Stuttgart’s poor form at Wolfsburg continued as young Sebastian Polter’s goal handed the hosts a priceless 1-0 victory to end the first half of the season on a high. The striker came on as a sub to tap in a 74th minute winner, put on a plate for him by Wolfsburg’s scruff-of-the-neck-grabbing, swashbuckling and technically sound left-back Marcel Schäfer. Bruno Labbadia’s side actually enjoyed the best of the first half, and looked much the better team. However, even then it was Felix Magath’s team who were having most of the chances, with Stuttgart’s inability to test Diego Bengalio proving just as big a problem in the second half. Wolfsburg move up to 12th courtesy of this result, while Stuttgart stay in seventh sot (for now).
Wolfsburg went long a couple of times in the opening stages, as Magath looked to get his defensive line standing as high up the field as possible. However, due to the poor, bobbly state of the Volkswagen Arena pitch, neither side found themselves able to complete even the simplest of passes or hold onto the ball early on, making for some end to end stuff. Francisco Rodríguez, aka Maza, very nearly allowed Wolfsburg to create the game’s first real chance in the fourth minute. The Mexican centre-back dallied near to the edge of his own box – the visitors were indulging in some teasing, risky melina – when faced by three Wolfsburg players pressing furiously. They nicked the ball off him, but unfortunately, Mario Mandžukić’s quick cross sailed straight into the arms of Sven Ulreich.
As we neared the ten-minute mark, Stuttgart were still playing a lot of keep-ball at the back, but after Maza’s mistake, were doing it with a lot more caution (especially as Wolfsburg, through Mandžukić and Koo Ja-Cheol, continued to press high and hard). However, in terms of their own attacking play, this negative tactic didn’t really seem to help the visitors. Because Wolfsburg were standing in two high and compact banks of four behind the aforementioned line-leading attackers, whenever Stuttgart engineered a surprise dart or pass into the other half or around the halfway mark, there was no room in which to work, and the players’ couldn’t adjust their pace – from slow and uninvolved to having to dart without any warning – accordingly.
However, when Stuttgart were able to break one of the hosts’ attacks down and keep the ball in open play, they were looking far more penetrating on the break. Wolfsburg’s high offside trap never looked level, and the players in it always appeared uncomfortable. Thus, in the opening quarter-hour, Labbadia’s side were able to get a few balls through or over the top, and drew a number of fouls. Nevertheless, as we reached the 15-minute mark, we’d yet to see a chance at either end. But, as if on cue, Timo Gebhart chipped a ball to Cacau, who’d made a sprint drop to receive the pass off Alexander Madlung. The striker scooped the ball over the top first-time, and with Marco Russ in a poor position and ball-watching, Martin Harnik could take the pass and run it towards goal. Once in the box and faced by Benaglio, he decided to square for Christian Gentner, who had the space in which to tap in. Alas, the pass was poor, and the opportunity wasted.
Two minutes later, though, at last we saw one of the ‘keepers given some work to do. Cacau’s free-kick was about 30 yards out from goal, but the German international still hit it with enough venom that he had Benaglio rushing towards his near post to push the bouncing ball wide. Buoyed by these openings, Stuttgart began to find gaps – aided by some better movement in the attack, and the fact that Wolfsburg already looked as though nerves and fatigue had crept in. One memorable passage of play saw Arthur Boka bring the ball upfield, before playing a sharp floor-based pass to Tamás Hajnal. The Hungarian took it as though he was gonna run the ball back towards his own defence, before showing a great change of pace on a semi-circular turn to carry the ball into a hole in centre-midfield. From there, he slipped a delightful through-ball between Russ and Schäfer for Harnik, who took the ball too far when rounding the onrushing Benaglio.
The hosts, however, could only dream of such invention and execution at this stage – as epitomised in the 22nd minute when they stormed forward on the break, only for Christian Träsch to try a speculative – and very obvious – long-range shot which got blocked. When the likes of Ashkan Dejagah got on the ball, they were either closed down in an instant, or forced into playing a weak pass due to the paucity of movement or gusto from those around them. At the other end, Harnik was the recipient of yet another delightful Hajnal through-ball in the 25th minute (vindicating Labbadia’s decision to play two strikers up front, because they occupied the centre-backs while the Austrian burst into the resulting gaps), but this time, Wolfsburg worked their high offside trap to perfection.
The best chance of the match up to this point, however, fell to the hosts’ right-sided midfielder. Fed to run the ball into the box, Dejagah did a Cruyff turn to find a pocket of space, before firing a quick left-shooted at Ulreich. The ball took a deflection, forcing the young custodian into adjusting his feet. Nevertheless, he kept the ball out of his net via an athletic save. But, if Magath was hoping that chance might spark his team into life, it didn’t. Stuttgart continued to look sharper, cleverer and more at ease with their coach’s tactics. Although Mandžukić was winning most of his flick-ons from long balls, Koo was never strong enough or in the right place to get the loose ball. Harnik, on the other hand, was always there to collect one of the two Stuttgart strikers’ knocked-on balls.
The visitors were still bossing possession as we went beyond the 35-minute mark, although they were yet to put Benaglio under sustained pressure or get a particularly special effort away at goal. Wolfsburg were doing a good job at clearing any set-pieces that landed in their box, while Stuttgart were doing just as good a job as stopping the man looking to launch a counter-attack from these cleared-balls in a flash. Someone you might have expected to thrive on such opportunities, Yohandry Orozco, had been a passenger for the entirety of the first 40 minutes. In a bid to get him into the game, Magath moved him over to the right-hand side to see out the first half. However, on the few occasions they did manage to trouble their guests, Wolfsburg still tried to go through Dejagah, who was now on the left. During the first half, Dejagah’s right-footed free-kick deliveries had created a number of headed chances for the very tall Madlung, but the centre-back either found Ulreich in the way or his idea of how high the bar was miscalculated.
