European wounds to heal, table duels to play

30
March
2012

Posted by Radu M. Pandea

Posted in Bundesliga / Football

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March 30 – The Europa League dreams of FC Schalke 04 and Hannover 96 were given a tough blow after the first leg encounters in the quarter-finals of the competition, Huub Steven’s side being one step down from the train to Bucharest, while Mirko Slomka’s boys still hope after getting an all important away goal to keep them in with a decent chance.  Spanish sides seem to be at a higher level, one that Bundesliga’s teams cannot reach at the moment, the two results from last night for sure affecting the levels of confidence of Bayern fans, with a Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid almost arranged.


Two similar scripts, until…

The first half of both games followed similar scripts, the Spanish sides drawing first blood but the half finishing with a level score, thank to some good comeback.  The second half was quite different and to Schalke’s despair, they went down worse.  The fans in Veltins Arena were shocked after Fernando Llorente took advantage of a Timo Hildebrand error to open the score after 20 minutes, but Raúl was there to put the Royal Blues back in the game, scoring two minutes later to prevent his team from getting down.  It was again the brilliance of Raúl which brought Schalke in front after 59 minutes, his superb volley from 20 yards out beating Gorka Iraizoz and the fans were hoping that their favourites will go on to take an advantage for the away leg.  It wasn’t so because Llorente struck again, heading from close range with 73 minutes on the clock and it was there where the nightmare started for the home fans.

Oscar de Marcos benefited from another poor save from the Schalke goal, this time substitute Mathias Schober being the guilty one, putting the Basque team back in front with nine minutes left on the board.  The home side pushed for a late equaliser but received a blow which might be decisive, Iker Muniain finishing off a good counter in the last minute of injury time to put the icing on the cake and bring joy to Marcelo Bielsa.  Whoever didn’t believe that Bilbao were such a good side after the games with Manchester United, surely got the confirmation now, their place in the domestic league table not reflecting the immense quality of this squad.  For Schalke it was clear that only one Matador cannot fight by himself against a team full of ones.  The Royal Blues conceded four goals at home for the first time since another European disaster, a 1-4 against Wisla Krakow in December 2002.

Lack of focus in the end, a win mandatory now

Hannover’s game started off terrible, Mirko Slomka’s men undergoing a lot of pressure and conceding after only nine minutes, goal machine Falcao beating Ron-Robert Zieler to the ball after a free-kick, and heading it in for the 1-0 for Atlético Madrid.  It looked like The Reds were silenced but they soon started to show what they can do best, and that is to attack with precision.  Sure enough, it was the result of such an attack which brought the equaliser, Lars Stindl’s perfectly timed pass finding Mame Biram Diouf in front of goal, the Senegalese striker making no mistake.  A sublime assist from the former Karlsruhe player who proved his good form yet again, and another goal for the former United player, showing again the value of the money invested by Hannover in him.

Second half was evenly matched with good chances from both sides, biggest one coming after 62 minutes, Diouf’s close range effort being miraculously saved by Belgian keeper Thibaut Curtois.  Diego Simeone brought on the former Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg player, Diego, and the Brazilian started to help his teammates get closer to Zieler’s goal.  Hannover looked to keep things safe but their only error in that half was punished by Eduardo Salvio, his curling shot from 20 yards out being simply too good to be saved, bringing the joy to the Vicente Calderón, one minute before the end of regular time.  It could have been worse for Hannover if Diego’s great overhead kick wasn’t saved by Zieler in injury time, this late intervention denying the home side a confident advantage for the second leg.

Mirko Slomka will look now to correct the errors from this game and prepare his team for an all-out battle at the AWD Arena, where Hannover is forced to get a win, 1-0 being the perfect result.  For the manager there is also a personal revenge to be taken, his dream of reaching the UEFA Cup Final in Eindhoven in 2006 being destroyed by another Spanish team, his side at that time Schalke being downed in extra-time in the semi-finals by Sevilla’s lost child, Antonio Puerta.  It will be for sure another great game, with everything left to play for.

Back to the league struggles

After these disappointments, the attention goes back to the Bundesliga, where the battles at the two ends of the table are getting fiercer.  The biggest games are to be played in Nuremberg and Kaiserslautern, a Bavarian derby and a relegation battle being the highlights of this match-day.  There is a promising game on Sunday also, when Hannover welcomes Borussia Mönchengladbach.

