With Aue and Würzburger, opponents on Sunday, having been promoted from the 3.Liga in 2nd and 3rd place respectively, it was a fair assumption that they faced similar seasons in the 2.Bundesliga in 2016/17. While only three points separate the two sides with three matches left to play, their two seasons could scarcely have been more different.
As we headed into the Christmas break, Würzburger sat in a very comfortable, and completely unforeseen, 6th position, with 27 points, and were well on the way to achieving their only goal of the season: to avoid relegation. Not only were they the top ranked side in the region of Franconia at that stage of the season (ahead of bigger neighbours Furth and Nürnberg), but outperforming both of their fellow risers from the 3rd tier. Having thrashed promotion favourites and giants Stuttgart in the last match before the Winterpause, they looked more than capable of not only securing another season in the Zweite Liga, but even putting pressure on the sides ahead of them who viewed promotion as a more reachable aim.
Aue on the other hand, sitting 2nd bottom after 17 games, had not even managed to accrue half of the points total that their fellow promoted sides had managed. Having conceded a miserable 32 goals, the worst in the division, and with the only side below them an underperforming St Pauli, they looked to be staring an immediate return to the 3.liga in the face.
What a difference several months make, as the old adage goes. For ahead of Würzburger’s visit to East-Germany on Sunday, the 14 point gap between the two had been cut completely, leaving both sides with an opportunity to take a big step either towards safety or the trapdoor of relegation.
Of course, aside from being the home side, and despite having spent nearly every week of this season looking up at the Kickers, Aue went into this tie heavy favourites following a most unlikely revival under Domenico Tedesco. There was surely no shortage of rolled eyes when the German-Italian won his first match in charge of the Violets 1-0 against struggling Karlsruher. However, the common fade-away after the initial boost of a new manager’s arrival is yet to become apparent in this case, as the dismal form under Tedesco’s predecessor Pavel Dotchev was reversed, and has stayed reversed.
In fact, the rookie manager (at a fledgling 31 years of age, even a couple of his players are closer to their pensions), has had such an impact on the mood and fortunes at the club, it is hardly possible to believe he has been in charge for only 8 matches. Nor is it easy to believe how simple it has been for him to turn things around at the Sparkassen-Erzgebirgsstadion. With a simple change of formation he has used in all 8 of those matches, he has managed to avoid defeat in all but one, and has added 17 points to the club’s tally. They only had 19 when he arrived.
That switch to a 3-4-3 system really has been at the core of the revival. Eyebrows were raised when Louis Samson was introduced as a 3rd centre-back, and while the player himself was perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek to describe himself as a “libero”, the move has proven a roaring success. The re-introduction of Mario Kvesic to a regular starting role was certainly met with approval from your columnists here at Zweitegeist, and that too has been nothing but positive for the side. Finally, the move to support misfiring forward Pascal Köpke with two extra forwards, most prolifically penalty specialist Dimitri “dead-eye” Nazarov, has taken some of the pressure off the youngster’s shoulders allowing him to play himself back into form.
Unsurprisingly, it is harder to tie down where it has gone wrong for Würzburger than where it has gone right for Aue. The facts however, are that Bernd Hollerbach’s side have added just 6 points to their pre-Christmas total of 27, winning zero games so far in 2017, and have slipped from 6th to 15th, level on points with 1860 who currently occupy the relegation playoff spot. There has been no big injury crisis, no wild off the field disturbances to speak of; nothing, in short, which would result in such a catastrophic collapse, even from the league’s minnows.
Having ended 2016 with an impressive 3-0 win over Stuttgart, all seemed well at the Flyeralarm Arena. Unfortunately several months later, Hollerbach was forced to lament that match as the moment where things started to go wrong for his inexperienced side. It seems he was devastatingly accurate in his assessment that his charges began to believe their own hype after that moment, having made light work of their opening 17 games at this level. Once they realised they were in a slump, and complacency gave way to panic, it was too late to easily halt the plummet.
Therefore it was little surprise on Sunday when Aue raced into a 3-0 lead prior to half time. Defender Fabian Kalig, another success story under Tedesco, took advantage of some lax defending to open the scoring early and claim his first goal of the season.
Then there was a Nazarov penalty, as has become customary. The Azerbaijan international’s record from the spot has been so flawless during this run, even with the stakes so high, that there hardly seems to be much difference for Aue’s opponents between conceding a penalty and blasting the ball past your own keeper, other than they might save a bit of time.
Finally there was a 2nd goal in two matches for 21-year-old Köpke, with the son of German keeper Andreas now showing a bit more of the confidence that saw him find the net 7 times before Christmas, having lost his way since, during a goal drought that had endured since January.
