Last week on the column I mentioned Ihlas Bebou’s ice-cold 92nd-minute match-winning penalty against Bochum as a moment of huge relief for Fortuna, but could it also be a turning point in the season for the Düsseldorf?
After a clear-out in the summer, with the team’s overpaid, under-performing big names leaving the club, veteran coach Friedhelm Funkel has formed a well-balanced side. The foundations of the team are built on experienced professionals – the likes of captain Oliver Fink (34), Adam Bodzek (31), Axel Bellinghausen (33), Michael Rensing (32) and Alexander Madlung (34) – while surrounding them with promising young talents such as Bebou (22), Kaan Ayhan (22), Marcel Sobottka (22), Kevin Akpoguma (21) and Robin Bormuth (21). This combination of wise old heads and youthful energy saw Fortuna reach 5th-place in the table by mid-November – a remarkable improvement on two previous seasons of battling relegation.
However, at the point the team seemed to go into hibernation for the winter as they embarked on a nine-game winless run. They even stopped bothering to score goals for seven of those games. Rouwen Hennings, a former 2. Bundesliga top-scorer with Karlsruher in 2015, was brought in on loan at the end of the summer in what was supposed to be one of the signings of the season. After a very promising start the goals dried up for him too and the drought only ended last week against Bochum after an agonising 1,127 minutes.Before they could get any closer to being embroiled in another relegation scrap, the vital 3 points earned last weekend seem to have returned belief and confidence to this Fortuna side.
That was evident straight from kick-off on Monday night against Eintracht Braunschweig as they attempted three efforts on goal in just the first twenty seconds of the game. This was met by a roar from the home crowd and the ferocious tempo to the game didn’t let up from there. To their credit, Braunschweig responded in kind but breaking just as quickly whenever they recovered the ball, and they created the first big chance of the game as their front three of Christoffer Nyman, Onel Hernández and Suleiman Abdullahi combining to play the latter in on goal, but goalkeeper Rensing was a match to the shots.
In what was such an open and end-to-end game the breakthrough surprisingly came from a set-piece and it was Fortuna who took the lead. It may seem odd to put your star striker on long free-kick duty but it’s a ploy that Funkel has used of late and Hennings drilling a flat cross goal-bound, which fell to Bormuth to tap in. They were unlucky not to have doubled the deficit after another fast start in the second half, as Bebou met Lukas Schmitz’s deep cross with a backheel volley to make it 2-0 after just thirty seconds. It was disallowed for offside, even though replays showed the Ivorian was clearly level.
Fortuna can count themselves unlucky then that Eintracht levelled the scores fifteen minutes later, almost from nothing. Abdullahi collected the ball wide but seemed to be going nowhere, before hitting a hopeful low ball into the box, which Nyman struck with precision on the volley, through the legs of the Bormuth and past Rensing. It was then an even greater surprise in the 89th minute when Braunschweig went on to score the winner – again out of nowhere. Hernández, usually a mercurial winger/forward, has been transformed into a floating no.10 in the last couple of games, given the freedom to drift and find pockets of space between the lines. He did just that late on before launching a 25-yard strike that deflected into the top corner.
The game wasn’t done yet though and the end was even more frantic and breathless than the start. Braunschweig had the chance to kill the game off on the counter as Akpoguma lost out to Julias Biada who smartly played in Domi Kumbela. Again Rensing was there to save the one-on-one, but the striker was unlucky that his rebound bounced off the post and away. Ninety seconds later and the ball was skimming off the other post. After an underwhelming second half some fans were calling for Bebou to be subbed – clearly forgetting his game-changing turn against Bochum last week – but Funkel sensibly stuck with him and he was almost the match-winner again. He still had enough energy in the 94th minute to skip past an opponent and toe-poke a shot towards goal from outside the box – so unlucky to see it clip the post.
Unfortunate Fortuna was the story of the night. On most days Bebou’s disallowed goal would have stood and they would have expected to hold out for another victory. Düsseldorf were the better side throughout in a very promising display. Sobottka was immense from box-to-box and his combination in central midfield with Ayhan and Christian Gartner (also 22) showed a great mix of energy, aggression and passing composure, which Funkel could well stick with in the coming games. The future looks bright but it’s very possible that all three could leave in the summer. Bodzek, who has just signed a two-year contract extension, didn’t play due to a fractured hand and Fink was moved out wide for this game, so there is still a lot of strength to be found in that area. January signing Andre Hoffmann is also waiting in the wings, while Taylan Duman and Justin Kinjo represent the next generation of talent to come through the youth team.
Another rebuild will be required in the summer, especially if Akpoguma, Madlung and Hennings leave as well, but for now Funkel has a very solid base on which to develop for the rest of the season. Düsseldorf have 30 points now and will be looking hopefully up the table, rather than worrying too much about those below them. 10 points from the final 10 rounds should secure their safety – and maybe Fortuna will receive a bit more good fortune in the season run-in. – Anthony Wood.
