Having finished off round 29 in fine style with their late win over Bielefeld, Stuttgart once again took the primetime Monday night slot this week. This latest showdown was even more tantalising for the neutral, with 4th placed Union Berlin the visitors to the Mercedes-Benz Arena. With Die Eisern only recently having taken a turn at the top of the table, and only sitting 3 points behind the league favourites heading into this match, there was a certain anticipation for one of the most high-stakes matches of this season.
In fact, with the other two promotion hopefuls, Hannover and Braunschweig, having already played earlier in the weekend, the stakes were as high as they have been during this campaign, and even for many recent years. Union surely came in with the neutral’s hopes behind them – a win for Jens Keller’s men would promise the most scintillating end possible to this promotion race, ensuring that all four of the league’s frontrunners entered the last 4 rounds of the season with 57 points each.
There were no surprises from the visiting manager, with Keller’s selection showing all of its trademark consistency. Hannes Wolf, on the other hand, did raise a few eyebrows by handing the young Josip Brekalo a starting berth, his first for 7 weeks, in such a massive game.
The selection was a great show of faith in the Croatian loanee, but an even greater one for the resurgent Alex Maxim. The Romanian has suddenly been brought back into the fold by his manager in recent weeks, with great success. The inclusion of Brekalo on the left made it immediately clear that it was Maxim who was to be given centre stage. As in the last two matches, Wolf was not let down.
Stuttgart started much the stronger of the two sides, and once again it was the diminutive number 10 leading the way. Maxim has wasted no time in regaining his confidence having spent the majority of 2017 in exile, and was equally unafraid to test Daniel Mesenhöler as he was to take on the Berlin defence. As with last week, and his outrageous 40 yard lob, he pulled another trick out of his locker to get VfB up and running, wrong-footing the young Mesenhöler with a wicked free-kick (that, of course, he had won himself with a mazy run).
As neutrals, maybe we should thank Hannes Wolf, and Jos Luhukay before him. On the evidence of the last 3 weeks, if Maxim had been granted the opportunity to put his talents to use more often while Stuttgart have occupied this league, then surely we would have been denied such a thrilling end to this promotion race. Surely the Swabians would have already been out of sight.
It is a source of much frustration, for this fan at least, that Wolf and Luhukay have not been the only coaches to marginalise some of their more technically gifted players this season. Kosecki at Sandhausen, Rama at Würzburger, Kvesic at Aue, Yamada and Rollim at Karlsruher, to name but a few – some of the most exciting players in the league have picked up fewer minutes than they might have expected in 2016/17. In a league where pitches are reasonable and the refereeing is relatively protective, it would certainly be enjoyable to see some more chances given to the less defensively-minded.
Within a few minutes, the home side’s lead had doubled. The selection of Brekalo was further vindicated as he provided the assist. Sent away by Ebenezer Ofori, another January acquisition who is quietly starting to show his worth at just the right time, Brekalo’s lively run preceded a cross to a player whom any winger would certainly be delighted to provide for. Simon Terodde unsurprisingly found the perfect gap between Puncec and Leistner to register his 20th league goal of the season. He is the only player to break that barrier in two consecutive 2.Bundesliga campaigns in the last two decades.
The half-time 2-0 lead was really no less than Stuttgart deserved. Spurred on by a fierce home crowd, the game was grabbed by the scruff of the neck from its earliest stages, and while Sebastian Polter did miss the easiest of headers while the scores were still tied at 0-0, it would certainly have been an injustice for VfB to have fallen behind at that stage. Whether or not Wolf’s side ultimately achieve their immediate return to the Bundesliga, immense credit must be given to the Stuttgart fan base, who did not stop to sulk following the disappointment of relegation, but rather ensured that the Mercedes-Benz Arena was a caldron from the opening game against St Pauli through every home match since.
Union’s fans have remained some of the best in the league as well, but unfortunately they do seem to miss the confined atmosphere of the Old Forester when the side is on their travels. While Polter was able to redeem himself with a brilliant header to bring the visitors back into the match, in reality they never looked like matching their opponents on this night.
It is a shame that the game was ultimately put to bed through a mistake from one of Keller’s strongest performers this season. Toni Leistner would be a common inclusion in a consensus team of the season for this league in 2016/17. Unfortunately he dallied on the ball with not just Terodde looming down on him, but another of the deadliest strikers in the division in Daniel Ginczek. Despite returning to the squad several months ago, the forward’s injury recovery is not yet complete. However having robbed Leister and being fed back in by Terodde, the 26 year old showed a great deal of his former sharpness and easily tucked away his 2nd goal of the season.
So it is Stuttgart with their noses in front heading into the home straight. With the margins so tight though, and with massive games in Hannover vs Stuttgart and Braunschweig vs Union still to play, it is still all to play for. – TNJ
Could 1860 München really go down?
