Fürth beat Energie Cottbus 2-0 and shot back to the top of the 2. Bundesliga table thanks to a performance that was built on a solid defence and deadly attack. The Bavarians were just too good for their East German hosts, who struggled for inspiration and urgency. Although the visitors were under the kosh for about 20 minutes straight during the second half, Cottbus barely created a single chance in that period, let alone during the whole match. Fürth could easily have scored several more goals at the Stadion der Freundschaft this afternoon, and nobody in green put a foot wrong all game: defensive midfielder Edgar Prib was in particularly fine form, and my man of the match. Surely there can be nobody out there now who doubts the title-winning credentials of Mike Büskens’ side?
Fürth looked comfortable on the ball from the first peep of Florian Meyer’s whistle, although all they had to show for their early spell of ball monopolisation was Olivier Occean’s sliced left-footed shot which sailed over. Cottbus were just as keen to knock the ball about in a calm and slow manner whenever they got a hold on possession, and with neither side doing much in the way of pressing, the first ten minutes were a largely unforgettable affair, the two coaches clearly waiting for their opposite number to show his hand.
Early on, the player looking most likely to tear an incision into one of the defences was Cottbus’ playmaker Leonardo Bittencourt, whose acceleration and confidence on the ball gave the visiting rearguard one or two nervy moments. However, the 17-year-old was on the fringes of game (and stayed there for the rest of the half), seeing little of the ball, with the home side’s usual problem of being slow in possession rendering the foremost two Cottbus players service-starved. As we approached the quarter-hour mark, Occean and strike partner Christopher Nöthe began to show signs of their synergistic genius – making one-twos that spliced the exposed Cottbus centre-backs and alternating the sprint-pressing job to win the ball back and lay in the passive striker, for example. Two chances were created as a result of all this during a two-minute spell, but Sercan Sararer and Nöthe, in particular, were wasteful.
The reason the away side’s strikers were starting to have an impact on the game was because Cottbus were beginning to take more risks. The centre-backs would carry the ball into the opposition’s half, trying to lure a man in green onto them, but usually failing. Why? Well, the compact two banks of four set up by Mike Büskens simply oozed impenetrability. Winning the ball back against their sluggish hosts with ease, Fürth launched attack after attack in the ten minutes up to the 25-minute mark, Büskens’ full-backs and wingers not shy about making their leggy strides upfield. And, in the 24th minute, Bernd Nehrig and Sararer combined to send in a diagonal pass along the floor towards the six-yard box. Occean was far more alert to the move than supposed marker Christopher Scorch, and the Canadian turned the ball in to hand the away side a deserved 1-0 lead!
After falling behind, Cottbus briefly rallied. They moved the ball about and got into their positions further up the pitch far more hastily, and Ivica Banović, who’d already spent a lot of the game bobbing behind lone striker Dimitar Rangelov, was now trying to pull the strings from a more permanent attacking-midfield position. However, despite this improvement in attitude and application, Cottbus just didn’t have the technical ability to break down a Fürth side now more content than ever to sit off and absorb the pressure.
An injury to Nehrig saw Meyer stop his watch for two minutes – enough time for both sides to catch their breath, and kill the Cottbus momentum. Once play recommenced, the visiting wingers and strikers made it their mission to press the ball furiously in a ten-yard zone that had the halfway line as its own halfway point. This stopped the hosts from getting the ball forward, made the full-backs wear themselves out by running down blind alleys infield, and dragged players like Bittencourt, Christian Müller and Jules Reimerink back. As a result, we reached the half-hour mark without Claus-Dieter Wollitz’s side having a single chance on Max Grün’s goal.
In the 33rd minute, though, they very nearly had the opportunity to get an effort on goal from a Daniel Ziebig free-kick placed on the right flank of the final-third (given away by a typical striker’s challenge from Nöthe on advancing right-back Adam Straith). However, Ziebig’s delivery was easy for Mergim Mavraj to head clear. Then, two minutes later, Rangelov missed an open goal. Despite the Bulgarian superbly capitalising on Grün’s rush of blood to the head and air kick outside of the box, he sent his passed shot wide of the target!
This close shave did at least serve to rattle the away side a little bit; epitomised by the typically combatant Edgar Prib – whose midfield wave-breaking in the first half was key – giving away a needless free-kick and then picking up a booking for throwing the ball away in the 37th minute. Yet, as per usual, Fürth defended the set-piece and subsequent second-balls into the box with power, positional know-how and authority; ensuring that by the time we reached the 40-minute mark, the Cottbus momentum had again been stifled, allowing Fürth to counter-attack willy-nilly down the flanks once again (and, when they got into the final-third, more often than not willingly passing back into their own half or slowly sideways, hauling the ten players in red back, and making them run).