Orozco finally did contribute in the 42nd minute, showing pinball-flipper feet to come in on off the flank, before squaring the ball to the oncoming Träsch. The former Stuttgart feigned a shot, before dinking a cute crossed-ball to the left of the D. Koo met it, nodding it towards the six-yard box where his Croatian strike partner had made a well-timed run. However, Serdar Tasci showed incredible positional sense and strength to get to the ball first, before coolly clearing the danger. Mandžukić and Orozco were in the thick of things two minutes later, too; the former holding the ball up well with his back to goal, before laying it on for the Venezuelan to hit the side-netting with a left-footed daisy-cutter.
Despite all that had gone before, the home side had Stuttgart on the ropes in the closing stages of the first 45 minutes, and Madlung really should have handed them the lead just as regulation time came to an end. Another Dejagah delivery from the left saw two of Madlung’s colleagues get shots off in the box, leaving Stuttgart’s defenders committed elsewhere or exposed, and Ulreich on the floor. Thus, when the ball dropped extremely kindly for an isolated Madlung on the edge of the six-yard box, all he had to do was tap it in. However, the centre-back took time to adjust his body, before an overly-intricate volley came off the wrong side of his foot and curled wide of the post. As Madlung stood with his head in his hands, and torso flopped over in a state of despair, Harnik could be seen in the background smirking. However, he and his colleagues will have gone in at the interval knowing that the way they finished the first half was no laughing matter, and that they were actually very lucky the match remained scoreless at this point.
Labbadia made a change for the second half, replacing Julian Schieber – who had looked less at ease at leading the line than Cacau – with Pavel Pogrebnyak. His opposite number, Magath, also made a change, bringing on Hasan Salihamidžić for Orozco (that five-minute good spell at the end of the first half clearly hadn’t erased the memory of the 40 minutes of nothingness which preceded it). The Bosnian went onto the right side of midfield, with Makoto Hasebe and Träsch also swapping positions.
The new half began in just as lively a manner as the first, with both sides eager to come forward, and pressing high and hard when deprived of possession. Soon enough, however, Stuttgart resorted to their pace-sapping keep-ball tactics, with William Kvist working with the defenders to keep Wolfsburg’s attackers wearing themselves down. Despite this, there was definitely a bit more bite to Wolfsburg both on and off the ball in the opening ten minutes of the new half, especially with Träsch offering the drive and well-timed overlap that his Japanese colleague had not been able to do in the first half (on the other flank, Schäfer never has and never will need an invitation to bomb forward).
The hosts’ persistence and increasing belief meant that as we reached the 55-minute mark, they had their guests on the back-foot again. Stuttgart now struggled to find the gaps in the midfield to get Hajnal on the ball, although Pogrebnyak was offering much better presence, strength and timing in his runs down the channel, and was proving to be a handful of an option to have. In fact, such was the ground the Russian was covering up top, Cacau even started to drop back to collect the ball off the defence for a time. The tide looked as though it had turned as reached the 65-minute mark, with Stuttgart regaining both the ball and their confidence on it, and the Wolfsburg crowd booing a misplaced pass.
But, just like the first half, it was the home side who were having the better chances. Although not as gilt-edged as the aforementioned one squandered by Madlung, Mandžukić had one of those headers that looks easier to score than miss in the 64th minute, courtesy of a Schäfer cross. Yet, despite the left-back’s ball in being perfect in every aspect, the Croatian’s header was too near to Ulreich, who nevertheless did superbly to get strength on his tip over the bar. The young custodian was at the heart of things a minute later when he collected the resultant corner. Looking to release his team on a quick counter, Salihamidžić blocked his path and nudged him to stop the move. The Bosnian, unsurprisingly, earned a booking for his effort.
With Salihamidžić looking a bit hot-headed thereafter, Magath played it safe by replacing him – after just over 20 minutes – with Polter. Hajnal, meanwhile, was replaced by Ibrahima Traoré, with Labbadia seemingly looking to stretch Wolfsburg (unlike the Hungarian, Traoré does his work on or nearer the chalk). Magath’s changed also doubled-up as a tactical manoeuvre, with Polter joining Mandžukić in a more natural 4-4-2 (Koo went onto the right of midfield).
And, in the 74th minute, the latter switch proved itself to be a masterstroke. Schäfer, who’d got inside or around Timo Gebhart – a midfielder playing at right-back due to injuries – time and time again in the second half, played a quick and clever one-two with Dejagah to reach the byline. The left-back’s subsequent square across goal was perfect in every sense, landing at the feet of Polter at the back post. The youngster, who’d barely been on the pitch five minutes, tapped in to hand his side a 1-0 lead!
Through Traoré’s left-footed set-pieces and the full-backs’ overlaps, Stuttgart closed the game out by pummelling Benaglio’s box with crosses. Georg Niedermeier eventually came on in place of Gebhart in a like-for-like change, while Josué took the place of Koo. Mandžukić should have made it 2-0 at the death after a two-on-one break involving he and Polter, but the Croatian striker was too casual in his approach play. Then, with the final touch of the match, Pogrebnyak headed straight at Benaglio from just three yards out… the Swiss ‘keeper held on. Thus, the game finished as Wolfsburg win, and to everyone associated with the club in the stadium, that was all that mattered.