Wolfsburg scored a late equalizer to grab an undeserved point at home to fellow strugglers St Pauli. The draw now leaves both sides four points adrift from safety with just fives games to go.
With just six games of the season left, this battle between the sides in 16th and 17th was absolutely critical. Locked on points but separated by goal difference (Wolfsburg on minus ten, St Pauli on minus 21), a win for either of these sides here would elevate them to the heady heights of 15th place. Felix Magath’s return to Wolfsburg hadn’t eradicated the poor results and sloppy mistakes which marred the reigns of both Steve McClaren and Pierre Littbarski, but there had been a definite improvement in performances after the return of the arch disciplinarian. Nevertheless, a return of two wins from their last 20 games was an appalling run for a big-spending side who were champions of the country as recently as 2009.
As for St Pauli, although the word ‘crisis’ would be too strong to describe their situation, they came into this game with nothing going their way. The defeats were stacking up (seven on the trot), their last home game abandoned after a supporter threw an object at an official, and in the week leading up to this game, coach Holger Stanislawski announced his intention to leave at the end of the season. The 41-year-old Hamburg native has been at the club since 1993, so him announcing his departure before the season was out will work in one of two ways – either the players continue to dwell in their malaise until the campaign is over, or they’ll play their hearts out to see off the big man in style.
The hosts were near enough at full-strength for this game, the only absentees being Brazilian midfielder Cícero and Congolese striker Dieumerci Mbokani. Stanislawski, on the other hand, had something of a crisis personnel-wise in defence – Bastian Oczipka, Carlos Zambrano, Moritz Volz and Carsten Rothenbach joining striker Fin Bartels on the sidelines. St Pauli held Wolfsburg to a 1-1 draw when the sides met in November, and given their precarious position and absentee list, they would probably have taken a similar result from this game before Dr Felix Byrch’s first peep got things underway.
The home side instantly looked to take advantage of Pauli’s heavy pressing by working some neat triangles to feed the flank-to-flank runs of Mario Mandžukić. The Croatian nearly linked to great effect with strike partner Grafite in the second minute when the Brazilian showed strength and vision to spin his tight marker and poke Mandžukić through. Either by luck or judgement, the dangerously positioned high Pauli defence played the 24-year-old offside. The visitors were content to let Wolfsburg have the ball in their own half early on, only pressing when they encroached on St Pauli territory. However, when Pauli won the ball back in their own half, they were slow to distribute it and had few options in the Wolfsburg half to choose from. Although the ball was generally Wolfsburg’s to lose, they did little with it in the opening ten minutes: the lethargy Pauli deliberately injected into pressing was transferred to Wolfsburg’s play on the ball, and thus, there was a lack of pace, precision or cohesion. St Pauli, meanwhile, began to resort to speculative punts over the top to unlock Wolfsburg, and one such move helped result in the game’s first chance – the long ball won a corner, a poor outswinger wasn’t cleared well enough by the home side, and the third-ball landed at the feet of Gerald Asamoah (let go by Felix Magath from Schalke in the summer), who wasted the chance.
The chance sparked the former Germany international into life, however, and he didn’t let up thereafter – as epitomised in the 11th minute when his clever hold-up resulted in luring Simon Kjær out of position and into a clumsy bundle (the first of several such instances which resulted in the Dane being caught out of position). Asamoah’s oomph sped the visitors up on the counter-attack, and in the 14th minute, a quick toss out from Thomas Kessler allowed Pauli to break at pace, before Florian Lechner blazed wastefully over the bar.
Wolfsburg were beginning to lose a grip on the game; their 4-3-1-2 banks split down the middle, with the still deep-sitting St Pauli exploiting this space. Magath’s side had no natural width either, with the full-backs under orders to provide it. But even when they did, Wolfsburg’s slow build-up play eliminated the element of surprise a burst forward from the back is supposed to create. Stanislawski’s side began to exploit the lethargy of their hosts higher up the pitch, pressing in Wolfsburg’s half more with real desire as the full-backs took advantage of a license to bomb forward – thus ensuring any won-ball could be dispatched to a player on the overlap in the blink of an eye. Yet although their commitment to attack between the tenth and 20th minute was relentless (Josué looked spent trying to keep tabs on Charles Takyi and the infield-lurking widemen), the Hamburg-based side didn’t show any composure in front of goal.
In the 24th minute, Ashkan Dejagah finally added an element of explosiveness into the home side’s attack – a drop of the shoulder and a pinch of determination earned him a pocket of space when cutting in from the left, but the subsequent shot was sliced wide. The ability to attack with speed seemingly became infectious – Dejagah’s chance preceded an early scoop over the top for a Mandžukić diagonal dart behind the defence, but like the last time he tried such a move, up went the linesman’s flag. The same official didn’t brandish his flag a few minutes later, however, when Diego went down in the box. A fiery visiting side weren’t afraid of putting themselves about, and the Brazilian playmaker looked to exploit this. He may not have got a penalty, but the sense of injustice at not receiving one gave his side a bit of momentum. However, a right-footed, little toe cross from Mandžukić that gave Grafite an easy opportunity to score from six yards out was wasted in the 26th minute, with Matthias Lehmann zooming back to put his body on the line, epitomising St Pauli’s determination to get something from this game.
