Energie Cottbus’s hopes of promotion to the Bundesliga were ended for another season, but Augsburg now need just one win from their final two games to secure a place in the top flight.
The final game of 2. Bundesliga’s round 32 pitted sixth-placed Energie Cottbus against second-placed FC Augsburg. These sides, third and second highest scorers in the division respectively, both had promotion on their minds coming into this tie, with Cottbus knowing that only a win would keep their admittedly slim hopes of making the promotion play-off alive, and Augsburg fully aware that a win would all but seal their place in next season’s Bundesliga – giving them a five-point gap and colossal goal difference advantage over third-placed Bochum with two games to go.
The away side’s Dutch coach Jos Luhukay made five changes to the side which lost to Aachen last time out, while Cottbus’s Claus-Dieter Wollitz made two alterations to the side which beat Aue 2-1 last weekend. The conditions for this Monday night game in May were rainy, which promised a pacy game…
… promised indeed. The opening exchanges of this game were tame, with limited pressing, deep defences, and cagey, careful passes. Then, Marcel Ndjeng got things going, burning past the Daniel duo – Ziebig and Adlung – on the home side’s left, and sending in a sharp cross which had to be cleared for a – subsequently wasted – corner. With the defences deep, the attackers from either side weren’t overly keen to go hounding them when they had the ball near their own D. With so much at stake, Luhukay and Wollitz were each waiting for the other to take the initiative. This general lack of desire to commit was encapsulated in the eighth minute when Adlung’s cross into the box was cleared into open space in the shadow of the box – the away side’s midfielders inside the box helping their defenders out in clearing Adlung’s ball, with the home side’s midfielders too defensively restrained to make a gung-ho ghost. thereby spurning a glorious opportunity.
But that all changed in the 14th minute, with Augsburg rewarded for being tactically adventurous. Whereas the hosts kept the pace slow and their passes aerial to top scorer Nils Petersen, their guests were willing to knock it about on the floor and try new things, such as involving their full-backs. Therefore, they were the first to inject urgency and a change of pace into their attack, meaning that when a through-ball found Michael Thurk in the box, Uwe Hünemeier was forced into hacking him down for a penalty (and a yellow card). Nando Rafael, once of Ajax and Hertha BSC, fired in the spot kick for 0-1!
The goal sparked Cottbus into life, and they began to push their banks closer together both on and off the ball, pressing more vigorously and attacking the visitors via the floor a bit more in the process. But Augsburg used this to their advantage, spreading the ball about each of their 11 players at no great pace whenever they had possession; inviting the pressing and playing the simple and safe passes that ensured they hung onto the ball, before releasing Axel Bellinghausen and Canada’s Marcel de Jong down the left flank to team up with Rafael.
Cottbus therefore began to use the long ball tactics too often again, and it did them no good. The two strikers, although gangly and strong, had to wait too long to use the few balls they managed to win, and even then, the Augsburg defence cleverly forced them into holding up down the channel, meaning that any lay-off they could provide for a cross saw just one forward in the box hoping to get on the end of it, and a whole host of yellow-shirted players there to defend; back because it had taken Cottbus so long to get a ball into the box. In fairness to the red-shirted defenders playing the long balls, they were often left with little else to choose from options-wise – the movement from the midfielders to receive the ball fluctuated between non-existent and poor.
Nevertheless, Augsburg had their moments of distinctly average second division play too. For example, when they had a two on two counter-attacking situation in the 27th minute, Thurk’s square from the left wing to the centrally running Rafael was too slow in coming, allowing Thorsten Kirschbaum to zoom out and slide the pass clear. You can’t help but feel that a 1. Bundesliga side – or perhaps 2. Bundesliga champions Hertha BSC – would have taken full advantage of such an opening. Still, having an explosive player like Ndjeng in their ranks will help, and nearly did in this game too – his right-footed thunderbolt in the 31st minute came totally out of the blue, and whistled past the post.
