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Wolfsburg’s title-chasing dreams have descended into Bundesliga reality

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The crowd at Volkswagen Arena on Jan. 30, 2015, must’ve felt a part of collective, orgasmic dream. A quick counterattack gave Kevin De Bruyne ample time to slot through to Bas Dost, who netted Wolfsburg’s first before five minutes were up. Dost doubled his side’s lead just before the break with a lovely volley from the edge of the box. By the time Juan Bernat had the visitors on the board, De Bruyne had scored his own, and a second from the Belgian capped off the Wolves’ triumph. Wolfsburg had just handed Bayern Munich their first meaningful Bundesliga defeat in over two years, the 4-1 loss the only one since Oct. 2012 that had not come after the Bavarians had wrapped up the league title.

After such a statement, Wolfsburg had reason to go into September’s first meeting between the teams with confidence, even more so after Daniel Caligiuri put them out front. Come halftime, though, Pep Guardiola put on Robert Lewandowski, and all hell broke loose. Within nine minutes, not only had the forward scored the fastest hat trick in Bundesliga history, but he’d put home five goals, an absolutely sensational performance that left Wolfsburg in tatters. This time, last season’s German Cup winners, runners up in the Bundesliga who’d claimed the German Supercup on penalties the month before, were on the wrong end of the embarrassing scoreline, heading home with a 5-1 loss.

SEE MORE: It’s time to consider Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang an elite striker.

Now the two sides are about to meet again, this time on Tuesday in the German Cup, with Wolfsburg looking like a decidedly less confident side. When drawn in August, this match didn’t seem so unbalanced, even with Bayern coming off a 5-0 victory over Hamburger SV. Wolfsburg had just beaten Eintracht Frankfurt in their first match of the Bundesliga season, and while nobody predicted a serious challenge to Bayern’s title run, Volkswagen’s cash was expected to ensure another confident campaign, perhaps even a deep run in the Champions League.

On the surface, it doesn’t appear as though Wolfsburg have changed all that much. They sit fourth in the Bundesliga, while over in Europe they top their Champions League group. Dost is still scoring. Max Kruse, brought in from Borussia Mönchengladbach this summer, is settling in. Draxler is growing into that midfield hole, conducting play and taking plenty of chances.

Yet unlike last season, little is coming easy to this side. With De Bruyne having been lured to Manchester City, and Julian Draxler unable to fully fill the hole left behind, the goals that once came with relative ease now require persistence. Last season’s leaky defense was an endearing charm, but without the ability to knock in goals at will, such charm is fading, leaving behind surprising draws against Köln and Hannover. The first half of the Bayern loss shows this team still knows how to knock their opponents off-balance – the trouble is, they no longer seem to be able to recover when they themselves are disarmed.

Last season, Dost attracted plenty of attention, scoring 20 goals in all competitions, a number made all the more staggering considering he’d started just three Bundesliga matches before his impressive performance against Bayern. But as the then 25-year-old had never managed more than 12 in Germany, it was clear there was something else behind the numbers. De Bruyne, the pink-cheeked magician, was pulling all the strings in Wolfsburg’s midfield. Able to drop deep, run out wide, torment defenders and thread a perfect pass, De Bruyne was key to the way Dieter Hecking wanted his side to attack.

There’s no denying Wolfsburg were impressive last season, but the perception of them as an emerging power may benefited from their diminished competition. Borussia Dortmund spent the first half not competing for the title but rooted to the bottom of the table. Schalke 04 looked clueless under Roberto Di Matteo and struggled to even finish fifth. Even Bayer Leverkusen under Roger Schmidt was inconsistent enough to not trouble Wolfsburg. Yet even with those advantages, Wolfsburg’s form slipped, and they spent the end of the season fighting harder to keep Borussia Moenchengladbach from taking second than dislodging Bayern.

SEE MORE: A functional Schalke would solve the Bundesliga’s Bayern problem.

Enter this season. Gladbach took the Dortmund role, yet have fought back much quicker. BVB haven’t been perfect but strong enough to sit second. Schalke have done enough to earn third, even if their early ups and downs mean they may not remain in the top four. An impressively improved Hertha BSC might claim fourth from Wolfsburg, or a suddenly scoring Leverkusen may knock them down.

Even as Wolfsburg are keeping one eye on that competition at the top of the Bundesliga table, they’ve also got to watch their Champions League form. Group B, with Manchester United, PSV and CSKA Moscow, provided an easy draw, but should they move on to the next round, things are bound to get harder. Wolfsburg’s one tough European game, the loss to United, saw them draw the weekend before and lose their next Bundesliga match. What might happen in the case of a longer Champions League campaign?

What’s almost certain is that Volkswagen, embattled by scandal, won’t be stepping in to rescue them. This winter won’t see 30 million euros paid to Chelsea for the honor of fielding André Schürrle. It’s more likely that Wolfsburg won’t be able to resist offers for their own talents this winter. While the club has said Volkswagen won’t cut their budget, it’s difficult to imagine a company looking into any way to reduce costs would resist big bucks coming their way. Especially the sort of big bucks that a desperate Premier League club might pony up for, say, a forward that can score 20 goals in half a season. And if Volkswagen cuts back on Wolfsburg’s budget next season, even a top four finish this year won’t allow them to be competitive in the next. Rather than trying to patch up the leaks sprung from a De Bruyne-type absence, they’ll be trying to plug holes found all over the pitch.

So once again, we’re left mired in the Bundesliga’s biggest problem: there is simply no side that can continuously throw a wrench into Bayern’s total domination. That’s likely to be evident when the two sides meet Tuesday in the Cup, but it’s also going to be clear when the season ends with the Bavarians claiming the title 10 weeks early. Bayern Munich simply leave no room for error in league play, and as long as their competition is forced to part with their best players — or makes a wrong choice in their sporting director, or their manager’s tactics get figured out — it won’t be possible to disrupt the Bundesliga.

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