- Nürnberg’s youthful revolution continues under caretaker Köllner
Following the sacking of Alois Schwartz, interim manager Michael Köllner, promoted from the U21s, has been tasked for now with halting the alarming slide that der Club have suffered since Christmas. Köllner certainly brought his affinity for FCN’s junior contingent with him to the first team, immediately handing 20 year old Eduard Löwen his senior debut in midfield, and also bringing 21 year old striker Dominic Baumann along on the bench. This would certainly have been one of the youngest squads deployed in the division this season, were it not for evergreen Raphael Schäfer, 38, who made his first appearance for the side since August following Thorsten Kirschbaum’s injury.
Despite the caretaker still having less than a full quota to choose from, with several first choice players still out with injury, and Behrens and Muhl suspended, there was a certain improvement from Nürnberg as they coasted to an unspectacular 1-0 victory. It was not an improvement to the drastic extent that is often seen when a struggling manager leaves a side, (especially with several senior players hinting that they had few qualms with Schwartz’ departure), but an improvement nonetheless.
Unfortunately, following one of the easiest fixtures he could have started with, against struggling Arminia at home, one of the most challenging now follows with a trip to promotion-hungry Union Berlin approaching this weekend. While he remains in charge, Köllner faces a delicate balancing act: ensure the club maintain a healthy gap between themselves and the precarious end of the table, whilst also preparing the squad for next season in the face of some likely summer departures due to the club’s financial woes. It seems Köllner will have little issue with the latter half of this mandate: senior striker Matavz was consigned to the bench in lieu of Löwen’s inclusion on Sunday; the Slovakian forward is unlikely to extend his loan in Nuremburg, and so looks likely to fall by the wayside as FCN look instead to the future. – Tom Nuttall-Jones.
- Toothless Wurzburger continue to falter
When Würzburger Kickers were unexpectedly promoted last season, few predicted that, with only a couple of additions to their first team squad, they would take to the 2.Bundesliga like a duck to water. Nevertheless, the Franconian minnows thrived between August and December, climbing as high as 4th in October before ending the first half of the season with a superb 3-0 win over league giants Stuttgart.
“Second season syndrome” is certainly a phenomenon in football, but the Kickers appear to be suffering from “second half of the season syndrome”. For in the 7 games since returning from the Winter break, Bernd Hollerbach’s side are winless, and have slid into the division’s bottom half for the first time this season.
The club’s main issue is undoubtedly a lack of goals, with a meagre 3 having been scored since Christmas. Elia Soriano, the club’s main striker, is suffering a chronic drought, and has failed to increase his tally from 5 goals since November.
In part this can be blamed on the absence of Nejmeddin Daghfous. The Tunisian has missed an inordinate amount of time since January with a simple bruised foot, and with their leading assist provider out for nearly 2 months, Hollerbach has failed to find any deputy for him.
Even on Saturday with their number 10 back in the side, Würzburger failed to create almost anything meaningful in the entire 90 minutes of a match in which, while they enjoyed much of the possession, was eventually meekly surrendered to a Dresden side who have done a much better job of maintaining consistency, having also been promoted from the 3.liga last season.
Following that incredible win over Stuttgart, in December Würzburger were looking incredibly comfortable in achieving their main aim of avoiding relegation, with a 13 point lead over the bottom 3 and an impressive 6th place to enjoy over Christmas. Following this most recent defeat, that gap has narrowed to just 7 points, and considering FWK’s apparent inability to put the ball in the net, you would only expect it to get narrower. Changes must be made if Hollerbach’s side are to avoid a late bid to join what appeared to previously be a closed group of 4 in the race to beat the drop. – TNJ
- Kaiserslautern U23s proving their value
Kaiserslautern’s financial problems have been well-documented for a number of years now but this season came the revelation that the club may not be able to survive in 2. Bundesliga in the long-term. With promotion not currently a realistic goal and with no money to strengthen the team in the transfer market, this is a big problem for them. It’s not surprising then that in recent months there has been talks of cutbacks in certain departments to save money, with one possibility being the dissolution of their U23s team.
This is not unusual in the league – Bochum, Dynamo Dresden and Heidenheim also don’t have a B team – but this has caused outrage among the fanbase. In recent years it has been a very strong source of talented players, as well as transfer fees. Domnique Heintz, Willi Orban and Jean Zimmer have all been sold for over a million euros each, but the goalkeeper position has been an especially strong department. Recent graduates of Gerry Ehrmann’s training include Tim Wiese, Kevin Trapp and Marius Müller, while Julian Pollersbeck has broken into the team this season and has arguably been the best keeper in the league.
All of these had a lot of experience playing for the U23s in the Regionalliga and Oberliga, and the evidence continues to build this season. Robin Koch has emerged from the U23s to establish himself as a first-team defender while the latest revelation has been Robert Glatzel up front with 4 goals this season, following the 27 he scored four the II side. It’s no wonder that the fans are so against the U23s folding and fortunately the sporting director Uwe Stöver is also against the decision. Unfortunately though, as always, money talks… – AW
Team of the Week
Tschauner (Hannover); Trimmel (Union), Hoogland (Bochum), Margreitter (Nürnberg), Feick (Heidenheim); Sobottka (Fortuna), Hauptmann (Dynamo), Möhwald (Nürnberg); Sarenren-Bazee (Hannover), Polter (Union), Quaschner (Bochum)
Goal of the Week
Moritz Kuhn, Sandhausen (vs. Greuther Fürth)