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FEATURE | Freiburg defy the odds again as hunt for European football continues

Under boss Christian Streich Freiburg continue to defy the odds in their charge for European football next season. Now up the seventh place in the Bundesliga after a solid 1-1 draw away to RB Leipzig, Streich still berated his team’s lack of quality in his post-match presser; “We gave everything, but we weren’t good enough football wise.” His comments may seem harsh on the surface but they highlight a clear ambition at Freiburg to finish in the top six this season.

Most will look at this result on paper as two points dropped for Leipzig as they hunt down leaders Bayern Munich but the away side gave as good as they got throughout large parts of this match-up. Admittedly the match statistics make this look like a smash-and-grab for Freiburg but with a last minute Robin Koch goal chalked off by VAR, Breisgau-Brasilianer were unlucky not to snatch all three points late on at Red Bull Arena.

Freiburg went into Saturday’s match against high-flying RB Leipzig looking to make progress on Schalke and Wolfsburg ahead of them in the Bundesliga standings at the start of play. Prior to this fixture, the visitors could already boast a decent away record in the league this season, losing only 5 out of 14. Leipzig have only lost once at home all season.

With the odds stacked against them and coming into this match as huge underdogs, Freiburg lined up in a rigid 5-4-1 formation, unchanged from their last match all the way back in March. It was clear to see from the offset that boss Christian Streich wanted to make it difficult for the home side to get the dangerous Timo Werner on the ball. It worked for large parts of the match, the three centre-backs through both sheer determination and some luck keeping Die Roten Bullen at bay until the 78th minute when Youssef Poulsen headed home his side’s equaliser.

The away side are largely known in the Bundesliga for relying heavily on their defensive performances, managing just 35 goals in 26 matches to date with Saturday’s match proving no different. Streich’s decision to leave second top-scorer Luca Waldschimdt on the bench a clear indication that Freiburg weren’t going to let Leipzig have much freedom on the ball in the final third.

Granted, Freiburg tried to play the ball out from the back during the opening phases of play but were often thwarted by the home side, Konrad Laimer flashing a shot wide early on after some casual play at the back from Dominque Heintz and co. The pressure would build on the visitor’s goal throughout the opening 20 minutes of play, Werner and Tyler Adams both having shots on target before Freiburg stumbled into the lead.

The breakthrough came through a fortuitous strike from Manuel Gulde in the 34th minute as he bundled home from a corner. The ball ricocheting off his standing leg and spinning into the far corner, past the helpless Peter Gulacsi in Leipzig’s goal. It was the opening that boss Christian Streich had hoped for with the way he had defensively set up his Freiburg side from a tactical standpoint.

The rest of the match would somewhat resemble a clear attack versus defence situation. Leipzig having 22 attempts at goal compared to Freiburg’s four during the match. The away side spending much of the game on the back foot, having just 39% possession during the match as Leipzig tried to force a way back into the match.

With only two clean sheets in their last 15 Bundesliga matches, it was perhaps not entirely surprising when Leipzig levelled towards the later part of the second half. Yussuf Poulsen’s towering header from Kevin Kampl’s deep cross cancelling out Gulde’s earlier effort.

It would have been easy for Freiburg to crumble in the last ten as Leipzig went in search for an equaliser but the South-West German outfit stood strong and nearly grabbed all three points in extra time. Koch prodding home from a Lucas Höler knock down before VAR adjudged the assist offside, denying Koch the perfect end to another all-round brilliant display. The late goal would have mirrored what happened when the two sides met earlier in the season where Freiburg scored late on to ensure their best start to a Bundesliga campaign. It wasn’t to be but the visitors will be happy to take a point by to the Schwarzwald-Stadion.

Koch had a solid match in the middle of the park for Freiburg. Tasked in the role of protecting the defence, the young midfielder made two blocks, two interceptions, recovered possession four times and won all five of his aerial duels against Leipzig. In recent times the 23-year-old has come to the attention of many larger European clubs including Benfica and Napoli and with tidy performances like this against bigger opposition in the Bundesliga, it’s not difficult to see why.

The Germany international himself joins a long list of youngsters who have furthered their young careers with the club. Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Mattias Ginter and Leicester City’s Caglar Söyüncü just two whom have previously called Freiburg home. A reliance on youth this term, amid a lower transfer budget than most in the league, making their charge for a top-six finish this season even more impressive.

Goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow also enjoyed a solid display in goal against Leipzig. A lack of a clean sheet unlucky as he made six saves in the match.

With this display, the visitors once again demonstrated why they remain in the hunt for a place in the Europa League next season. Their defensive solidity limiting RB Leipzig enough to steal a vital point on the road. The result leaves Freiburg in seventh and just two points behind Wolfsburg and a place in European football next season. Leipzig slip to fourth spot and sit seven points back from league leaders Bayern, leapfrogged by Borussia Mönchengladbach thanks to their win in Frankfurt on Saturday evening.

1 | With all eyes on the Bundesliga’s return, the Revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke took place inside an eerily quiet and empty Westfalenstadion. Erling Braut Haaland gave the hosts an early lead after 30 minutes, netting his 10thBundesliga goal with relative ease. Close to leaving the club in the summer, Raphaël Guerreiro scored on either side of Thorgan Hazard as Borussia trounced their rivals from Gelsenkirchen.

An odd experience from all viewpoints, only 300 people were allowed inside the stadium due to strict protocols. Ten journalists from written press, in a fixture that always receives more accreditation requests than press seating, four ball boys, and a small number emergency services personnel amongst the bare minimal club staff. Playing to an empty stadium is just something we’re going to have to get used to, Lucien Favre: “It was a completely different game than usual. It’s hard to judge how good the game was. I had the feeling that it wasn’t as committed as planned. The players were very focused on their task.”

2 | You can do as much preparation as you like but there’s nothing that can prepare you for a ghost game. Players can put in as much training as they like but without fans in attendance, it’s always going to be tough. Bayern Munich travelled to the always boisterous Stadion an der Alten Försterei on Sunday afternoon but even the Bundesliga leaders struggled to find their rhythm.

Robert Lewandowski scored his 40th goal in all competitions for Bayern Munich, bringing his tally to 26 Bundesliga goals. During the league’s suspension, Hansi Flick was announced as permanent head coach of the Bavarians and with the way they’re playing, it’s easy to see why. Installing a possession-based game once again, Bayern have scored 50 Bundesliga goals in just 16 games, Flick setting a new all-time Bundesliga record for reaching this milestone. Benjamin Pavard added a second for Bayern with ten minutes remaining, but it’s evident that even the leaders may struggle without any spectators.

3 | Before the Bundesliga was suspended, FC Köln were the in-form team. Just two defeats in 11 games, Markus Gisdol’s Billy Goats had steered well-clear of their early relegation worries. The 2. Bundesliga champions sat bottom of the table before the former Hamburg head coach was appointed. Installing confidence into Köln, the mix of youth and experience is proving to be a successful mix at the RheinEnergieStadion with European football well within their sights, despite being held to a 2-2 draw against Mainz 05.

N.E & D.P

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