Zweitegeist Round 16: Hannover prevail in the Clash of the Titans

The headline clash of Round 16, and arguably of the entire 2. Bundesliga season so far, was always going to be VfB Stuttgart vs Hannover 96. The two previous stalwarts of the top-flight were both relegated last season and this marked the first encounter of the pair who have long been tipped, and are expecting themselves, to bounce straight back up.

The league, realising the magnitude of this clash, picked it as this week’s Monday night game. The Mercedes-Benz-Arena, under the lights, with undivided televised attention – the scene was set and it did not disappoint. It was not a game of great quality, but that led to a high-tempo, frantic, entertaining spectacle.

To counter Hannover’s attacking 4-4-2 system – that borders on 4-2-4 at times – Stuttgart set up in a 3-4-3 formation in an attempt to suffocate the midfield. Neither backline though, whether it be a chain of three or four, covered themselves in glory that night. It was an incredibly open game and at times defending seemed secondary to attacking intent, meaning both defences were bypassed early and regularly.

Slow-motion replays showed in excruciating detail of stretched backlines, asymmetrical defensive shapes looking more like zig-zags than drilled organisation. Hannes Wolf and Daniel Stendel will watch this game back cowering from behind the sofa, through the gaps between their fingers.

The first goal, for example, which came from the first time Stuttgart left their own half, saw Hannover’s Edgar Prib look over his left shoulder to see Carlos Mané well offside but, rather than sticking to the high-line offside trap the rest of the defence was employing, for some reason he dropped much deeper, inadvertently playing Christian Gentner onside. He then managed to lose a 50-50 challenge he really should have done better, before his third mistake of not tracking Takuma Asano’s run. Terodde eventually scrambled the ball into the net.

It was truly hard to watch in action, but perhaps some sympathy should go to Prib who is clearly not a full-back, but rather a midfielder. That speaks volumes about how poor Miiko Albornoz has been at left-back this season – supposedly a Chilean international defender. But even he has not been as bad as Oliver Sorg on the opposite flank. Again it’s baffling to me that he has a Germany cap to his name as he put in another shocking performance in this game, and was perhaps lucky not to be sent off.

The theme of invisible defending continued but the blushes of the defenders were spared and even replaced by those of the attackers, as the finishing on display was atrocious. Hannover’s top-scorer Martin Harnik in particular showed excellent movement off the shoulder of the last defender but fluffed his lines whenever he got the chance. He eventually scored in off his belly in a chance even he couldn’t miss. He was not alone though as Asano and even Daniel Ginczek were guilty of blazing big chances over the bar.

It could have been 3-3 but the 1-2 winner eventually came in the 87th minute from a horror-show error from Stuttgart goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak, who has previously been very solid this season. Firstly, he basically shanked a goal-kick out for a throw-in, but Alexandru Maxim was adjudged to have kept it in play with a wonderful touch that was unfortunately followed up with a backpass that was deflected by the brilliantly named Noah-Joel Sarenren-Bazee. Then in a race for the loose ball with Kenan Karaman the keeper disastrously hesitated, before catching the striker as he rounded him. Thinking he had potentially conceded a penalty Langerak was caught napping as Sarenren-Bazee nipped in to cut the ball back for Felix Klaus to tap in.

Again it was a howler than only got worse with every replay and new angle and the Australian apologised for his mistake afterwards. The result means that neither side is top of the league as we near the halfway point of the season, with that honour returning to Eintracht Braunschweig after their 3-2 victory over Arminia Bielefeld. Undoubtedly though Hannover’s victory has made the promotion race all the more exciting, with only two points separating the three sides. Long may that continue into 2017. – Anthony Wood.

Breakout game for Sahin as St Pauli drought finally ends

At the wrong end of the table, the most stupefying story so far has remained St Pauli. After their superb run to 4th place last season, their turnaround in fortunes has been so drastic it almost seemed like a deliberate effort to continue defying expectations for the hell of it. Well, if any club would….

