Freiburg eye Champions League debut

SC Freiburg are punching above their weight in the Bundesliga this season, with Christian Streich's ambitious underdogs from the heart of the picturesque Black Forest eyeing a first appearance in the Champions League. Freiburg have been perennial mid-table finishers in recent Bundesliga seasons, aside from their relegation in 2014/15 before coming straight back up. Streich is the Bundesliga's longest-serving current coach after more than a decade in the job. Under his stewardship, Freiburg's performances have fuelled dreams of a top-four finish and qualification for the Champions League for the first time. "If that should happen, I think the party would really kick off in the city," club captain Christian Guenter told AFP. "It's never happened before in the club's history, but there is still a really long way to go." It's 08:45am local time (0745GMT) on a bleak morning, yet Guenter, 28, is fresh faced and ready for training, clearly enjoying his football. His performances at left-back earned him a Germany recall last November, seven years after his international debut. Freiburg usually struggle to keep their best players, most recently when Germany defender Robin Koch left in 2020 to join Leeds United. "Almost 10 years ago, we qualified for the Europa League and five important players left that summer," sporting director Klemens Hartenbach told AFP. "It's always a bit related to sporting success – the exodus after the good work." However, Freiburg managed to keep their squad intact going into this season and have racked up league points. "We simply know that we have great potential in the team," added Guenter. "There is always a lot of energy in training, everyone is very ambitious and wants to win. "That's what really distinguishes us this season: we never give up, no matter what the score is." Freiburg have no big-name stars, yet shocked Borussia Dortmund in their first home match on the way to remaining unbeaten in their opening ten league games to set a club record. Freiburg became the last Bundesliga side to lose their unbeaten status only after a narrow defeat at mighty Bayern Munich in November. A win over Bayer Leverkusen before Christmas meant Freiburg finished the first half of the season third in the table – another club best. Despite a 5-1 thumping a fortnight ago at Dortmund, when Erling Haaland ran riot, Freiburg bounced back with a win over Stuttgart to currently sit fifth, just a point outside the Champions League places. Striker Nils Petersen, who spent two seasons at Bayern until 2013, loves the atmosphere in the Freiburg dressing room. "Every win is something special for us, where as at Bayern you are expected to win," Petersen told AFP. "We're enjoying it right now, we like to ride the wave of success, but the fear is always that it can go in the other direction again." At 33, Petersen is in the twilight of his career and out of contract in June, but hopes to be offered an extension. "The club has already said they can imagine extending with me," he said. "I wouldn't want to watch the team be successful next season at home on the television." He has strengthened his case by proving his value as a substitute. He holds the record for the most Bundesliga goals as a sub and his late winner at Hertha Berlin last October was his 30th after coming off the bench. "If it gets you in the history books at some point, I'm not going to say no and I quite enjoy making an impact," he added. The club is also branching out off the pitch, moving from their iconic Schwarzwald Stadion to the state-of-the-art Europa Park Stadium, which holds around 35,000 people. February's fixtures against Cologne, Mainz, Augsburg and Hertha Berlin offer chances to again climb the table and boost their Champions League ambitions. "Maybe we are a very small dot on Europe's football map now," added Hartenbach. "And that could lead to us maybe becoming something bigger."

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