The sky's the limit for Bundesliga's surprise package Leipzig
Leipzig coach Hasenhuttl tells TNP in an exclusive interview that the sky's the limit for his surprise outfit
|RB LEIPZIG||BAYERN MUNICH|
Germany's "most hated club" could soon conceivably become its absolute ruler.
RB Leipzig may not yet boast the honour roll or even the history that Bayern Munich continue to impose upon the Bundesliga, but their time at the top is fast appearing on the horizon.
The ascent of this season's surprise package in the Bundesliga has been nothing short of meteoric, rising through the country's football pyramid to challenging at its pinnacle in the space of just eight seasons.
Even those within the East German club, who lie second in the Bundesliga on 66 points, 10 behind champions Bayern and six ahead of third-placed Borussia Dortmund, have been amazed by their growth.
"When I came to Leipzig, I expected the club to do what we're now doing maybe in my third or fourth season," Brazilian midfielder Bernardo, who joined Leipzig in January last year, told The New Paper in an exclusive interview.
"When I arrived here and saw the level of the players, I was confident that we could do something bigger."
At just 21, Bernardo is still arguably better positioned than most within Leipzig to judge their remarkable success.
Both a graduate and stalwart of Red Bull's football stable, the midfielder has seen the inner mechanisms of the energy drink's global expansion into the game.
A career which started out in his native Brazil, at youth and first-team level, led to a seven-month spell with Red Bull Salzburg. But Salzburg's place in the Red Bull food chain has dwindled with the emergence of Leipzig.
Franz Beckenbauer will no doubt rue how, in 2006, he inadvertently put his beloved Bayern on an eventual collision course with Dietrich Mateschitz's well-heeled operation.
It was a recommendation from Germany's iconic World Cup-winning captain to the billionaire co-founder of Red Bull, a personal friend, that led to the creation of a new club through the playing licence of SSV Markranstadt, a fifth-division team based in the greater Saxony region.
Circumventing the country's regulations on football club branding through their official name of RasenBallsport, Leipzig have made tentative strides towards their current assault on the traditional running order of the Bundesliga.
Five promotions in seven previous seasons were derived from principles of recruiting promising young players under the age of 23 to execute a fervent pressing philosophy.
Not every one, though, has bought into their overnight success story due to their Red Bull links.
As a club in their infancy and out of step with the grassroots nature of Germany's "50+1" ownership model, Leipzig continue to stand accused of being devoid of a genuine identity.
Hostility has still been a recurring theme in Leipzig's formative years, both at home and on their travels, but this season's leap into the German top flight has seen protests from their contemporaries intensified.
Dynamo Dresden fans flung a severed bull's head from the stands during their German Cup win over Leipzig last August, while Cologne supporters delayed a Bundesliga kick-off by blockading the road as the Bulls' coach approached their stadium.
Worse followed as Dortmund were fined and forced to apologise when a minority of their followers took their anti-franchise protest in February's game at Signal Iduna Park a step too far and attacked visiting supporters outside the stadium with bottles.
AGGRESSIVE YOUTH POLICY
"As a club, we dealt with it really well and, at the end, the decisive thing is what happens on the pitch," said Leipzig's Hungarian goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi.
"The only thing we can do is play football and prove that it helps German football to be successful. When we do that, for sure, this opinion will change."
Those perceptions are already being both shifted and shaped by their aggressive youth policy.
Under coach Ralph Hasenhuettl, the production line which originally began with Joshua Kimmich - who will face his former club when they take on Bayern tonight - has been elevated this season.
Forward Timo Werner, 21, signed from relegated Stuttgart last summer, is already on course to finish as the Bundesliga's highest-scoring home-grown player (19 goals) this season as well as comfortably taking the title as the leading player under the age of 21 across all of Europe's top five leagues.
"Of course we benefit from Timo's speed and goals. But he also benefits from us and our style of football," Hasenhuttl told TNP.
"The way he uses his speed to get into the right spaces at the right time is incredible. However, it is really the whole team that make Timo and every one better every day.
"We push one another to the next level and each player is willing to learn.
"As I can see it in every training session, the team have not reached their limit yet and that is very exciting to see."
Swede winger Emil Forsberg has provided a perfect foil for Werner and others at Leipzig, with only Manchester City's Kevin de Bruyne remotely close to his 16 assists.
In midfield, Guinean midfielder Naby Keita has regularly caught the eye of Europe's elite with a hand in 16 goals to date.
"In general, that shows the philosophy of our club. Our scouting department does a really good job," said Gulacsi, whose career started at Liverpool.
"We are not 30-million-euro players. We were bought and often educated by the club.
"It looks like we've found the right player for every position and we just make one another stronger. That's one of the keys of our success."
With their status as Bundesliga runners-up virtually secured, the real challenge to Leipzig's burgeoning crop is set to begin both at home and as Champions League newcomers next season.
"It will be another huge challenge for us," admitted Hasenhuettl, on competing in the Champions League.
"This season, almost all of our players had no experience playing in the Bundesliga. The Champions League will be new to most of them, too. However, I see exciting times ahead of us."