with 70. Now Schalke will dare to dream that he can add to his solitary goal in the Bundesliga.

Goalkeeper injury overshadows Bremen draw

Rasmus Bengtsson, left, of FC Twente battles for the ball with Hugo Almeida of Bremen

Bremen scrambled a crucial point in the dying minutes against FC Twente

Schalke have a great chance to advance in Europe, but Werder Bremen are staring at the ignominy of finishing at the bottom of their group, after only managing a 1-1 draw away to Dutch champions FC Twente. The result leaves them with two points from three games, let down as ever by their defense.

In a group that contains the European champions, Inter Milan, and the high-flying Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur, you'd imagine that their European ambitions are limited. But Werder have taken the hard path to the knockout stages before - most notably in 2005-06, when they lost three of their six matches and scraped past Udinese on a goal difference of 0 to finish second in the group.

With this experience no doubt in mind, Bremen fought hard for what could be a crucial point in Enschede, after losing their goalkeeper Tim Wiese to a knee injury in the first half, and the players remained bullish after the game.

"We have three games left, two of which are at home," said captain Torsten Frings. "We have to win those, and we're always good for a point away."

Second-placed Tottenham are well-within striking distance, only two points ahead with nine to play for. Assuming Werder beat Twente at home on Nov. 2, the trip to London on Nov. 24 could well be the deciding fixture. Bremen will be hoping that that sliver of extra European experience over first-timers Tottenham will be enough to tip the scales in their favor.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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