What are the chances of getting a birthday present from Manuel Neuer? Borussia Monchengladbach's Raffael Caetano de Araujo, known simply as Raffael by all in Germany, turns 30 on Saturday, and he should have plenty of cause to celebrate after the shock 2-0 win at Bayern Munich. The Bavarian giants lost a meaningful home league game for the first time since October 2012, with Raffael taking centre stage with a brace.
Both of the shots should have been routine saves for the Bayern goalkeeper, and his first blunder was especially glaring, but that takes little shine off the Brazilian's remarkable performance. It was one of the finest hours of a longstanding partnership with Gladbach coach Lucien Favre that began almost a decade ago and is likely to provide more magical moments in the years to come.
Favre, a very shrewd tactician who has been touted as a candidate to succeed Pep Guardiola at Bayern when the Catalan calls it a day, has always been good at noticing young talent. Raffael moved to Switzerland in 2003, when he was a completely unknown 18-year-old, to join tiny second-division side Chiasso. Favre was working at FC Zurich at the time, trying to break a disastrously long spell without a championship title dating back to 1981. Raffael turned out to be the missing part of the puzzle.
At Chiasso, Raffael was a centre-forward, averaging a goal every two games, but Favre saw something different in the youngster upon signing him in 2005. The Swiss coach used him as a second striker and a playmaker at the same time, calling the position "Neuneinhalb," or No. 9.5. "He plays between the lines," Favre used to say. That is how Raffael became one of the best performers in the Swiss Super League, topping the assist charts and scoring 14 goals in each of his first two seasons.
They won two titles together as well. The triumph in 2005-06, which ended a barren run lasting a quarter of a century, was especially sweet: Zurich needed to win away to rivals Basel in the final fixture to leapfrog them into first place, and did exactly that thanks to a dramatic winner deep into injury time. They retained the crown in 2007, when Raffael was voted the best foreigner, and Favre decided it was time to move on, leaving his homeland to take charge at Hertha Berlin.
Favre wanted his protege to join him immediately, but Zurich were highly reluctant to let him go. As a result, they had to wait for half a season before they could reunite, and the results were spectacular. Hertha, having struggled in their first 17 fixtures, were reborn after the break, with Raffael's four goals and six assists in 15 playing a valuable role in helping the team to a midtable finish that season, and in 2008-09 they defied expectations to finish fourth.
Favre was the hero, but the football world moves on quickly and, after Hertha started the new season disastrously, having sold some of their biggest names, the coach was made a scapegoat and fired in September. Without his mentor, Raffael was helpless to save the team from relegation, but he loved the city and enjoyed a great relationship with the fans. He decided to stay with the club in the second division, and no doubt his decision was made easier by the fact they also signed his younger brother Ronny.
The brothers' looks are quite different -- Ronny actually looks like the older of the two -- and so are their playing styles: Raffael is quick and very attack-minded, while Ronny is more relaxed, enjoys a deeper role and possesses a phenomenal shot from distance. Interestingly, each of them claims that the other is significantly more talented. The pair helped Hertha to promotion in 2011, when Raffael scored 10 goals, but the team was relegated again a year later, and at that point, in the summer of 2012, the older brother didn't want to experience the second tier a second time.
Around that time, Favre was looking to replace Dortmund-bound Marco Reus at Gladbach. Having spent 17 months without a job, the Swiss coach took charge at Borussia in February 2011, when they were rooted to the foot of the table and appeared doomed. A sensational comeback ensued, the season was miraculously saved, and then, in 2011-12, Favre steered Gladbach to fourth place, just as he had with Hertha.
Reus was the soul of that team, and a quality replacement was needed when he left. Naturally, Favre was certain that Raffael was the right man to do the job since he could play, like Reus, between the lines. Unfortunately for him, Hertha's financial demands were way too high for Gladbach, and a transfer could not be agreed. Napoli looked favourites to sign the Brazilian at one point, but he eventually joined Dynamo Kiev, stating his desire to play in the Champions League as the main reason behind the decision.
That proved a disastrous move. Yuri Syomin, the Russian coach who admired Raffael's skills and asked to purchase him, was promptly fired. Oleg Blokhin, his replacement, had other plans, while the player himself completely failed to adapt to life in Ukraine. By January, he was pleading with his agent to do everything possible to get him back to the Bundesliga.
Favre naturally tried to sign him once again, but negotiations with the Ukrainian club were unsuccessful, and Raffael eventually spent half a season on loan at Schalke. It was only in the summer of 2013, at the third attempt, that Gladbach finally got their man for a bargain price of €5 million.
Gladbach had struggled in 2012-13 as they adapted to life without Reus, exiting the Champions League at the qualification stage -- beaten by Dynamo Kiev, who put Raffael on the bench -- and finished in midtable in the Bundesliga. When Raffael arrived, though, everything changed for the better again.
Favre started him in every single league game last term, and the Brazilian No. 9.5 enjoyed the most prolific season of his career, scoring 15 goals and contributing seven assists. One of his most enjoyable performances came in the 3-0 win against Ronny's Hertha.
Importantly, he matured and became much more disciplined. Raffael, a quiet person by nature, used to lose his temper under pressure in the past. At Zurich, he was once sent off for punching Sion's Jocelyn Ahoueya in the face. At Hertha, three needless red cards followed. In a DFB-Pokal fixture with third-division Koblenz in 2010 that will always be remembered for an amazing 61-meter strike by Michael Stahl, the Brazilian lashed out at a defender who fouled him. In 2011, he hit Hoffenheim's Sead Salihovic for no apparent reason.
Yellow cards also used to be frequent, but in 2013-14 Raffael was cautioned only once in 34 games. That was a huge improvement, and now, playing under Favre for the third time, he looks happier than ever.
His form dipped a little at the start of the season, and even Favre acknowledged that, but he was still a very important part of the team that aspires to secure direct qualification for the Champions League group stage for the first time in the club's history. The Brazilian knows that he must step up given that they face intense competition from Bayer Leverkusen for third place, and that is exactly what he did this month.
First, he scored a brace in a 2-2 draw at Mainz. Then, two weeks later, came the two goals at Allianz Arena that kept Gladbach two points ahead of Bayer.
That inspirational triumph did Favre's chances of getting a job at Bayern in 2016 no harm whatsoever, assuming Guardiola does move on at that point. The Swiss feels great at Borussia Park but, at the age of 57, the offer would be very hard to refuse if it did arrive.
If that happens -- and it is a very big "if" -- it will be interesting to see whether the Swiss would take his beloved star to Munich with him. The scenario looks far-fetched for the moment, but it's not impossible if the pair of them continue to impress. Watch this space.