Hannover began last week as the new 2. Bundesliga leaders after creeping past Kaiserslautern in the Monday night game. Less than ‘96’ hours later they had already relinquished their position at the top, without any of their promotion rivals playing again. So what happened to explain this dramatic U-turn in fortune?
The answer is that Hannover finally got their comeuppance this season. They found themselves at the summit of the league table without ever playing consistently well this season. For long periods of the campaign Daniel Stendel’s side have played poorly but grinded out results or, conversely, played well but failed to secure the 3 points. The Reds sometimes seem to reach results through experience and sheer force of will, with one of their four-pronged attack coming to the rescue. At some point though something had to give.
All year, Hannover’s defence had been threatening a result like the 4-1 thrashing they received away at Greuther Fürth last Friday – reminiscent of the performances of the final months of last season’s relegation. Stefan Strandberg floundered at the back, Edgar Prib proved yet again that he is not a defender and the bulldog that is Marvin Bakalorz had probably his worst game of the season.
On the other hand, all credit has to go to Fürth for a terrific and clinical display. Janos Radoki, the interim-cum-head coach who was appointed on a permanent basis over the winter break, has breathed new life into a team that had lost faith and belief in themselves by the end of Stefan Ruthenbeck’s reign. He’s introduced a new 3-1-2-1-2 system that seems specifically designed to get the best out of two players – the rampaging wing-back Khaled Narey, but mainly the mercurial no.10 Robert Žulj.
Radoki famously left the Austrian playmaker out of the squad for his first two games in charge, with a poor attitude in training and a shift in focus away from individualism in the side explaining his absence. “His potential in the forward movement is 1000%, but he has to work on the backward movement . . . In the current phase, he needs to defensively help the team. If we were second or third, he would be worth it,” explained the coach. An improved attitude and strong performances in Fürth’s winter friendlies – in which he was their top-scorer – has seen Žulj return back to his best against Hannover.
And it was his scintillating best. His famed ‘short game’ – the little give-and-gos, flicks with both sides of either foot – was on show in all its glory. Take a look at either of his ‘pre-assists’ for the first and third goals. For the opener he found some space to receive a throw-in, before chesting the ball down and scooping a flick with the outside of his foot into the path of Veton Berisha – perfectly weighted so that it drew in both Hannover centre-backs, but without giving them a chance of getting it. Berisha had the simple task of nodding the ball to Serdar Dursun, the former Hannover youth product, who produced a sublime overhead kick to open the scoring. Dursun took the plaudits and rightly so, but it was Žulj who set the wheels in motion.
It was the same case for the third goal. Žulj collected the ball on the right flank at the make-or-break point in a counter-attack. Miss-time or miscue the next pass and the attack was always likely to break down, but time it just right – such as waiting for the last moment to poke the ball through Strandberg’s legs – and the result could be devastating. Naturally the Austrian chose the latter option, setting Narey free down the wing so that he could play a simple cross for Dursun to volley in at the back post for his second.
Not to mention Žulj’s devilishly inviting cross from a free-kick that set up the second goal for Marcel Franke, in what proved to be the crucial goal of the match. It was a superb individual display, rewarded by kicker magazine with a bafflingly-average performance rating of (3). For Hannover though, the match should act as a wake-up call. With Stuttgart winning on Monday the Hanoverians have now dropped to 3rd in the table. Things are getting awfully tense at the top. – Anthony Wood
Kids are alright as Nürnberg future looks bright
The last 12 months have, to put it mildly, been something of a rollercoaster for FC Nürnberg. Last February, the side then managed by Réne Weiler returned from the winter break to win away at local rivals 1860 Munich, consolidating 3rd position in the league, marking the lowest position they would occupy for the remainder of the season and coming within a whisker of chasing down favourites RB Leipzig and Freiburg for automatic promotion.
The opening to 2017’s Rückrunde was by contrast a far less cheerful occasion for Alois Schwartz’s side. It was not the fact that they lost 2-1 at home to Dresden, whose position in the upper reaches of this season’s table is no accident. Nor was it the fact that this, their 7th defeat of the season, meant that they had already lost as many games this season as they had in the entirety of 2015/16. What was most troubling was the tepid performance that this Nürnberg side put out in their first appearance since the departure of Guido Burgstaller.
The talismanic Austrian, who remains at the top of the league’s scoring charts following his exploits in the first half of the season, earned himself a lucrative move to Schalke having dragged Nürnberg up the table almost single handedly. With the squad handed the first opportunity to prove they could thrive without him, they fell worryingly short. Burgstaller’s position on the left wing was filled by near-unknown rookie Abdelhamid Sabiri, a selection that served almost uniquely to highlight how Nürnberg would struggle to replace the contribution of their departing number 9.
