“Who would have thought at the beginning of the season that we are close to promotion at this time?” asked Eintracht Braunschweig coach Torsten Lieberknecht at his press conference before the game against Union Berlin. Certainly few would have predicted such a successful year. Die Löwen stormed to the top of the 2. Bundesliga table after winning their first five games of the season and twenty-seven rounds later they are still in contention for promotion.
3rd-place Braunschweig vs 4th-place Union was given the showcased privilege of being the Monday night game, under the floodlights and with the eyes of German football eagerly watching the outcome of this promotion six-pointer. The team from the capital have had a similarly surprising and successful season, with both clubs topping the table for periods this season, pushing Stuttgart and Hannover, the biggest team’s in the division, all the way. Union needed a win here to keep their promotion dreams alive, while Braunschweig could move back up to 2nd with two games to go.
Ultimately this was the night in which Eintracht proved their mettle as title contenders. Lieberknecht earned promotion with the club before, of course, in 2013, but at times this season it seemed as if he wasn’t quite sure they deserved to be in the race. In the reverse fixture, for example, the coach switched from the simple but effective 4-4-2 system that had kickstarted their season to a negative back three formation, which backfired as Union played them off the pitch in a 2-0 victory.
It was the complete opposite at the Eintracht-Stadion on Monday as Braunschweig completely overwhelmed Berlin in a 3-1 triumph. It took just over five minutes for the hosts to take the lead thanks to club icon and stand-in captain Ken Reichel. His left-foot can strike a ball with the best of them and his early Tor was almost a carbon copy of recent winning goals against Heidenheim and Dynamo Dresden. Indeed, he’s really coming up with the goods in the business end of the season – his second in this game was his fifth in the last ten games. Not bad for a left-back!
For Union, however, they struggled to create chances throughout the match. Their best chance of the first half fell to Simon Hedlund, but that came after a mistake by Braunschweig centre-back Joe Baffo and then some weak defending by Gustav Valsvik. Besides that they hardly made any impact in the final third and the Berlin side were clearly missing the suspended striker Sebastian Polter, but also the injured Steven Skrzybski in particular.
Reichel grabbed his second goal around the hour mark thanks to some intelligent play by Eintracht striker Christoffer Nyman, who had been strangely quiet until that point. He was the only one alert to a loose ball that appeared to be going out of play but he kept it in to play in the left-back for what may have been another deflected finish. It should be noted at this point that Braunschweig were missing a big player of their own to suspension in the form of defender Saulo Decarli, one of the finest in the league, and so it was not overly surprising when they conceded soon after scoring.
It took less than thirty seconds from Union kicking off to them putting the ball in the back of the net. They cut open Braunschweig with ease for the only time in the game leading to a big chance for Philipp Hosiner. The home keeper Jasmin Fejzić – who has bizarrely been linked to Inter Milan for some reason – was on hand to save but could only push the shot upwards, allowing an easy rebound for substitute Maxi Thiel when the ball came down.
The game then took another twist and the turning point has to be Lieberknecht’s decision to bring on Julius Biada for the final twenty minutes. He’s a rare example of a ‘9 and a half’ type of player – somewhere between a striker and a number 10 playmaker – and he made an immediate impact. He was floating around in space, turning defenders and carrying the ball forwards, and it only took him a few minutes to get a brilliant assist for Domi Kumbela. The Congolese striker is still Braunschweig’s top-scorer, despite not scoring since December, but he took his goal with absolute confidence.
Biada’s introduction by Lieberknecht signalled a ploy to improve his side’s goal difference at the stage of the season where it could truly make a difference come the final matchday. Incredibly, fierce rivals Braunschweig and Hannover have nearly identical records this season – W18 D9 L5 – with the latter having scored one goal extra but also conceded two more, meaning that with this 3-1 victory Eintracht remain 2nd with a superior goal difference of +19 to +18.
Unsurprisingly, the mood among Braunschweig fans was jubilant on Monday night, while Hannover fans were despondent, especially when they looked at the remaining fixtures. While Eintracht’s final two games are against the league’s bottom-two, including the already relegated Karlsruher at home in the final game, Hannover face a huge season-defining game against league leaders Stuttgart, before travelling to Sandhausen on the final weekend.
Braunschweig are in the driving seat and must know that their fate is in their own hands with two winnable games remaining. The question now is: can they handle the pressure? This is a side that was unfancied for promotion but so far they’ve sustained their success all season. It helps that there are still a number of important figures who have been there and done it before in 2013 – as well as Lieberknecht and sporting director Marc Arnold, so too were Reichel, Kumbela and midfield engine Mirko Boland. If Braunschweig had any doubts before the Union game they shouldn’t do now. – AW
Keller and Union eventually undone by narrow options
A word then, after Monday’s showdown, about the losing side. Union could almost certainly be said to be the neutral’s favourite in the fascinating 4-team promotion race we have been treated to in 2016/17. Not only were they the underdog, with even Braunschweig having quite recently been part of the top flight, but also one of Germany’s most kult, and coolest, clubs.