It’s no secret that 1860 München are a club with grand ambitions. Their Jordanian investor, Hasan Ismaik, has previously spoken of playing in the Champions League in the next fews – echoing the goals soon to achieved by the backers behind RB Leipzig and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. The Munich club made headlines a few weeks ago when they unveiled former Liverpool FC CEO Ian Ayre as their new managing director – a big name by 2. Bundesliga standards.
When Ayre was asked about their club’s precarious league position he replied that he was “not worried” about it. Less than a fortnight after those comments I wonder if that answer has changed? As it stands 1860 are clinging on to safety by the skin of their teeth. Erzgebirge Aue only currently occupy the relegation playoff spot due their inferior goal difference. It’s quite remarkable that Sechzig have left themselves with four games left to save their season.
1860 are not alone in this regard – while Karlsruher look almost certain to go down, there are only four points separating 17th and 11th – meaning there are still seven clubs who are not out of the woods yet. The bottom half of the table has been incredibly tight this year but 1860 stand out as the stark under-achievers of that pack. Having spent almost €10 million this season they were expected to at least comfortably finish in the top half, if not challenge for promotion.
Perhaps the best example of the club’s flawed recruitment method is the man who played the decisive role in 1860’s defeat to Kaiserslautern: Christian Gytkjær. The Danish striker was a €2.25 million January reinforcement from Rosenborg, boasting Champions League experience and arrived on the back of a title-winning season in which he was the top-scorer in Norway. As a typical penalty box poacher who ‘knows where the goal is’ – and 1860 actually used this expression when unveiling him – he was supposed to provide a cutting edge to a side that only scored 20 goals in the first half of the season.
Gytkjær arrived to a lot of fanfare and he had the Sechzig fanbase purring as he coolly opened his account for the club just thirteen minutes into his debut against Arminia Bielefeld. However, he has failed to score in ten appearances since then and is now on a goal drought lasting over 500 minutes. Worse still, he’s lived up to the warnings about him expressed by Norwegian football experts – namely that he is very reliant on service from teammates as his hold-up play is not good enough to create chances for himself.
Unfortunately 1860 have struggled with creativity and making chances all season and, although this has improved since the January appointment of Vitor Pereira, Gytkjær has struggled to adapt to the demanding centre-forward role in the Portuguese’s 3-4-3 system. This has seen him dropped for the team in favour of the veteran Ivica Olic, who brings hard work and graft but also struggles to deliver goals, so the Dane was given another chance to start against Kaiserslautern.
Having waited patiently for an opening, the striker finally got one when FCK centre-back Stipe Vučur lost the ball on the edge of his own box and Amilton squared a cross back into Gytkjær’s path. It was as clear a chance as he was likely to get all game and it was squandered as his left-foot strike was denied by the keeper Julian Pollersbeck. Gytkjær kept going and finally got his second goal in German football in the 73rd minute – unfortunately though it was past his own keeper this time… In attempting to defend a wide free-kick, the hapless striker managed to head the ball into the top corner in what was the only goal of the game.
That goal meant that Kaiserslautern leapfrogged 1860 in the table. It was also Die Löwen’s final chance to take points off of the teams around them: 1860’s run-in is one of the toughest of all the teams in the league: Starting with the visit of promotion-chasing Eintracht Braunschweig, before a tough trip to Dynamo Dresden, then a final home game against VfL Bochum, before finishing with an away trip to Heidenheim – which is never easy.
The battle to avoid relegation is likely to go down to the final game of the season. 1860 München fall into the category of ‘too big to go down’ but at this rate you never know. Pereira and his team will need to pull out all the stops to stay up. Whatever happens it’s going to be fun to watch for the neutrals – but nail-biting for the blue half of Munich. – AW
Hannover drop crucial points in the promotion race
- Hannover must be kicking themselves. After triumphing in the derby against Eintracht Braunschweig last weekend they put themselves in the driving seat for an automatic promotion spot. They put in a rather indifferent performance on a dreadful pitch away at Erzgebirge Aue on Saturday but still seemed to do enough to see out a victory thanks to goals from Waldemar Anton and Martin Harnik. It was a real kick in the teeth then that after keeping Aue at bay for almost the whole of the second half Hannover conceded a 94th minute equalise to that man Dimitrij Nazarov. They can count themselves a little unlucky that the goal came from a deflection and because more added time was played than perhaps should have been, but it’s still two points dropped. Braunschweig took full advantage the next day as they comfortably beat Bochum 2-0 and all of a sudden Hannover were bumped down to 3rd again. With just the solitary strike separating the goal difference between the two rivals it seems that promotion fight, like the scrap to avoid relegation, could go down to the wire this season. – AW
Team of the Week
Dick (Arminia), Franke (Fürth), Gonther (St. Pauli) Kurzweg (Würzburger);
Buchtmann (St. Pauli), Pledl (Sandhausen), Maxim (Stuttgart), Brekalo (Stuttgart)
Sukuta-Pasu (Sandhausen), Terodde (Stuttgart)
Goal of the Week
Valdet Rama (Würzburger vs Nürnberg)