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Zweitegeist Playoff Special | Die Löwen sleepwalk into the playoffs

Unfortunately in football there aren’t enough nicknames to go around so some clubs have to share the same one. It’s rare though that two such teams also share the same league but that’s the case with 2. Bundesliga’s two prides of ‘Lions’: Both 1860 München and Eintracht Braunschweig are known as Die Löwen after the mascot on their badge. As it so happens the pair are also this year’s playoff contenders.

Both sides entered the 34th round of the season in the promotion and relegation playoff spots – Braunschweig in 3rd and 1860 in 16th – with the hope of moving up a position on the final day. In the end though neither were able to do enough and now they face season-defining playoff ties. Eintracht will play local rivals VfL Wolfsburg on Thursday and next Monday, while 1860 face 3. Liga’s Jahn Regensburg on Friday and next Tuesday.

Starting with 1860, it’s quite remarkable that they find themselves in this situation again for the second time in three seasons, especially considering how much money they’ve invested this year. A telling image from Sunday’s 2-1 defeat away at Heidenheim was that of their Jordanian backer Hasan Ismaik and managing director Ian Ayre with their heads in their hands. While the former Liverpool CEO only started in his new role in Munich recently, Ismaik must be wondering where his millions have gone.

The club spent almost €5 million combined on the strike force of Christian Gytkjær and 19-year old Ribamar but where were they? The Dane has struggled to settle for personal reasons since his overhyped January move and was dropped for this crucial game, only making an appearance as a 92nd-minute substitute. Even worse though, the Brazilian youngster hasn’t even made a squad since March.

In fact, even Ivica Olic – the most high-profile name in the squad – didn’t start up front, with coach Vitor Pereira instead preferring to trust the reliable Sascha Mölders to make his first start since scoring in the reverse fixture back in December. That decision wasn’t the only surprise in the lineup, with 22-year old youth product Felix Weber making his debut at centre-back. It seemed to be a message from the coach that commitment to the cause comes before name and reputation.

Despite Pereira’s tinkering, 1860 appeared to be strangely uninterested in avoiding relegation as they and Heidenheim put in a first half performance that was at best docile and at worst insufferably bad. The first real chance of the game came early in the second half as Stefan Aigner did well to get a cross in from the right flank but Levant Ayçiçek was unable to beat Kevin Müller in goal. The visitors did eventually take lead though as Aigner nodded in Michael Liendl’s corner.

For a while this was enough to secure safety for the Munich side as fellow strugglers Arminia Bielefeld and Erzgebirge Aue were losing. But then in the 85th minute: capitulation. 1860 failed to defend a 35-yard Marc Schnatterer free-kick that was whipped into the ‘corridor of uncertain’ but even then it was heading straight towards keeper Stefan Ortega and should have been dealt with. Instead his limp wrist diverted it into the net and suddenly they were back in the relegation playoff spot.

To add insult to injury, a Heidenheim counter in the 94th minute ended with Tim Kleindienst taking a pot-shot from range – which deflected off Abdoulaye Ba and looped over Ortega in goal to make it 2-1 and seal 1860’s 18th defeat of the season. The result meant that 1860 now have the shameful record of losing more than half of their league games this year. It seems almost unthinkable that a club of their size and stature can endure such a horrendous season and risk relegation to the third tier, but Sechzig are a perennial crisis club.

The team will need to pick themselves up before facing Jahn Regensburg, who blitzed their way through 3. Liga this season, and who have experience of winning this playoff stage in 2012. 1860 themselves managed to survive by the skin of their teeth in 2015 thanks to a last-minute Kai Bülow header against Holstein Kiel. Incidentally, Kiel were promoted from the third division automatically this year, while it was Bülow who was dropped for debutant Weber at the weekend.

The league’s other Löwen were also involved in a 2-1 on Sunday but the game could hardly be more different. In fact, I’d argue there’s not been a game like it in 2. Liga all season. After the devastating 6-0 defeat to Arminia Bielefeld in the round before, Eintracht Braunschweig entered the final game knowing that they had effectively blown their chances of automatic promotion. The only slim hope they had of overtaking Hannover was praying that their local rivals lost away at Sandhausen, while Braunschweig themselves needed to win by five goals.