There was time in the second half for Patrick Weihrauch to score a sensational consolation goal for the visitors, but it provided little solace for the Kickers, who are now 14 matches without a win in 2017. Although they currently lead 1860 on goal difference, it is tough to see them picking up more points than Die Lowen over the remaining 3 matches of the season, and a second consecutive playoff match (played this time from the wrong side, from their perspective) might be the best they can hope for on current form.
For Aue, it is another massive boost in the reign of Tedesco. With their revamped stadium rising up around them almost as quickly as their charge up the table, it would have been a shame for them to open it back in the 3rd tier. That disappointing eventuality looks less and less likely with every match. – TNJ
Kaiserslautern closer to safety after relegating rivals Karlsruher
So it’s finally time to say a sad farewell to Karlsruher – the first side to be from relegated from 2. Bundesliga in the 16/17 season. They made quite the impression in their four seasons in the league, by regularly competing with the division’s best to finish 5th, 3rd and 7th. This season though is the outlier that will see them finish bottom of the table and return to 3. Liga.
And to think how close Karlsruher were joining Ingolstadt and Darmstadt in the Bundesliga in 2015 – leading Hamburg 2-1 on aggregate in the dying seconds the second leg of the relegation playoff, only to concede a controversial free-kick on the box’s edge for a debatable handball, before Mauro Diaz curled in the equaliser. Nicolai Müller scored the winner late into extra time and the rest, as they say, is history.
Karlsruher have never been boring but this season they were just simply not very good. In what is otherwise a nail-bitingly tight relegation scrap they stood out as the most toothless, having won only 4 games all season and scoring just 22 in the process. Relegation seemed almost inevitable, ever since they slipped to 18th in March, and was confirmed after picking up a single, pitiful point in the last 8 games.
The only potential silver lining to the dark cloud of relegation was the possibility that local rivals Kaiserslautern might join them in the bottom three come the end of the season. All of which provided an intriguing background to their derby game at the weekend: Karlsruher, knowing that they were all but mathematically relegated, were more motivated by the idea of dealing a blow to their rival’s chances of survival in 2. Liga, than the very slim chances of themselves winning every remaining game to stay up.
Kaiserslautern, on the other hand, had the rare opportunity to relegate a fierce rival at their own ground – an extra incentive in their own bid to avoid the drop and one that gave another edge to the match. Derbies in recent years have seen clashes between fans so despite both clubs pleading for calm tensions actually got quite heated on the pitch in a feisty first half.
The visitors struck the first blow though as the sleep-walking Karlsruher defence took less than four minutes to concede. Marcel Gaus showed some excellent wing-play to create the space to dig out a cross and Kacper Przybyłko was on hand to nod in a header. The hosts regrouped though and slowly grew into the game, culminating with a superb volleyed cross from Dennis Kempe, only for Oskar Zawada to slice well wide at the back post.
It was Zawada’s first start since joining Karlsruher in January and his finishing ability in this game perhaps explains why he hasn’t had a look-in until this point. His 19-year old strike partner Fabian Reese had a similarly bad day at the office, as he also fluffed every chance that came his way. They eventually equalised though thanks to a dipping long-range free-kick from centre-back David Kinsombi.
It’s rare for a team to be the better side in a game of football and still lose 1-3 at home, but that’s what Karlsruher managed at the weekend. The turning point was perhaps the controversial penalty decision that went Kaiserslautern’s way halfway through the second half – it was smart of Gaus to produce a drag-back shortly before the foul from Matthias Bader but there’s an argument to be made that they fouled each other. Strangely the spot-kick was taken by short-of-confidence substitute Sebastian Kerk and so it was not a surprise to see him scuff it at Dirk Orlishausen in goal, but it was spilled and he scored the rebound.
Karlsruher were unable to get a goal back this time and the death knell came a few minutes from time as Kaiserslautern took advantage of having an extra man, while Kempe was receiving treatment off the pitch. Kerk was involved again and the ginger winger crossed for Jacques Zoua to seal the victory. The final whistle blew shortly afterwards and the Karlsruher players left the pitch to boos and whistles from the home fans, along with the taunts of white handkerchiefs from the visiting fans.
It was perhaps a bit harsh on those players who had put in a good show in the derby but they came up short – almost a microcosm of Karlsruher’s time in 2. Bundesliga. It was a weak side on the day, with eight players out injured, three more sent to train with the U23s during the week, while Hiroki Yamada, Stefan Mugosa and Erwin ‘Jimmy’ Hoffer were nowhere to be seen in the starting XI.
