x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

From minnows to dream teams

Hoffenheim v Hull could be a realistic Champions League tie if the two clubs can maintain form in their respective leagues.

LONDON // Imagine Hoffenheim v Hull in next season's Champions League final. If that sounds laughable, take a look at the league standings in Germany and England. Playing top-flight football for the first time after meteoric rises through their domestic leagues, the surprise teams of the Bundesliga and Premier League are among the title contenders and showing no signs of slowing down.

Hoffenheim, from a town with a population of 3,300, leads the Bundesliga after a 3-0 victory over previous leader Hamburg on Saturday. A victory at Bochum tonight in front of 25,000 fans will keep "Hoffe" on top. Hull, in England's top division for the first time in a 104-year history, have four away victories - including one over Arsenal. The club from a grimy fishing port on the east coast of England is still among the Premier League pacesetters after nine games of the season.

Although they are three points behind Liverpool, the Tigers will hold no fear when they host Chelsea tonight and they go to defending champions Manchester United on Saturday. "If you get 20 points from nine games you are going to be somewhere near the top," said Hull manager Phil Brown, who is trying to enjoy this unprecedented success while staying realistic about the team's long-term chances. "We have now got a couple of massive games on the horizon and we have earned the right to go into them and to give a good account of ourselves, instead of everyone classing us as whipping boys.

"It is Champions League form but that is what it is, form. That is temporary." Brown was a virtual unknown before his team, who were last of the 92 English league clubs 10 years ago, gained promotion to the Premier League through last season's play-off final - thanks to a goal by the 39-year-old striker Dean Windass. Now Brown is being touted as one the best young managers around and a possible future England coach.

Hoffenheim coach Ralf Rangnick is considered one of the best tacticians in German football and has some unusual methods of conditioning his players. He has made boxing and fencing part of the routine and, during the build up to Sunday's game against Hamburg, took his players ten-pin bowling. Like Hull, Hoffenheim started the campaign among the relegation favourites. But Rangnick said after Sunday's win: "Of course I don't think we will be relegated with this team.

"The quality of the youngsters is obvious but they shouldn't believe everything they read in the newspaper." Hoffenheim's rise to the top was even quicker than Hull's, climbing from the third to the top league with two promotions in a row. Club backer Dietmar Hopp, who is one of Germany's wealthiest people, invested ?150 million (Dh690m) in the club. Rangnick has avoided signing big stars, preferring to maintain harmony within the squad with young players assembled through the team's scouting system. Bosnian striker Vedad Ibisevic has scored 10 of Hoffenheim's league-high 24 goals. The squad has three Brazilians as well as Nigeria's Chinedu Obasi, who helped his country reach the Olympic final in Beijing.

Hull also have a Brazilian, Geovanni, a former Barcelona and Benfica player whose move to the modest club was greeted with a combination of amazement and amusement because of the city's grim appearance. Geovanni has been one of the revelations of the season with his long-range shooting, and his four goals have helped the Tigers to their lofty third-place position. Hull's high position is an ideal rebuttal to proposals that the Premier League should be a closed shop with no promotion and relegation from the lower leagues.

If that happened, clubs like Hull could only dream of winning at Arsenal and then visiting Manchester United four days after hosting Chelsea. But the Tigers are roaming the upper reaches of the Premier League and scaring even the biggest clubs while Hoffe are looking down on everyone else in the Bundesliga. The usual contenders - Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburg, Stuttgart, Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin, Schalke and Borussia Dortmund - fill the next seven spots.

Hull and Hoffenheim are flying the flag for the dreamers. They probably won't stay up near the top to qualify for next season's Champions League, and domestic titles likely will go to one of the traditional contenders. But the fact they are there at this stage of the season gives hope to all the lower league teams striving to get into the top flight. Who knows? They may meet in next year's Uefa Cup.

* AP