This is a tall order in any game but on paper they had the perfect match to go for it – at home to an already-relegated and weakened Karlsruher side. Unsurprisingly, coach Torsten Lieberknecht seemed to name the most attacking team he could think of by picking four nominal strikers. To make the team function Christoffer Nyman and Suleiman Abdullahi had to start out wide, while Julius Biada and winger Salim Khelifi formed an unusual midfield partnership.

Braunschweig got off to the perfect start as top-scorer Domi Kumbela nodded in Biada’s free-kick with less than two minutes, before sprinting back to the centre-circle, impatient for the next goal. Unfortunately in a sucker-punch blow it was Karlsruher who hit back, as Bjarne Thölke lashed a snap-shot into the roof of the net ten minutes later. With Eintracht pouring forward at every opportunity it was clear from the early stages that this was going to be an open game with lots of space for counters.

However, there are open games and there are open games. This was just about the most open game I’ve ever seen with both sides seeming to forget where a midfield is supposed to be. For Braunschweig’s second goal, for example, Biada scored the rebound into an empty net but it was unclear who had taken the initial shot at René Vollath in goal, such was the sheer numbers of yellow shirts surrounding the ball in the attack.

Incredibly, the game finished 2-1 but, without even too much exaggeration, it could have finished 5-10 to Karlsruher! Eintracht keeper Jasmin Fejzić was Man of the Match with an exemplary performance between the sticks but even then he only had four saves to make all game. This is despite Karlsruher getting into one-on-one shooting positions with him on no less than TEN occasions! By attacking so much Braunschweig were always going to leave themselves open to counter-attacks but even then it was an embarrassing performance from the defensive pair of Saulo Decarli and Gustav Valsvik, as well as Maxi Sauer at right-back.

While the talk after the game was about the ‘relief’ of delivering a ‘response’ to the Arminia result, in reality Lieberknecht should be very worried about what he has seen from his team in the last two games. A better team than Karlsruher would have dispatched Braunschweig with ease on Sunday, as Bielefeld’s clinical finishing the week before proved. Worryingly Wolfsburg will be a much tougher opponent than both. Mario Gomez is unlikely to fail to pull the trigger or shoot so inaccurately as the Karlsruher attackers.

The playoff system in Germany is an intriguing psychological experiment, as it traditionally pits an out-of-confidence team that has struggled all season against a smaller in-form team in the league below that has excelled throughout. In a rare twist to this generalised assessment, Braunschweig snatched their playoff spot from the jaws of automatic promotion, as this butchered version of the cliché goes.

In the build-up to the first leg Lieberknecht and his players have been hitting all the right notes in the press conference and interviews. They have quite rightly played up their “outstanding season” but surely the atmosphere in the dressing room must have been devastated after choking against Arminia? Eintracht have more than enough talent on paper to cause Wolfsburg problems but they’ve also shown a disconcerting mental fragility in recent games.

Still, their final total of 66 points – just one below Hannover – is a 2. Bundesliga record for a team that finished in 3rd. It’s hard to argue that they didn’t deserve to go up had it have been any other season. This thought will be in the forefront of the player’s minds as they prepare for the game against Wolfsburg.

As for 1860, it’s a classic case of being ‘too big to go down’ and yet they are potentially only two games away from becoming a 3. Liga side. Confidence is shot and the form of the squad – besides Liendl and Ba – has been topsy-turvy of late. But even then they have always had enough to make a great escape late on in recent years. For purely selfish reasons I have to say I hope both prides of Löwen stay in the league – because there’s never a dull moment with these two sides.

By Anthony Wood.

20:30 – Thursday 25th May – VfL Wolfsburg vs Eintracht Braunschweig

20:30 – Monday 29th May – Eintracht Braunschweig vs VfL Wolfsburg

 

18:00 – Friday 26th May – Jahn Regensburg vs 1860 München

18:00 – Tuesday 30th May – 1860 München vs Jahn Regensburg

Zweitegeist will return next week with an end-of-season review of every team.

 

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