By Andreas Alf
Traditionally, newly promoted Bundesliga sides can expect a season of struggle against relegation. However, despite a 2-1 defeat against FC Schalke 04 at the weekend, new boys 1. FSV Mainz 05 have been showing Germany's biggest sides what attacking football and young, enthusiastic players can achieve.
Overshadowed in terms of footballing heritage by neighbours 1. FC Kaiserslautern and Eintracht Frankfurt, Mainz have outshone both sides this season. Sunday's defeat brought an end to a seven-match unbeaten run which had culminated in a 2-1 win against reigning champions Werder Bremen.
"It is unbelievable," said coach Jürgen Klopp, who was taken off guard by his side's successes following their 2-0 win against Bayer 04 Leverkusen in their fourth game of the season. General manager Christian Heidel added: "It seems that golden stars are dropping down on us all the time. It gives me the creeps!"
With German pundits confidently predicting that Mainz's bubble would burst sooner rather than later, the win against Bremen came as a shock. And while the Schalke defeat may have dampened supporters' ardour a little, Klopp still has enormous faith in his players.
"We are strong enough to beat any team," he said. "
With our style of playing we torture our opponents until they get tired of fighting." It is a strange claim but one which is in line with the club's unorthodox philosophy. As Heidel said: "We aim to be different to other clubs."
The last three seasons saw Mainz denied promotion twice before scraping up to the Bundesliga with a third-place finish in 2003/04. "We suffered together, but we always continued to respect each other," explained Heidel. "As a result, we can celebrate together now."
And Mainz have certainly been playing like they are enjoying themselves. A speedy passing side, the key to their success has been the tireless Brazilian Antonio da Silva and his playmaking midfield partner, Mimoun Azaouagh. "No other side work as hard as we do," explained Azaouagh. "But we are skilful, too."
Points to prove
No one who has seen them in action will doubt that, but as Heidel explained, part of that work ethic comes from having plenty of players who have a point to prove. "We refuse to sign big players - that is not our philosophy," Heidel said. "Instead, we give players who failed at other clubs a second chance."
Players like Azaouagh and Da Silva both failed to make the grade at Eintracht while former German Under-21 international Benjamin Auer could not break into the first team at VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach. All three have become major players at Mainz, with Auer scoring the winner against Bremen.
"My boys can be really proud of their display," said the 37-year-old Klopp after that match. "I trust my players. They appreciate, that we offered them their second chance. Now, they are repaying us for the trust we put in them."
After the weekend defeat and Tuesday night's results, Mainz have slipped down to sixth place in the table, but for a few days, they had the honour of leading German giants FC Bayern München in the race for the Bundesliga title.
"We do not care about the table as long as Bayern are behind us," jokes Heidel at the time. They are now five points adrift of Felix Magath's team, but with a will that can move mountains, Mainz could be lording it over the giants again before too long.
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