DAVID SHONFIELD: Leipzig now the German Leicester City?

It could only happen in England, they said, and of course it could never happen again.

Yet six months after Leicester astonished us all, RB Leipzig is the new name at the top of the German Bundesliga.

It’s no fluke. With a 4-1 win against Freiburg at the weekend, Leipzig confirmed their position, three points ahead of Bayern Munich. Borussia Dortmund, the other usual contenders, trail them by nine. Leipzig are the only unbeaten side in the league.

Like Leicester last season, Leipzig have seemingly risen from nowhere. Not seemingly in fact, because the club was only formed in 2009 and this is their first season in the top-flight.

That sounds a little fishy and it is, starting with the name of the club.

The RB formally stands for RasenBallsport, literally ‘lawn ball sport’, but this is simply a device to evade German football regulations that prevent clubs using brand and business names.

In reality they are an offshoot of Red Bull, the Austrian energy drink company who rely heavily on their branded sports teams (New York Red Bulls, Red Bull Racing etc) for marketing.

Seven years ago Red Bull created RB Leipzig by buying the playing licence of Markranstadt a small-town side in the fifth tier of German football.

Their name is just one of the tricks they have used to get round the rules, in particular the ownership rule requiring a club’s members to retain a voting majority and thus protect it against takeovers and outside interests. RB priced membership exorbitantly high and restricted voting rights to company employees and agents.

The club changed its rules in 2014, after talks with the league authorities, but is still out of line with the rules that apply elsewhere. As a result Leipzig have become the most despised club in Germany, above all among the committed supporters and the members of clubs such as Schalke and Dortmund, who vowed to boycott the upstarts when they achieved promotion last season.

In Austria, there is real resentment Red Bull are using their other club – Red Bull Salzburg – as a feeder, with top Austrian players such as Stefan Ilsanker and Marcel Sabitzer moving to Germany for free.

Not so much a Cinderella then, more like one of the ugly sisters. Yet allegations Red Bull are simply buying the league seem wide of the mark.

True, their transfer budget over the last three years has dwarfed the money available to similar-sized clubs and they spent more than anyone else last summer. But Leipzig have a young squad, without big stars, and have invested in an important youth academy headed by top coaches.

Their biggest transfer of the summer was the €15 million they paid to Nottingham Forest for the 19-year-old Scotland winger Oliver Burke.

Heading the football operation is sport director Ralph Rangnick, who transformed an unknown club as manager of Hoffenheim 10 years ago and briefly came to close to Champions League glory with Schalke.

He could have opted for a big name manager but instead appointed the Austrian Ralph Hasenhuttl, who has a solid record of achievement with little-known clubs such as Unterhaching and – in the past two seasons -Ingolstadt.

Hasenhuttl is a character, an Austrian version of Jurgen Klopp, who briefly played for Bayern’s second team when Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger were starting out. Leipzig have a couple of shrewd men in charge, and so far their playing formula – hardworking, lightning on the counter - has taken opponents by surprise, much like Leicester did last season.

Also like Leicester, Leipzig have benefited from a bit of luck. Can they pull off a similar miracle?

Probably not. Bayern have been struggling by their standards, and Carlo Ancelotti is taking criticism for not getting the best from his players, but they have had a lot of injuries. The winter break in Germany usually gives the established sides a chance to regroup.

But for the time being Leipzig’s supporters are entitled to celebrate. Their club may be plastic, they are not. Football in the former East Germany city has a proud history but the locals have endured only hard times since unification. For now they are top of the tree, and who cares if the Austrians put them there.

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