Wolfsburg dominated a limited Frankfurt side but had to come from behind to scrape a draw after missing a host of second-half chances.
As well as being a tussle between two sides struggling to avoid the drop, this game was also intriguing as it saw Felix Magath take charge of his first home game in his second spell at Wolfsburg. Meanwhile, there was also another new face on the bench a few feet away from Magath’s: Christoph Daum, the former Fenerbahçe manager, was back in the Bundesliga after a two-year absence. The 57-year-old East German replaced Michael Skibbe last week: Skibbe oversaw a solid first half of the season (including a 3-1 win over Steve McClaren’s Wolfsburg in November), but then a terrible second half of the season which has seen Frankfurt fall from being credible Europa League challengers to 14th place in the table and a mere three points above the relegation zone. Wolfsburg, sat in 17th before this match, knew that a win would take them to within a point of their guests. However, they’d seen nine players called up for international duty during the recent club football break, compared to Frankfurt’s two. Selection wise, Daum had to make do without Zlatan Bajramović and club captain Chris, while Magath couldn’t pick Tolga Ciğerci or Peter Pekarik (injury and suspension respectively).
Wolfsburg started the game with real intent and energy, as Frankfurt looked uncertain in their defensive system. This was epitomised when Wolfsburg effortlessly found Diego in the defence-midfield corridor of the away side’s 4-5-1, a move which saw the Brazilian playmaker jog sideways, assess the pass, and feed the ball in between Marco Russ and Georgios Tzavellas for a curved Jan Polák run. It was a backs-to-the-wall job for Daum’s side throughout the first half, as even when they won tackles in their own half, they were reluctant or unable to carry the ball into Wolfsburg’s half. Moments after Diego’s clever pass, Josué had a go at his own: again, the Frankfurt defence was static, the midfield so far away from them that the Brazilian had a corridor and no pressure in which to work. He attempted a scoop to Diego, who perhaps surprised by the fact that he had so easily been played onside, failed to make a connection with the pass, despite being one-on-one with Ralf Fährmann.
Nevertheless, we’ve seen time and again this season how weak Wolfsburg are at defending set-pieces, so it was no surprise when Frankfurt had a chance of their own in the 11th minute – a floated free-kick from the halfway line by Tzavellas headed at Diego Benaglio by Alexander Meier. The tall midfielder was a pain throughout the opening 20 minutes, winning every ball that came his way in the air. The only trouble was that Wolfsburg were generally winning his knock-downs. Not so in the 17th minute, however -Meier cleverly turned around, headed sideways for the oncoming Sebastian Jung, and the right-back planted an inch-perfect cross on Theofanis Gekas’s head. Alas, it was straight at Benaglio.
Irrespective of these occasional moments of aerial command, Wolfsburg were totally in control of all floor-based traffic. They played cute triangles with ease, stopped Frankfurt’s stodgy counter-attacks with even more ease, and passed their way about the first and seconds thirds of the pitch at will. However, changes of pace in distribution or runs made to or in the final third weren’t so forthcoming. You can’t help but feel the hosts missed a trick here, as every time the ball was put in the box during the opening quarter, Frankfurt panicked, and most of the time, it was easy for Wolfsburg to have an attempt at goal.
As the 25th minute arrived, Magath altered things slightly. Patrick Helmes, who’d put in a good shift, moved over the right-sided forward slot, and Grafite the left. Diego began to collect the ball deeper in the midfield, seeking to get things started himself rather than being on the end of the move. The attention he attracted from the opposition meant that Marcel Schäfer could come up and bob freely in or near the final-third, and Cícero had the chance to make his mark on the game from a more central position. Alas, with neither side injecting any sort of pace into their attacks, it was little surprise that the half-hour came and went without a goal. But then, out of nowhere in the 34th minute, Simon Kjær sent a missile of a pass over the top of the Frankfurt defence, Helmes was on the same wavelength as his centre-back colleague, but unfortunately, the former Leverkusen man’s touch let him down. Frankfurt were playing an increasingly risky game by looking to stand still as a rearguard unit whenever a pass went through or over them, and it didn’t always correspond with the raising of the linesman’s flag.