It has to be said, the kiezkicker started the season brilliantly. Unfortunately that brilliant form lasted approximately half of their first match. Since the first scintillating 45 minutes against Stuttgart, Pauli have plummeted, stumbling from crisis to crisis like a reveller on the Reeperbahn. Their single win, over two months prior to this weekend’s fixtures, was itself earned in an extremely scrappy fashion against fellow strugglers Arminia –  a desperately low bar for the high point of any season.

Mercifully, that bar has finally been raised.

Pauli came into the game with Furth on Sunday on the back of an 11 game winless run (or rather, it was on their back). In addition they had failed to score in their last 4 games, almost 5 after Christopher Buchtmann’s 6th minute opener at home to Nurnberg back in October. Their injury woes had reemerged in recent weeks, despite the recovery of the likes of Bouhaddouz and Gonther, who had been replaced in the treatment room by the equally senior Buchtmann and Himmelmann. It was tough to see where they could catch a break. Redemption came from quite an unlikely source.

Despite scoring the winner in that lone victory against Bielefeld, it had certainly been a largely inauspicious start for Cenk Sahin since his arrival in Hamburg. The Turkish winger touched down in Germany short of fitness and took some time to even earn his first start for the club. By that time he had already become embroiled in a potentially distracting disciplinary procedure transpiring from his part in a fiery brawl at the end of an incendiary U21 clash against Cyprus, and had unfortunately found himself at a club whose tribulations were not at all conducive to playing himself quietly into form. So it was hardly any surprise that Greuther Furth, and everyone else for that matter, failed to see him coming.

The 22 year old was almost unstoppable in the first half of the match and the home side’s defence found his pace and trickery nearly impossible to deal with. The confident Turk set up several clear goalscoring opportunities, which he saw squandered, before Sobota and Bouhaddouz combined to register the first goal for the boys in brown in over 500 minutes of play. Following that 64th minute strike was 25 minutes of tension, but who else to provide the moment of relief and jubilation than man of the match Sahin. As Furth pressed upfield for a late free kick he was once again able to burst forward at speed, drift clear of the often tormented Narey, and dispatch a sumptuous lob over the head of Megyeri to spark wild scenes in the away dugout, as manager Lienen and new sporting director Andreas Retting celebrated with playground abandon.

As Lienen’s men remain bottom of the league, they could be accused of an overreaction at what is just one win. However after such a dismal and disappointing run so far this season, they could certainly be indulged this moment. The manager’s job has remained safe through the gloom – it was recently reported that he warned that if the summer departures such as Rzatkowski, Thy and Alushi were not adequately replaced then it would be a difficult season. So it has proved, and this explains why it was former Sporting Director Thomas Meggle, rather than Lienen himself, who was the first to lose his job as a result of the current malaise.

Lienen will now surely be in charge at the start of the 2nd round of fixtures in January, and if the powers-that-be at the Millerntor have heeded his warnings, he may now be enabled to strengthen his options in the transfer window. If he can combine that opportunity with a bit more luck with injuries, and a few more of his newer signings reaching the level that Sahin did on Sunday, 2017 will surely be a brighter time at St Pauli. –Tom Nuttall-Jones.

Heidenheim crush Union

Playing second fiddle to the 1st vs 3rd clash of the titans between Stuttgart and Hannover was another big game between 5th-placed Heidenheim and 4th-placed Union Berlin. These are the two sides who look to have the best chance to challenge the status quo at the top and can be considered as dark horses for promotion.

Union came into the game with some momentum having convincingly beaten title-chasing Eintracht Braunschweig 2-0 last Monday but with just a short gap until their Friday clash with Heidenheim perhaps tiredness was an issue. It’s a flaw of the 2. Liga scheduling that Union had only a three day gap between games, compared to Hannover who had nine days to prepare for their game this week.