It seems Marc-Patrick Meister was already looking ahead to next season in 3. Liga and really who can blame him? The day before the derby it was announced that he had signed a new contract until 2019, while it was also announced that keeper Benjamin Uphoff, Leipzig U23 captain Alexander Siebeck, and defensive midfielder Andreas Hofmann will join them next season. KSC have certainly wasted no time in building for next year and a possible immediate return to 2. Bundesliga.
For Kaiserslautern, however, those three points are huge. With three wins in their last four games they have jumped up to 12th and while they are not safe yet – with the relegation battle being as close-fought as it is – they took a big step towards safety this week. While better sides on paper, such as 1860 München and Fortuna Düsseldorf, are seemingly regressing in the run-in, FCK have found another gear to drive away from danger.
Norbert Meier deserves credit for finding a tactical system that is managing to get the best out of a disjointed squad. Kaiserslautern remain a tough side to break down at the back with their back three but are creating more variety in their attacking plays. Gaus especially is excelling down the left side, with his combination of power and skill coming to the fore-front in his new wing-back role.
Die roten Teufel may get a sense of Schadenfreude from seeing their rivals get relegated while they themselves move closer to safety, but ultimately it’s been a very disappointing season for Kaiserslautern. It’s almost twenty years since they shocked everyone to win the Bundesliga title in their first season after promotion but they’ve never been so far adrift from that moment. This is their fifth season in 2. Bundesliga and as it stands they are closer to 3. Liga than a return to the top-flight. – AW
St Pauli close to safety after winning run continues with ease at home to Heidenheim
I have to admit, I have neglected to comment on St Pauli’s good form recently, for fear of jinxing one of our column favourites’ bid for safety. While earlier in 2017, as the Boys in Brown started to improve after a horrid first half of the season, it seemed like they had little to lose in attempting what seemed at the time a most improbable escape. However, in the last few weeks as they steamed past several teams who spent the winter break as many as 16 points above them in the table, it seemed like any theme of congratulations would be tempting fate. Now though, it seems Ewald Lienen and his boys can start to relax after the most comfortable of this now 4-match winning run over Heidenheim.
With the visitors perhaps with one eye on the beach having consolidated another admirable year in the division, it was left for Pauli to make the most of their opponent’s apparent nonchalance. It took them until the second half to do so, but once ahead they quickly amassed a healthy 3-goal advantage via an own-goal from returning, seemingly slightly confused, striker John Verhoek, and tap-ins from Mats Møller Dæhli and Aziz Bouhaddouz. The Moroccan in particular has been instrumental in the Kiezkicker’s climb away from doom, and this was his 14th goal of the campaign.
I must say, even when the Millerntor outfit were marooned at the bottom of the league, I maintained that if their desperate crises of illness and injury could be halted, their squad was much too strong for a relegation battle. Lienen was let off the hook by the Pauli board, who then gave him greater input over transfers, and this proved to be a master-stroke following Møller Dæhli’s arrival. The Dane has proved another superb acquisition and has slotted into a regular front 4 with Bouhaddouz, Cenk Sahin and Waldemar Sobota with ease. Having replaced a record of just 2 wins and 10 losses in the first half of the season with 8 wins and just 3 losses since January, they now have the chance to aim for a top-half place by the end of May. Lienen deserves much of the credit, and judging from the reaction of another recent hero in Christopher Buchtmann who has made a point of running to him to celebrate several goals of late, his players agree. – TNJ
Braunschweig show resilience to stay in the hunt for promotion
How on earth did 1860 München fail to win on Sunday? For the second time in a row die Löwen lost 1-0 despite being the much better team. Stefan Aigner was the biggest culprit of terrible finishing this time – somehow missing a point-blank header in the first half and then what was basically an open goal in the second. 1860 threatened a lot from corners – with Kai Bülow hitting the post, Marin Pongračić having a header cleared off the line, and Ivica Olic saw his tipped over – but Eintracht Braunschweig hung on to win. In what was a limp performance from them the defining moment came from a piece of magic from Nik Omladič – so often shunned in recent months – as he pirouetted past Bülow and played in Christoffer Nyman to clinically fire into the roof of the net. Braunschweig are currently providing the answers to the doubter’s questions as they kept hold of their automatic promotion spot, with all of the top four winning at the weekend. 1860, meanwhile, dropped into the relegation playoff spot for the first time since Round 10. Relegation is looking more and more plausible if they continue to spurn so many chances. – AW
Team of the Week
Langerak (Stuttgart); Trimmel (Union), Kalig (Aue), Gonther (St. Pauli), Gaus (Kaiserslautern); Losilla (Bochum), Tiffert (Aue); Møller Dæhli (St. Pauli), Stiepermann (Bochum); Teuchert (Nürnberg), Terodde (Stuttgart)
Goal of the Week
Cedric Teuchert, Nürnberg (vs Stuttgart)