An eclectic, international squad has propelled Frankfurt to a position far above their financial means. They may have lost on Saturday, but this united team have what it takes to bounce back, writes Jonathan Harding.
"Getting into the Champions League would be like winning it for us," Eintracht Frankfurt chairman Fredi Bobic said to DW after his team's 3-0 loss to Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. On the basis of this performance, Frankfurt have a little more work to do before they join Europe's elite. But the fact the Champions League was even in the conversation tells its own story. And even in defeat, Niko Kovac's men retained the look of a unified, versatile team.
Frankfurt have drawn with Bayern Munich and beaten Borussia Dortmund this season – but Leverkusen on a wet Saturday afternoon was a step too far after going behind early. Kovac's team have performed at their best when in control of the game not chasing it, and that was no different at the Bay Arena.
Chicharito's second goal effectively ended the contest after an hour, but Frankfurt retained their structure before tiredness got the better of them. Alex Meier was a target man, but they also spread it wide and made the most of their 3-5-2 formation that included the overlapping Bastian Oczipka and Timothy Chandler.
Punching above their financial weight
"On the pitch, everyone speaks the same language and that's football. It's kind of a cliché answer but that's how it is," goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky said afterwards.
Their versatility was notable in comparison to their opposition, who, like them have for much of this season, appeared to rely on the individual speed and quality of their attackers rather than a cohesive collective plan. On the day, thankfully for Leverkusen, those players delivered.
"It's a nice season we're playing right now – even after the loss, that can happen. It's quite normal. I think their budget is three times more than ours," Bobic said afterwards. Leverkusen's squad is certainly more expensive than Frankfurt's – the third most expensive squad beat the fifth cheapest on Saturday – but, scoreline aside, it wasn't clear which was which from the football on show.
And that says a lot about this Frankfurt side. Their diversity – there are 16 different nationalities in the squad – has developed the team beyond even their own wildest dreams. "It's fantastic. I've never experienced anything like it," Hradecky added.
It hasn't always been easy for Frankfurt, who narrowly avoided relegation last year. "There were a lot of critics last July in our regional newspapers," says Bobic. "Everyone expected us to have a difficult season because we have so many nationalities. But you know in football, you only have one language. That's the good thing. If you see how much fun the guys have in the changing room, it's quite fantastic, especially in this crazy world right now where we're living. We are the opposite of that. This is the positive thing about sport. The color, the region or where you come from isn't important. You have one passion and it's football."
Looking further afield for signings
What a story it would be if Frankfurt could finish the season strongly and qualify for the Champions League. An unusual recruitment policy, one they were forced to take due to their own financial limitations, hasn't held this team back. Quite the opposite.
"German players are very expensive so we used our network, and scouting and brought some really interesting players here. We loaned a lot of players, and bought a few - young players, ambitious guys with good mentality. There's a lot of fun in the changing room," Bobic said.
That fun is clear to see. Even in defeat, Frankfurt's players retained their positive attitude. All acknowledged they hadn't done enough to win, but still smiled in the mixed zone. Even Niko Kovac – who was already running late – had enough time to wave and smile before saying "I can't stop, I'm on the highway."
They have Bayern, Dortmund and Leipzig still to play, but if Frankfurt keep up their sterling home form (still undefeated) and continue to do what many sides cannot do in the Bundesliga – namely beat sides below them in the table – then this special group will qualify for the Champions League.
Football is back at the top of the agenda in Frankfurt and Bobic thinks the club can serve as an example for a city where 28 percent of the 727,000 population hail from foreign shores.
"They could do, why not?" the former Germany striker replied with a grin. Many could soon be saying the same about the club's chances of finishing in the top four this season.