What a shame then that with Eintracht’s victory, we have been robbed of the chance to see them take their shot at these two final, climactic weeks of the season. As Die Eisern claimed top spot in mid March with victory over Nürnberg, their 6th victory in a row, there looked to be no stopping them.
Reminiscent of Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth side, who were promoted from the English Championship at a canter in 2014/15, despite handing only 15 players league starts in the second half of the season, Keller’s men took their strength from familiarity, with an extremely consistent starting XI which the manager was usually reluctant to change. Whether borne from a lack of depth, or simply a very strong first choice, it certainly seemed to be working.
In the end though, both of the crucial moments in Union falling short have come from this hesitance to make use of the full squad. First place was sadly lost even more quickly than it had been gained, with a complete failure to cope with the rigours of the double game week in April, which yielded a calamitous 1 point from 3 matches. Perhaps the pressure of the club’s best ever season also played its part, as they first understandably lost at Hannover, but then even relinquished their superb home record with a 1-0 defeat to struggling Aue.
Between then and Monday’s game, a further gap had developed between Union and the top spot. While Keller has been well served by his backup players in individual cases, he has rarely had to deal with more than one of his first choice starters being missing at once. With both of his main attacking threats, Sebastian Polter and Steven Skrzsybski, missing through suspension and injury respectively, Monday night’s game would have been a tough ask against any opponent. Coupled with the calibre of the home side, and the pressure of the “must win” nature of the match, in the end it proved far, far too much.
Having already tied down most of their talented squad for another crack at promotion next season, Die Eisern will surely go into 2017/18 as one of the favourites, a definite improvement on their tag as dark horses before this campaign. Time though, and their success in the transfer market, will tell if they add the means to go the distance next time. –TNJ
Huge chances blown in relegation battle as Armina and Würzburger falter
As exciting as the promotion race has been this season in the 2.Bundesliga, the relegation battle has proved to be just as, if not more dramatic. Heading into the last two weekends of the season, there are technically still 8 teams who can join Karlsruher in the ignominious bottom 3.
More realistically though, it is the sides between 13th and 17th who remain in jeopardy. Just 3 points separate Fortuna Düsseldorf from Arminia Bielefeld, but it could have been even closer, as both Arminia and Würzburger Kickers threw away leads, and 2 points each, that could prove crucial.
Würzburger’s catastrophic decline was covered in more depth in last week’s Zweitegeist. Their alarming slide towards the bottom 3 had been worsened with 1860 winning on Friday, and the pressure for them to go and get a result at fellow relegation flirter Fortuna could not have been higher. 80 minutes or so passed without the scorers at the ESPIRIT arena being troubled. However when Lukas Fröde thumped in one of the goals of the season with less than 10 minutes remaining, it looked as if the Kickers preposterous winless run might finally be at an end. Not so. For as the home side floated an innocuous and speculative free kick into the box in injury time, the visitors’ goalkeeper Jörg Siebenhandl, impeded by one of his own players, could only watch it fly over his head for the equaliser.
Arminia’s season, having now entrusted a 3rd permanent manager in Jeff Sabiene to improve their fortunes, has been more consistently bad than Würzburger’s, and yet find themselves just a point behind the Kickers. They too will be kicking themselves after failing to capitalise on their advantage over under-motivated Bochum. With Bielefeld leading through an early goal from Keanu Staude on Sunday, with the luxury of bringing senior players Brandy and Klos off the bench, they headed into the second half looking in good shape. Like Würzburger though, they were undone by a freak goal. Reinstated goalkeeper Wolfgang Hesl had certainly justified his manager’s faith during the course of the game, but even he could do nothing about the intended cross from Selim Gündüz, which looped over his head in the 82nd minute to level the scores.
For both sides, the absurdity of their respective equalisers will really stick in the craw. However, with each having a member of the top 3 looming ahead of them, they will need to put these setbacks behind them ahead of the vital last two games. – TNJ
Team of the Week
Hesl (Arminia); Sauer (Braunschweig), Neumann (Würzburger), Sobiech (St. Pauli), Reichel (Braunschweig); Fröde (Würzburger), Buchtmann (St. Pauli), Lacazette (1860), Maxim (Stuttgart); Harnik (Hannover), Bouhaddouz (St. Pauli)
Goal of the Week
Lukas Fröde, Würzburger Kickers (vs. Fortuna Düsseldorf)