On paper then, the following weekend’s trip to Heidenheim, a side that had lost just once at home all season, seemed an even dimmer prospect. To make matters worse, Schwartz was forced to add to his budding group of u21s being thrust into the starting frame. With Sabiri still a lone option for the left wing slot, and Lucas Muhl replacing the suspended Petrak in midfield, Patrick Kammerbauer, 19, deputised for injured captain Brecko, and another debutant, Dennis Lippert, 20, was brought in at left back at late notice as Laszlo Sepsi dropped out.
Mercifully, despite a difficult debut the week before, youthful exuberance was retained by Sabiri, who started confidently, and his first goal for the club in the opening 5 minutes of this match might just be the moment when Nürnberg’s luck turned. The Moroccan did exceptionally to contort himself and meet Kevin Möhwald’s cross under pressure to give the away side an early lead.
While Heidenheim equalised before the break, FCN were able to spurn their efforts to take the lead in the opening stages of the second half, before retaking it themselves. Kammerbauer, a relative veteran of as many as 4 league sub appearances and 2 starts this season, had already enjoyed a spirited afternoon down the right, and strode into the box in Nürnberg’s first meaningful attack of the half to rifle in their second goal.
While FCH continued to press, and were unfortunate not to fight back through Halloran and Wittek in particular, by then the young guns of the away side had already extended their advantage. Sabiri will surely not have been brought in for his aerial prowess, but reacted quickly again to flick a header beyond the grasping Müller, with Möhwald claiming a second assist, this time rather fortuitously having mishit his initial shot.
Good fortune or not, der Club were able to hold on and keep hold of a marginal place in the top half. The fact that the rookie contingent were so instrumental in picking up this win, both through the goals of Sabiri and Kammerbauer, and the hard work of Mühl and Lippert can be a source of tremendous optimism for the Franconian outfit as they look to kick on post-Burgstaller. This has not been lost on the squad, with Möhwald, now an “overnight” old head in the squad, as he admits himself, proclaiming: “We still have promotion in view”.
The 8 point gap between them and 3rd is certainly not insurmountable, but the upcoming visit of Braunschweig seems like a sink or swim moment. Even Burgstaller’s presence made little difference as the early-season pace-setters thrashed Nürnberg 6-1 in August. If Schwartz’s kids can offer some redemption from that result, the chance to match last season will most certainly be on. – Tom Nuttall-Jones
- With a fully fit squad to choose from following the winter break, Eintracht Braunschweig coach Torsten Lieberknecht admitted it would be tough to name a matchday squad of eighteen players. After snatching a late draw against Würzburger Kickers, he described their first half performance in that game as “a joke” and an insult to the six players he had to tell he was leaving out. A week later he named exactly the same XI, expecting a different outcome, as the league leaders faced bottom of the table St. Pauli – and subsequently lost 1-2 at home. Sometimes it seems that Lieberknecht is so focused on being unpredictable and making life difficult for the opposition that he fails to see the flaws in his own system. With just one point taken from two winnable games in 2017 this already threatens to be a repeat of the poor Rückrunde of last season. – AW
- While it’s too early to call Braunschweig’s situation a crisis, Fortuna Düsseldorf are in one of their own that already has its own name – Torflaute. My personally preferred translation of this is ‘goal lull’, as they now haven’t scored a league goal since November. Due to the winter break this barren run only stretches to five games, but it also has the psychological effect of making it seem a lot longer. This burden must be weighing heavily on the man leaning the line for Fortuna – Rouwen Hennings. The league’s top-scorer in 2015 is on an even longer goalless streak of his own. Since his brace against Arminia Bielefeld in October it’s been over 800 minutes since he last notched. With Düsseldorf currently lacking ideas, creativity and goals, it’s placing a lot of pressure on their defence to stay strong, but unfortunately it’s cracked recently. Sandhausen put three past them at the ESPRIT Arena in the first game back of 2017, while Stuttgart somehow only scored twice on Monday, spurring a hatful of other chances. Friedhelm Funkel needs to find a fix for his side and fast. – AW
Team of the Week
Busk (Union); Kammerbauer (Nürnberg), Sobiech (St. Pauli), Franke (Fürth), Insua (Stuttgart); Schütz (Arminia), Sabiri (Nürnberg), Žulj (Fürth), Sahin (St. Pauli); Dursun (Fürth), Klos (Arminia)
Goal of the Week
Serdar Dursun, Greuther Fürth (1st goal vs Hannover)