It’s Borussia Dortmund to open the show this week, the leaders receiving the visit of in-form VfB Stuttgart, the Swabians having four wins and a draw in their last five games in the league.  But for BVB things are even better, their long streak of invincibility continuing, their offensive appetite coming back after that 6-1 thrashing last week in Cologne and the future being assured, after Mario Götze signed the extension of his contract until 2016.

The reigning champions seem to have everything in their advantage, especially with the visitors missing Cacau, Matthieu Delpierre and Khalid Boulahrouz, Serdar Tasci and Shinji Okazaki still being question marks for this trip.  Even with these problems though, Stuttgart remains a strong side which cannot afford too many points dropped, as they are in a tough battle for a Europa League place. It will be for sure an entertaining Friday evening game, one which will set the trend for the weekend battles.

Boiling pressure at the bottom

If Dortmund win, then the pressure will be on top of FC Bayern in their away game against 1. FC Nürnberg, a bad result potentially ending the title race.  At the same time as the Bavarian derby, there are two great relegation duels to be played, with one being played with the sword over the heads of the two clubs involved.  1. FC Kaiserslautern will not try to be gracious hosts to Hamburger SV, as they are trying to finally end their winless streak and boost some energy for a miraculous comeback to hopefully stay in the league.  Krassimir Balakov’s first game for the Red Devils wasn’t a successful one, his team going down in Freiburg, but now is the best time to make his mark.  Hamburg are without a win in six games and they have sunk into a relegation playoff spot, the pressure being immense on Thorsten Fink.  It will be an all or nothing game, both teams having to push for a win if they want to survive.

In the other bottom battle, FC Augsburg host 1. FC Köln will be looking to push each other over the deck in a six point game, the losers feeling the heat of the relegation pot.  The home side has some momentum going with five games undefeated while Stale Solbakken’s side needs to reorganise after conceding 10 goals in their last games.  One can consider Augsburg favourites, their capacity to fight until the end bringing them a lot of points this season but, for the visitors it’s time to make use of the experience in their squad, Lukas Podolski being the main hope for the Billy Goats.  It will be a battle to survive, similar to the one in Kaiserslautern, but not the last one that these two teams will have to carry until the very end, so a draw being one result which both managers could live with.

(Editor’s note:  Sport Eagle will have Salman Mitha tweeting live from SGL Arena for the relegation battle between FC Augsburg and 1.FC Köln.  Follow on Twitter @Sal_SportEagle)

Connections

Werder Bremen will look to get back the points lost last week against Augsburg, with a win against a team in which seems a bit stuck, 1. FSV Mainz coming down close to the area of moving sands after two straight defeats.  In another similar game, another relegation competitor, Hertha Berlin are looking to build on the road win in Mainz last week and get points against Wolfsburg, a team in the same competition for Europa League as Werder.  Two games that mirror each other and will for sure make things worse in one way or another, as we are in the business end of the season.  One mistake and each club’s mission will be in jeopardy, a pressure that will be present for sure on the shoulders of the teams.

Licking wounds

Sunday is the recovery day for Hannover and Schalke.  Mirko Slomka’s boys can help their coach’s former team in the race for third place, if they can upset Borussia Mönchengladbach.  Lucien Favre has some work to do after two painful defeats at home, one knocking them out of the Cup and the second one pushing them back to fourth in the table.  They can also hope though for Schalke to take a wrong step, as Huub Steven’s side is travelling to Hoffenheim, the team that added to BMG’s misery with that 2-1 win at Borussia Park.  Markus Babbel can try to push his team towards the Europa League battle if his boys can overcome Schalke, even if it’s a long shot.

It will be a day of interesting action, the fixtures bringing quality sides against each other in what for sure will be an entertaining show for the neutral fans.

Here is the full list of fixtures for this weekend:

Friday 20:30 CET

Borussia Dortmund – VfB Stuttgart

Saturday 15:30 CET

FC Augsburg – 1.FC Cologne
1. FC Nürnberg – Bayern München
1. FC Kaiserslautern – Hamburger SV
Werder Bremen – 1.FSV Mainz
Bayer Leverkusen – SC Freiburg

Saturday 18:30 CET

Hertha Berlin – VfL Wolfsburg

Sunday

Hannover 96 – Borussia Mönchengladbach 15:30
Hoffenheim 1899 – FC Schalke 17:30


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