Ali ponders whether Darmstadt's great Bundesliga story could be coming to an end...
Without being unnecessarily negative, it doesn't look great for Darmstadt 98 going into the new season. The minnows, who Axel is constantly raving about after their dramatic climb into the Bundesliga, face an incredibly tough second season in Germany's top flight. The Bundesliga is well-known for being unsympathetic to minnows (hello, SC Paderborn), even ones with grit and determination. Survival last season was earned thanks to the goals of Sandro Wagner and the tactical nous of trainer Dirk Schuster. The problem? Neither of them are still at Darmstadt, with Wagner plumbing for his "dream move" to Hoffenheim (...?) and Schuster being slightly less smarmy upon his move to Bavarian surprise package FC Augsburg.
Darmstadt, seemingly in an attempt to maintain their status as the minnowiest of minnows, currently only have a squad of 20, including two loanees: Felix Platte and Antonio Colak, from Schalke 04 and Hoffenheim respectively. Platte is a young striker with plenty of talent, unsurprisingly allowed to go out on loan to get playing time with stars such as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Franco di Santo and new signing Breel Embolo ahead of him in the Königsblau packing order. He could pick up at least some of the Wagner slack and could be a real asset for them over the course of the season. There is also the small matter of captain, stalwart and model pro Aytac Sulu, who has been a fantastic player for the club. The fact they have managed to keep hold of him speaks volumes about his dedication to the club, not demanding a move higher up the table in the manner of Wagner, who has soured his time in Hessen by being so outspoken about wanting to play at a higher level and then moving to Hoffenheim...
Anyway, Sulu will be absolutely crucial if Darmstadt are to survive, but second season syndrome could well strike the brave little club, despite a positive move in bringing in experienced trainer Norbert Meier from Arminia Bielefeld. Meier has plenty of experience in the 2. Bundesliga, potentially indicating that even Darmstadt have one eye on the trapdoor and are looking for a man who can certainly lead them in the second division, even if he can't quite perform miracles in the first. Meier had a successful playing career with Werder Bremen and West Germany, so knows his way around top level competition too: a shrewd appointment from the Darmstadt board which could just save them from the drop. If it doesn't they would appear to be in safe hands in the second division.
A weak squad, a trainer untested at this level and the loss of their main goal threat doesn't mean that Darmstadt will be heading down as a certainty. There is another remaining positive from last season: Marcel Heller, the lively winger, had a strong debut Bundesliga season after a long career traversing the lower leagues and has stayed in Hessen in the hope of inspiring his team to another miraculous survival. With the help of Sulu, the two experienced stars of the side will be hoping to show how staying in the Bundesliga can be achieved two seasons running against all the odds. If there is one thing that won't be lacking from Darmstadt's season it will be determination and fighting to the last game.
They may well go down, but it will be with more fight and certainly with more glory than the pathetic collapse of Hannover 96 or the impotent VfB Stuttgart from last season. Sadly, I fear fight may not be enough.
Key Player: Aytac Sulu
Undoubtedly the star man, especially after Wagner's inglorious departure, the Turkish centre back will be the rock around which the side will build their fort. He was superb last year and will be hoping to continue that form into the new season.
Surprise Player: Felix Platte
As a Schalke fan, I am excited by the prospect of Platte getting regular first team football. The youngster will benefit from Darmstadt's direct style too given his height. After a couple of impressive cameos in Schalke blue he will be looking to break through this season and establish himself. At 20, his time is now.
Ali's Prediction: 18th
Axel's Prediction: 18th
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