Smiling, Adi Hütter removed his bracelets and counted the beads. These were his “lucky bracelets”, a gift from his family at the start of the season, the Eintracht Frankfurt head coach explained in an interview with Bild. The bracelets have been with the Austrian through a remarkable first Bundesliga season which has seen Eintracht gather their highest points total since three points for a win, bulldoze their way to the Europa League semi-finals and dream of Champions League football. However, after Sunday’s six goal first half dismantling by a free-wheeling Bayer Leverkusen, Hütter and his bracelets might finally run out of luck.
After just 147 seconds, Eintracht were behind. Charles Aranguiz’s cross was controlled expertly and dispatched typically gracefully by Kai Havertz from the edge of the area before Julian Brandt, seemingly invisible to the Frankfurt defence, tapped home Aranguiz’s sliced shot on 13 minutes for two. Although the visitors were level seconds later as Filip Kostic’s effort deflected home via Bayer defender Jonathan Tah, Leverkusen did not release their grip on Frankfurt’s throat. Lightning interchanging and one-touch play ended in a goal line clearance from Frankfurt defender Makoto Hasebe, Wendell shaving the outside of the post from distance and Lucas Alario’s 23rd minute header for 3-1.
Aranguiz, who received a rare 1 out of 6 grade from Kicker – 1 being the highest possible from a rating system that mirrors German school grading, crashed a fourth past the hapless Kevin Trapp and Kevin Volland’s tenacity laid on a fifth for Alario just after the half hour. Martin Hinteregger’s own goal for 6-1 equalled the record for the number of first half goals in Bundesliga history, this being the quickest a team has ever scored six times in the German top flight. Although Hütter hastily withdrew the disastrous Jetro Willems and Evan N’Dicka, who both managed 6/6 from Kicker, and Bayer eased off in the second half, as Kicker pointed out it still might have been double digits.
Only Hütter and sporting director Fredi Bobic appeared in the mixed zone for interview afterwards, the squad ushered onto the team coach. “The performance was terrible,” said Hütter, a “raven-black day.” Bobic said Frankfurt “did everything wrong” while Kicker’s Monday headline referred to the mauling as a ‘historical debacle’, the magazine deeming the display an ‘embarrassment’. Hütter, who was criticised for changing to a defensive 5-4-1 set up and resting top scorer Luka Jović ahead of Frankfurt’s Europa League semi-final second leg with Chelsea, defended those decisions. Although he admitted “maybe I could have chosen a different tactical variant. But this was not down to the system, only the physical and mental freshness was missing.” Brandt however, who proved unplayable at times, explained: “I have never experienced such a first half. That was very special.”
Although the manner of their collapse at the BayArena was alarming, Frankfurt’s form has been on the downturn of late as Hütter’s side become stretched and distracted by an extended Europa League run. The April loss at home to Augsburg had been Eintracht’s first league defeat of 2019 and ended a six game winning run which had made them top four favourites. However, two points from their last four games has seen a four point lead over fifth place evaporate. A frustrated Trapp had referred to last month’s draw at Hertha Berlin as “lethargic”. Now only goal difference only is keeping Leverkusen at bay with Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach just two points behind. Only two games remain.
Nevertheless, speaking to T-Online before the game, veteran former Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund coach Ottmar Hitzfeld underlined Frankfurt’s rise under Hütter and Niko Kovac, now Bayern coach, before him, in saying “Hütter is a great coach who brought the winning mentality. I see them in the fight for the German championship,” Hitzfeld explained, “It will be crucial for them if they can keep their best players.” However, that may prove difficult.
Although the club have taken-up Jović’s option to buy after a two-year loan from Benfica ahead of this summer – a miserly €7 million – both Real Madrid and Barcelona were heavily linked with the Serbian forward this weekend. Jović’s exacting finishing has been crucial to Frankfurt’s progress this term. His 17 league goals to date and 26 in all competitions would be difficult to replace while 20% of whatever fee the club receive for Jović, €60m, according to Bild, would go to Benfica as part of a sell on clause. With 19 goal rangey French striker Sébastien Haller, despite being injured since March, and Croatian international Ante Rebić also interesting bigger clubs, Frankfurt may be depleted come August.
While the resting of Jović amid a defensive set up from Hütter seemed to suggest an attempt to focus on Thursday’s trip to London and an omission that a draw would do against Bayer, Leverkusen were devastating. Although Peter Bosz’s usual 4-3-3 was evident, a fluid Bayer often switched to what resembled a lopsided 3-6-1 set up with Volland, a striker, almost playing at wing back as Brandt and Havertz roamed freely behind central forward Alario with Chilean midfielder Aranguiz bursting forward from midfield.
Since arriving over the Winter break following the sacking of Heiko Herrlich, Leverkusen have dramatically improved under Bosz. Ninth at the turn of the year, they’re now favourites for a Champions League spot after four wins in a row while a Bundesliga table since Bosz was appointed would have Bayer in third behind Munich and Leipzig. In that time only Bayern have more goals while no teenager has scored more in Europe’s top five leagues than Havertz, who has opened the scoring seven times in the Bundesliga alone. Where Herrlich had been accused of tactical deficiencies, Leverkusen are now an aggressive, unpredictable and intelligent side, their attacking freedom underlined and enhanced by developing the understanding between Havertz and Brandt who’s movement and incisive passing ripped Frankfurt apart with half an hour on Sunday.
Bayer sporting directors Simon Rolfes and Rudi Völler are insistent that Havertz will stay for one more year at least although the club, so say Sport Bild, have quietly decided €100m would be enough to sell the 19-year-old with Bayern Munich unsurprisingly interested. Brandt may also be considering leaving as Kicker reported that ‘secret’ discussions had taken place with Dortmund over a summer move.
However, the immediate concern for both clubs will be the final two games of the Bundesliga season. Remarkably, after Leverkusen’s win, Eintracht and the four teams chasing are separated by just three points. With Bayern facing Leipzig in the DFB Pokal final, 5th, 6th and 7th will equal Europa League football for next season with fourth now meaning direct qualification for the Champions League group stage. After an equally important trip Chelsea on Thursday, Frankfurt host Mainz before a trip to Bayern. However, the final day meeting with Munich may prove less daunting than first thought as, after Dortmund’s draw at Bremen this weekend, the title could be decided by then.
Nevertheless, Leverkusen remain the most likely to finish fourth with Schalke and Hertha to come, neither side having anything to play for in the bottom half, while Gladbach, Bremen and Frankfurt are all yet to play a top three team. Wolfsburg may yet prove a threat with bottom five Stuttgart and Augsburg to come and Hoffenheim will be keen to put pressure on those above from eighth place.
With Jović, Brandt and Havertz receiving flirtatious glances from various top tier European clubs, making the top four may offer more than just a Champions League berth for Leverkusen or Frankfurt. Guaranteed groups stage qualification provides both clubs with significant leverage in holding onto their key players and prevent their exciting young teams being broken up for one more year at least. As a result, Hütter will be hoping his lucky bracelets can hold out for one or two more weeks at least.
By Adam White.
You can read more content from Adam on his blog.