By Mark Bennett
Money may be tight at Bundesliga side VfL Bochum 1848, but this is not hampering their bid for a UEFA Cup place.
When coach Peter Neururer insisted that his team would be even stronger after the sale of 21-goal striker Thomas Christiansen to Hannover 96 last summer, there were smiles in some quarters. When he added: "We want to improve on last season and finish better than ninth," the coach was in danger of being laughed at.
However, with six games of the campaign remaining, the last laugh could yet be Neururer's. Following a goalless draw against league leaders SV Werder Bremen on Sunday, Bochum are fifth in the Bundesliga, and should they hold that position, they will qualify for the UEFA Cup for the first time since 1997.
A transfer budget of €800,000 last summer was hardly generous, and it surprised many when the coach chose to spend all his money on one player - Brøndby IF forward Peter Madsen. However, some judicious free signings saw Neururer lay the foundations for a successful squad.
Philipp Bönig, Mamadou Dianbang, Bjarni Gudjonsson, Miroslav Stevic and Thomas Zdebel were all brought in for nothing. "Some clubs prefer to pay a lot of money for players," explained the miserly coach. "We prefer to wait until we can get them on a free transfer."
Finishing the season above the traditional Ruhr giants of BV Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04 would be satisfaction enough for Bochum, but their 48-year-old trainer insists that the real proof of his side's quality would be a place in European competition.
We have had a very good season so far and it would be the icing on the cake if we could make it into the UEFA Cup," he said. "It would be further proof that everyone involved here is doing a very good job, but it is a bonus and not a necessity."
The only real disappointment of Bochum's season was an unpleasant incident after a 0-0 draw with FC Hansa Rostock in February, in which on-loan Sunday Oliseh allegedly headbutted his team-mate Vahid Hashemian. Oliseh was promptly dismissed, but Neurerer's bold 4-3-3 formation survived the Nigerian's departure.
Those tactics have left the club on target to equal their best-ever league finish of fifth under Klaus Toppmöller in 1996/97. Klaus Hilpert was the club's general manager at the time, and he has seen parallels between the two teams.
'Jump for joy'
"All of us enjoyed the 1996/97 season," he told uefa.com. "The atmosphere was great and even though we weren't the best side in the Bundesliga, we believed in ourselves. We played attacking football under Klaus Toppmöller and are doing the same now under Neururer. I wish them all the best and will jump for joy if they repeat the feat."
The only minor cloud on the horizon has come with the news last week that Iranian striker Hashemian, Bochum's top scorer with 14 goals, is to join FC Bayern München in the summer after the clubs agreed a €2m fee for the tall, powerful forward.
Such moves will come as no surprise to Bochum fans. The club have always had to sell to survive. And having improved after flogging their leading striker last summer, who can tell what positive effects selling their current hot shot could have on Bochum?
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