The half concluded with the visitors going close from two very different but equally canny corner kicks. On the first, taken left-footed from the right, the ball was swung in along the floor towards the six-yard box, where Nöthe had already started darting to. Alas, his first-time shot on the swivel deflected wide. On the next corner, also taken left-footed from the right, the ball was lofted over towards the shadow of the D, where Heinrich Schmidtgal lay in wait. The ball was too slow to take the shot without the need to trap, but nevertheless, the left-back was in so much space, his rather heavy touch wasn’t punished, allowing him to sail a left-footed thunderbolt narrowly wide. Cottbus, resultantly, only went in 1-0 down at the break.
Cottbus being a team with multiple flaws was a point once again hit home within seconds of the last batch of 45 minutes commencing. With the visiting defence sucked deep and smothering Rangelov, a pull-back from the byline to the penalty spot was met by no one until a man in green rushed out to deal with the stray ball: an experienced and talented top-division midfielder would have been there in that moment to welly home the equalizer. To their credit, the home side made all the running in the early stages of the second half, making Prib and Milorad Peković chase and hack this way and that. However, Wollitz’s side still weren’t creating or having chances, so in the 52nd minute, the coach turned to his bench. Off came Bittencourt and Müller, and in their places came Daniel Adlung and Rok Kronaveter.
Within seconds, though, it was Fürth who had a killer chance. Schmidtgal stepped out under no pressure, and scooped a ball over the static and flat Cottbus defence. Occean zoomed in diagonally behind the red-shirted rearguard after timing his run to perfection, but his cute chip over the oncoming Thorsten Kirschbaum struck the bar and bounced away from goal. Nonetheless, it was a chance that encapsulated the gulf in class between the two teams.
For the next ten minutes, though, Occean and Nöthe saw little of the ball, as Cottbus stepped back into the driving seat. Yet Fürth’s defence just seemed to get stronger and stronger – rising higher each time to clear a tricky corner or cross, before being protected by the well-positioned, game-reading likes of Prib from having to deal with danger from the loose ball. Thomas Kleine showed that his performance wasn’t all just heroic headers either in the 64th minute – choosing to trap a dropping ball stone-dead rather than performing a delegation-header upfield, before bringing it out and laying on the infield-darting Stephan Schröck.
The match continued in the same fashion – Cottbus winning free-kicks and corner-kicks by the barrel-load – as we approached and went beyond the 70-minute mark, but still, the hosts had nothing to show for their territory. Although Fürth were defending impeccably, I thought that Büskens could have made a substitution at this point in the game to take some of the pressure off his defence, and re-inject a little more spark into his attack. A free-kick in the 69th minute that lingered for a little too long in the six-yard box should have been the catalyst for making this switch, but instead, it was Wollitz who used a bench option next, replacing the hard-working but limited Banović with Daniel Ludwig.
And, four minutes later, putting another body in the final-third proved costly for Wollitz, and vindicated Büskens’ decision to leave his substitutes sat where they were. Occean, who had looked as though he was beginning to tire, zoomed past two men on the left flank, before reaching the byline and dinking the ball to the back post where Sararer steered in for 2-0! Now, the visiting coach decided, was the time for a change, with Nöthe making way for Dani Schahin.
Falling 2-0 behind was maybe a little bit harsh on Cottbus at this particular moment of the game, as they had been trying their utmost to make a breakthrough, but ultimately, just weren’t good enough to ripple Grün’s net. Adlung, playing against his former club, had been making things happen down the left wing, and his chalk-standing preference was proving a nuisance for Nehrig.
Possession was a bit more even as we approached the 80-minute mark, though, with Schahin showing one or two flashes of his potential by holding the ball up and making room for others. 2-0 up and their opponents’ energy diminishing by the minute, Fürth found themselves in a position to knock the ball about calmly and wind the clock down. When Cottbus did press, it was often absent-mindedly, allowing Sararer, for one, to stretch his legs and bomb down the wing. The game petered out somewhat with the outcome so inevitable, and it was the small pocket of travelling fans who made the only noise at the final whistle. Cottbus’ fans, coach and players, meanwhile, can comfort themselves with the fact that they won’t play many better teams again this season.