The chances helped push Pauli back, prising their banks further apart. This made Josué’s life easier, and ensured he now had more of a chance to mop things up single-handedly. Resultantly, Dejagah stood out nearer the chalk, offering a counter-attacking threat. Nevertheless, Pauli’s willingness to impose themselves on the game never subsided, and this, coupled with their aerial domination on Kessler’s goal-kicks and using any loose balls to make first-time offensive passes, set in place a bonkers 120 seconds of play from the 32nd minute onwards. Kicking it off, a panicky Wolfsburg defence failed to clear their lines or set themselves up appropriately, allowing for Max Kruse’s effort back-across-goal to be parried into the path of Asamoah, one of five brown-shirted players standing merely yards from goal. Alas, he somehow stabbed wide. Wolfsburg used the restart instantly, launching Diego to catch the guests off-guard. But the Brazilian hit the post, and the rebound, which hit Kessler’s back, was accidentally knocked out of the former Juventus man’s path by an unaware goalkeeper. Then, just one minute later, Asamoah again missed a golden opportunity after being set up by Takyi.
And after Ralph Gunesch’s improbable infield-executed curled shot shaved the right-hand joint, Pauli paid the price for their profligacy in the 39th minute. Another Benaglio punt caused havoc, and Diego inexplicably outmuscled Markus Thorandt – catching him out of position with his defensive colleagues static, all of whom were praying rather than knowing that a certain Croatian striker was offside. But just like Pippo Inzaghi, Mandžukić’s desire to play off the last shoulder and beat the offside trap was finally rewarded (a desire probably borne out of frustration, seeing as Magath’s predecessors tended to play him on a flank behind a centre-forward). Although the volley wasn’t that smoothly connected with, and, was rattled off seemingly a bit too early, it went in at the near right-hand post for 1-0. And when your side is in a relegation battle, the fact that the ball ripples the net is all that matters.
It was essential that the visitors kept Asamoah in the game, seeing as he’d been a pain in Kjær’s backside in and out of the box during the first half. And his colleagues did just that, handing the veteran a chance on a plate in the 43rd minute. But yet again from just a few yards out, Asamoah’s connection wasn’t good enough. At least his defensive colleagues had bucked up their ideas in defending Benaglio’s long goal-kicks – after losing yet another flick-on, they had now at least deployed a sweeper to ensure that their banks weren’t too far apart, and any darting Wolfsburg player wasn’t released one on one with Kessler.
There were no substitutions made by either coach for the second half, but tactically, there was an air of guardedness to Wolfsburg’s play when St Pauli had the ball – suggesting perhaps that the idea was to hold onto the 1-0, while only looking to add to it on the break. Nevertheless, Benaglio’s long goal kicks were still a useful weapon – Pauli continue to defend them deep, thereby prising their own banks apart, and thus ensuring Wolfsburg monopolized the loose balls. Stanislawski’s attacking tactics were simple and direct – early long-diagonals over the hosts’ full-backs (Florian Bruns so nearly got on the end of one of these within minutes of the half commencing), or side-to-side snappy passing, thus forcing Wolfsburg to expend energy, and resulting in room to make crosses. With this meaning Pauli’s full-backs were constantly looking to burst and then stay forward, Magath replaced Makoto Hasebe with Jan Polák and reverted to a more width-based system. The two strikers looked to collect the ball on the chalk, with Dejagah or Polák offering an overlap or a ghost onto a cross at the back-post. This idea was obviously designed to prise St Pauli’s centre-backs apart, giving Diego space from which to punish the plucky visitors.
Perhaps responding to Magath’s plan, Stanislawski brought a fresh pair of legs onto his own right wing, replacing Bruns with Deniz Naki. And while this change didn’t necessarily bring about an equalizer, it was Naki who drew his side level on the hour. Just about in the final-third of the pitch, Pauli had possession. With Wolfsburg’s defence presumably braced for the cross, the floor-based diagonal through-ball to Asamoah caught Magath’s back four off guard. The experienced striker cleverly teed up Takyi, further confounding expectation and totally throwing Wolfsburg off-kilter. Takyi’s awareness and unselfishness was critical, as he then squared to Naki, who now had the simplest of tap-ins for 1-1! The equalizer was deserved, and ensured Wolfsburg paid the price for sitting off their guests in the second half.
Pauli were in the ascendancy after their goal; merciless in the tackle, superhuman in the fitness stakes, and offensive in the mindset. Asamoah was looking to make up for his missed first half chances, and his intelligent diagonal darts and hold-ups were simply too much for Kjær to handle. The away side’s high, offside-tempting line was back, but with their midfield three narrow again and Diego replaced by Koo Ja-Cheol, Wolfsburg seemed to lose all spark. To hit home how second-best they were, St Pauli took the lead in the 76th minute. The visitors easily won a loose ball in the corridor between the home side’s midfield and defence, with the latter set up to tackle the next phase of play in an abysmal shape. The chief culprit was Kjær once again, the once highly-touted Dane who’s endured an absolute nightmare of a season. The former Palermo defender was stood several yards behind his defensive colleagues, eyes only for the nearby Asamoah. But Kjær followed his man out, unaware that Lehmann was jogging in towards the box through the left. Dennis Daube, on for Fabian Boll, played a simple through-ball (under scant pressure), and Lehmann, the 27-year-old pass-me-down midfielder from south Germany, showed fantastic composure to hand his side a surprise 2-1 lead.
Stanislawski, seemingly to save his legs and to waste time, replaced Asamoah with Marius Ebbers in the 85th minute. This was an odd decision as Asamoah’s hold-up play was still vital to his side’s cause. And as the hosts began to throw the kitchen sink at their guests, they snatched an unlikely equalizer one minute from time. A right-footed corner was swung in from the left by the home side’s shining light, Koo, and there was Polák to power home a header for 2-2, giving his side’s survival hopes a huge shot in the arm in the process.