You can’t take anything away from Heidenheim though, who were excellent. On their day they’re a match for any team in the league. So well-drilled defensively by the formidable Frank Schmidt but also capable of transitioning remarkably quickly from back to front on the counter, as was the case with their third goal in Friday’s 3-0 victory. Admittedly, Union were very stretched in midfield at this point but throughout the game Heidenheim’s talisman Marc Schnatterer could be seen collecting the ball deep in his own half and immediately threading a direct ball forward.

The hosts game-plan was executed to perfection as Union were never allowed to put a phase of possession or pressure together. Heidenheim were aided hugely by the return of Tim Kleindienst up front, who had missed the previous seven games with a knee injury. The rangy forward cuts an awkward figure but he strikes the ball well off both feet, as evidenced by the low drive in off the post that left Union keeper Jakob Busk stranded for the first goal. But it’s lanky legs that see him cover so much ground and win so many headers – he wins more aerial duels than any player in the league – that make him so valuable to FCH.

At the other end of the pitch it was a relief for everyone to see Kevin Müller back between the sticks so soon after he was stretchered off the pitch last week with a neck injury. Thankfully his injury was not as serious as first feared and although he needed thirteen stitches for a ten-centimetre-long cut he was still able to return for this game, albeit with a big ugly blue plaster under his jaw…

With this victory Heidenheim leapfrogged Union to move into the 4th-spot, just three points off the promotion places. It’s a remarkable achievement for one of the smallest sides in the league, who were in the fifth tier less than a decade ago. You can be sure the town of Heidenheim will be enjoying their Christmas this year. – AW

What’s with the lack of TORs?

2. Bundesliga has a fair claim to be the strongest second-division in the world (sorry, the English Championship) but there’s no doubt that there’s been a dip in the quality of games in recent weeks, culminating this week in what was by far the most goal-shy round of the season. A third of the matches were goalless ‘boredraws’ while only two games this week saw both teams score.

Round 16 saw only 16 goals scored in total – a despairingly low 1.78 goals per game – and exactly half that of Round 5, which saw 32 ‘tors’ and boasted arguably the most exciting game of the season so far – a 5-4 thriller between Bochum and Nürnberg. It’s more than just the numbers though, because it seems as if there’s been a drop off in technical quality of late.

But why is this the case? Well, the first answer is to point to the calendar. The German winter is biting hard and has taken its toll on the pitches. Not all clubs at this level can afford under-soil heating or special UV lighting systems to maintain the standard of the grass and it was in evidence across the weekend.

The pitch at the DDV-Arena suggests it had been snowing in Dresden this week as the ground resembled rock hard mud, meaning that the ball bobbled incessantly, making a nice passing game almost impossible to pull off. It’s no surprise the game between Dynamo and Karlsruher finished goalless, although Dresden’s Pascal Testroet managed to miss a handful of chances.

Pitches have been deteriorating up and down the country in recent weeks but that can’t be the only reason for the lack of goals or excitement. Perhaps another reason is the plethora of interim coaches in the league at the moment. With teams struggling near the halfway stage of the season a number of sides have fired their coaches and, without having a direct replacement lined up, appointed an interim coach to steady the ship until the winter break.

Daniel Bierofka at 1860 München, Janos Radoki at Greuther Fürth, and Lukas Kwasniok at Karlsruher are currently holding the fort until permanent replacements are found. It’s natural that these coaches and teams will adopt a more conservative approach as they look to not drop too many points. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that none of these sides scored in this round.

With a five-week long winter break coming up it seems some sides are slowing the pace down and looking to consolidate the progress they’ve made so far this season. It’s perhaps inevitable around this time of year, but let’s hope for a blockbuster finish in the final round of 2016 this coming weekend. – AW

Team of the Week

Kirschbaum (Nürnberg); Strauss (Heidenheim), Brecko (Nürnberg), Ballas (Dresden), Perthel (Bochum); Sarenren-Bazee (Hannover), Sobota (St. Pauli), Stiepermann (Bochum), Sahin (St. Pauli); Kleindienst (Heidenheim), Kumbela (Braunschweig)

Goal of the Week

Cenk Sahin (St. Pauli), vs. Greuther Fürth

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