Yet for Wolfsburg, the Dane’s pass hit home the point that they had to hurry their passes from or into the final-third. It inspired Diego and Sascha Riether in the 36th minute; the former releasing the latter’s explosive overlap to the byline. Although the right-back’s cross was sharp, the two efforts on goal it resulted in were snatched. Suddenly, Frankfurt sparked into life too – exploiting Wolfsburg’s laziness at retreating back into their banks, along with the fact that they had no midfield width and a gaping hole on the flanks when their full-backs had come upfield. A quick pass from the right found the diagonal dart of Gekas, who crossed for Halil Altıntop. Alas, despite the goal gaping at his mercy, the Turkish international didn’t make a proper connection with the ball. Minutes later, Helmes had the same problem – totally unmarked from a corner at the backpost, he allowed Fährmann to cover the angle. The chance was the result of one of Wolfsburg’s many corners – usually won after Sebastian Rode mopped up well, and then usually subsequently wasted by Diego.
Mario Mandžukić replaced Grafite for the second half, but the most significant change from the first half came in the 47th minute when Diego flighted in an inch-perfect corner. Arne Friedrich ran onto it, pushed the ball goalwards, but for the third or fourth time in the match, Frankfurt cleared the ball off the line. It sparked Wolfsburg into chance-creating life, and it was another Kjær early and long ball which opened Frankfurt up. This time, Mandžukić and Helmes used it to play a quick first-time triangle with one another, only for the latter to drag a right-footed shot wide. Then, four minutes later in the 52nd minute, Helmes was at it again. Diego played a canny and quick through-ball between a hole in the centre of Frankfurt’s defence, Maik Franz took the pace off the ball and handed it on a plate for Helmes, who one-on-one with the ‘keeper, but again fired wide under little pressure.
It was all Wolfsburg, and two minutes later, Diego’s third fantastic ball into the box of the half found Mandžukić, who headed straight at Fährmann. At last, Wolfsburg were doing every right, but with the hour mark approaching and the score still 0-0, you couldn’t help but feel if they’d have played like this in the first half, they could have been shutting up shop at this point. Retaining his new 4-3-2-1 but looking to add even more creativity into the side, Magath replaced Polák with Koo Ja-Cheol. But seconds later, disaster struck. Altintop found some space to shoot in the D after his shoulder drop made Kjær stumble, Benaglio’s save had enough power to alleviate any immediate danger, but the Dane then made another mistake, chesting the ball into the path of Meier, who finished calmly.
All of a sudden, Frankfurt had confidence and momentum. With Wolfsburg sending everyone forward bar the centre-backs and Bengalio, they also had space to counter-attack in. Ricardo Clark could suddenly put his energy into attacking runs rather than covering angles. Nevertheless, Frankfurt’s defensive frailties remained, and Diego easily fed another through-ball between the nigh-on chalk-to-chalk back four. Mandžukić got on the end of it between the right-back and right centre-back, but his early shot was heldby Fährmann. One minute later, a high long-diagonal towards the right byline in the box saw Mandžukić head back into the D for Koo, who did one keepy-uppy, before placing a volley to the top left-hand corner. Unfortunately for the Korean, Franz deflected the ball on its way, forcing it to land just over the bar. Then, in the 70th minute, things went from bad to worse for Magath’s side. In a case of mistaken identity, Friedrich received a second yellow card. His side should have been 2-0 down from the resultant free-kick; a slow ball into the box found Gekas all alone one yard out from goal, but he somehow hit it at Benaglio’s standing foot.
The likes of Altintop justified their places in the starting XI with their side 1-0 up. For example, the Turk had the chance to launch a one-man counter-attack from a Wolfsburg corner, but instead, carried the ball to the halfway line, held it up, before knocking it back to the defence – killing time, making the hosts run after the ball like headless chickens, and allowing his side to sit in their 4-5-1 compact banks. They had another great chance to make it 2-0 in the 78th minute, the indefatigable Clark reaching the byline, pulling back an awesome ball, only for Alexander Madlung, on in place of Helmes, to clear under no pressure. Nevertheless, it was no walk in the park for Frankfurt, as they were forced into committing several tactical fouls on the edge of Fährmann’s box. They were punished by desperate 2-4-1-2 Wolfsburg with six minutes to go, when Diego scooped yet another pass over the static and unresponsive Frankfurt backline, and Mandžukić, creeping behind Jung, looped a header over the ‘keeper.
Wolfsburg kept up the pressure until the last, making it one-way traffic. Their full-backs had put in a great second-half shift, always there to put in deadly crosses, well fed by the mopper-cum-feeder Josué. The home side threw the proverbial kitchen sink, but Frankfurt caught it every time, keeping 2009s Bundesliga champions in the relegation zone.