Cottbus began to see far more of the ball than their guests as we approached and then entered the final ten minutes of the half, but despite the clever and incessant running of Romanian forward Emil Jula, the Augsburg defence stayed strong, especially Gibril Sankoh, who seemed to read every single pass that came into his vicinity before intercepting it masterfully. This Cottbus pressure allowed Augsburg to try a few long balls of their own, with the opportunities being handed to them on a plate by the increasingly higher-positioned Cottbus defence. Rafael was a willing runner onto these end of these passes, but, Neuer-esque, Kirschbaum was equally eager to stretch his legs, irrespective of the distance he had to cover.
But after a few balls into the away side’s box saw their defence and goalkeeper respond less than convincingly, Cottbus soon began to turn the screw, oozing confidence, and keeping their guests permanently pinned back. Silky dribbles from both Adlung and Petersen saw the latter draw a fine save from former Wolfsburg custodian Simon Jentzch, and get the home crowd at the Stadion der Freundschaft on their feet. Despite a few close shaves, Jentzsch and his defence went in for a break with their sheet clean.
Augsburg immediately had the hosts on the back-foot in the second half – their stronger desire to get the back-and-forth ball down and then assured touch on it saw Cottbus shuttle hurriedly into two banks of four, attempting to eliminate the key corridors, but succeeding only in showing impatience and committing fouls. The hosts soon resorted to the panicky punts, but with Augsburg’s defence stood deep, they were able to defend these calmly and intelligently. When Cottbus did make a breakthrough on the deck in the 49th minute, the talented Petersen’s pull-back from the touchline slid all the way across the box, with none of his colleagues anywhere near the box. But the home side were level two minutes later, when a pass through the left side of the box found Adlung in acres of space, and Paul Verhaegh caught high and dry. The former Wolfsburg winger pulled the ball back to Jula, who finished with a first-time left-footed strike on the spin for 1-1.
After the goal, Thurk, already a pain all over the pitch for any player in red who found him in their vicinity, seemed to get more mobile and determined to drag his side into the top flight. His manager sought to help him by introducing fresh legs and ideas into the midfield, replacing Lukas Sinkiewicz with Zambian Andrew Sinkala. After a brief continuation of the Cottbus resurgence, including Petersen tumbling over Jentzsch’s quick slide but being denied a spot kick, the tempo of the game began to subside. When there were chances, they were mainly Cottbus’s, with one becoming a series of some due to the away side’s insistence on hauling everyone bar Rafael back behind the ball as soon as Cottbus strung a few passes together in the midfield. But the home side were still rather rough around the edges – like the first half, there were too many times where the forwards had no options to lay the ball on to, or, on the rare occasion when a full-back launched an overlap, the releasing pass was poor.
With 20 minutes to go, we saw three changes – another like-for-like change by Luhukay, replacing Thurk with Torsten Oehrl, while Wollitz also opted to make two like-for-like changes – replacing Adlung and Dennis Sørensen with Jules Reimerink and Shao Jiayi (who went onto the left and right sides respectively). The latter almost made an instant impact, shaving the post with a Portuguese Ronaldo-esque head-down left-footed thunderbolt free-kick which whizzed across the box on its way. Fancy free-kicks aside, Augsburg began to creep their way back into the game during the final quarter-hour. Bellinghausen was a constant thorn in the side of Alexander Bittroff – timing his runs to perfection, and showing himself to be the master of the shoulder-drop. The delivery from both flanks was pretty consistent from the away side, but the finishing inside the box less so.
Takahito Soma replaced Ziebig in the 80th minute, a like-for-like switch, but there had been a change of system from Wollitz too – a midfield diamond with Marc-André Kruska at the point, Hünemeier at the base (he had moved into the midfield for the duration of the second half with Roger dropping back to defence – presumably so that Hünemeier, on a booking, wouldn’t be caught out on the break by Rafael), and two wide-peeling strikers. As a result, Sinkana hung slightly deeper for the remainder of the game, keeping an eye on the diminutive former Dortmund midfielder. The game was petering out before we’d even reached the last ten minutes, with the away side looking to make a breakthrough via triangles between the speedy Rafael (before he was replaced late on by Ibrahima Traoré, who did the same job), tricky Bellinghausen, and the tall, strong bulldozer Oehrl, and the home side allowing Shao to blaze a number of free-kicks high or wide.