Wolfsburg's Zvjezdan Misimovic and Stuttgart's Thomas Hitzlsperger are near polar opposites as players. But they've been instrumental to their respective teams' remarkable comebacks in 2009.
For a player of such flamboyant passing skills, Wolfsburg's Zvjezdan Misimovic is surprisingly shy, almost introverted in interviews. It's sometimes hard to believe the 26-year-old Bosnian, who was born in Munich, has led the Wolves from ninth place at the winter break all the way to the top of the table.
While Wolfsburg's high-flying strikers Grafite and Edin Dzeko have grabbed most of the headlines, it's Misimovic who's been at the heart of the club's fantastic run. With 18 assists after the 30 rounds of play, he leads the Bundesliga by a mile in that category.
Currently valued at around 11 million euros ($14.6), the midfielder has built an international reputation despite the fact that, by his own admission, he has to compensate for a lack of pace.
"I know I'm not the fastest guy around but there are other players who aren't quick and still play at the highest European level," Misimovic told DW-TV. "I think you can overcome a lot mentally, if you're quicker to react and adjust. You can gain a couple of percent or a few milliseconds."
Few defenders in 2009 have been able to cope with Misimovic's bursts of inspiration, even though he plays a familiar role in the Wolves' attack.
A true number 10
Misimovic is classic playmaker, something of a dying breed in the Bundesliga these days, a field general who stays in the middle of the pitch and doles out passes to sprinting forwards. He also takes Wolfsburg's corners and free kicks.
"I think a number 10, i.e. a playmaker, always has to put himself in position to receive passes when his team has the ball and has to set up his teammates, especially the strikers," Misimovic said. "You have to read certain situations, spot the space that opens up and play the ball on quickly. Basically you set the tempo for the team."
Misimovic doesn't exactly play one-touch football -- it's more like no-touch-wasted football. Bayern Munich found this out in April, when they were thrashed by the Wolves 5-1.
Misimovic took the corner that led to Wolfsburg's first goal, and his precise curling pass from the midfield line toward Bayern's penalty area caught Dzeko in stride and created the third goal that broke Munich's back.
Bayern, who've suffered from a dearth of midfield creativity this season, must have been kicking themselves. Misimovic played four seasons with Munich's amateur and professional sides before being allowed to leave in 2004.
The man they call Der Hammer
If Misimovic's right foot is a precision tool, Thomas Hitzlsperger's left one is a powerful, blunt instrument - a jackhammer to be precise.
The 27-year-old Stuttgart midfielder has the hardest shot in the league - something Leverkusen's Rene Adler found out this February. Germany's No. 1 keeper appeared to flinch as Hitzlsperger pounded a 125-kilometer-per-hour screamer of a free kick into the net on route to a 4-2 away win for Stuttgart.
But when asked how he produces such velocity, Hitzlsperger himself is a bit at a loss.
"People, of course, could find out what's the best point to hit the ball, what's the best angle and the best way to take your leg back," Hitzlsperger told DW-TV. "But that's way too scientific. I've never delved into it. I just practiced and developed a certain feeling for it."
There's a faint trace of English in Hitzlsperger's German, the result, no doubt, of the four seasons he spent playing for Aston Villa in the English Premier League, where fans nicknamed him "Der Hammer."
Hitzlsperger's physical style of play, too, bears the hallmarks of English football, where referees are more forgiving than in Germany. The Stuttgart midfielder is less a strategist than a marauding free agent, separating opponents from the ball and capable of launching ballistic missiles from anywhere over the midfield line.
Stuttgart finished 10th last December but have crept up to fourth after 30 rounds of play. Their second-half rise in the table is reminiscent of the 2006-7 season, when the southern German side came from nowhere to win the league.
Stuttgart are currently five points off the lead, compared to four at the same point in the season two years ago. Back then, Hitzlsperger scored two goals in the four final games - both of which sparked comeback wins for his team.
Those are memories Stuttgart's fans - and Hitzlsperger himself - gladly revisit.
"When you go to bed and dream about football, I think a lot of us dream of scoring the decisive goal in a final," Hitzlsperger said. "And that came pretty close. It was the last day of the season, a must-win game, and we were a goal down - and I blasted one in."
Der Hammer's rugged intensity and ability to produce something from nothing has also been one of the main factors in Stuttgart's current resurgence.
And regardless of whether Wolfsburg or Stuttgart cap off their comebacks with a league title, the second half of 2008-9 shows what an impact a top midfielder can have - whether his specialty is finesse or brute force.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Chuck Penfold