Last season, Grasshopper Club had hit rock bottom – both off the pitch and on it. However, the Zurich side sit four points clear at the top of the Swiss Super League going into the winter break and a 28th title is within their reach.
Grasshoppers avoided a first relegation in 50 years last term when Neuchâtel Xamax FC were expelled from the league and FC Sion had 36 points deducted. Uli Forte's appointment as Ciriaco Sforza's successor in April brought no initial reprieve – just two points from his first seven games in charge did not instil many with the belief that Switzerland's most successful club would be mounting a championship challenge this season.
The combination of experienced players such as Swiss international Stéphane Grichting and youngsters like Izet Hajrović and Steven Zuber has enabled Forte's charges to triumph in 11 of their 18 matches and lead a chasing pack which includes FC Basel 1893, FC St Gallen and Sion. According to captain Veroljub Salatić, this blend of young and old has been central to their revival.
"The youthful dynamic of the team is what has made us strong," said the 27-year-old midfielder, whose side have also reached the quarter-finals of the Swiss Cup. "Our defence is primarily made up of experienced players and they hold the team together. The younger players are let off the leash and are allowed to make a mistake or two.
"When I look at Steven Zuber, I feel he has developed into one of the best attacking players in the league. Nassim Ben Khalifa is also thriving. We know we still have to keep a watchful eye on them, but a certain amount of freedom is important for their development. Another example is goalkeeper Roman Bürki, who we all know we can trust.
"However, when the younger players feel like fooling around or stuff like that, it's my duty to keep them in order," Salatić emphasised. "A good captain has to set standards and lead the way. That's why I always have to keep my eyes open and speak my mind when things don't go the way they should. The boys have to earn their stripes, like I did once."
While there is much to admire about Hajrović's technique – which has brought him six top-flight goals, including the winner in the derby against FC Zürich in the last game before the winter break – and fellow midfielder Zuber's athleticism, No1 Bürki was also keen to stress the importance of the collective over the individual.
"Our success is a team achievement," said the ever-present 22-year-old, who has conceded 17 goals in the league. "We work well defensively and I have my team-mates to thank for letting in so few goals this season. In a lot of matches, I didn't have that much work to do and if I did have a shot come my way, I was there to stop it.
"Stéphane Grichting is a very important player with his calm approach and vast experience. We have to thank the management for having signed players like him, centre-back Milan Vilotić and Salatić."
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