Europa League hopefuls Hannover visit a Mainz side still looking over their shoulder on Saturday afternoon. However, only Nuremberg have scored as few goals on the road this season as Hannover (seven), with Mirko Slomka’s side recording just two victories away from home. They’ll be comforted, though, by the fact that 13th-placed Mainz’s form at the new-for-2011 Coface Arena has been up and down – the club registering four wins, one draw and five losses from the Bundesliga games they’ve played there this season. At present, Thomas Tuchel’s side are just four points above the relegation zone, and fans of the club have had very little to be happy about this season – a Europa League exit to Romanian minnows Gaz Metan Mediaș and German Cup humiliation at the hands of fourth-tier side Holstein Kiel being particular lowlights.
Unlike Mainz, who lost Lewis Holtby, Andre Schürrle and Christian Fuchs over the summer, Hannover kept their squad together, allowing them to remain competitive this season, and achieve results such as the one which saw them knock Sevilla out of Europe. The majority of matches played between these sides in recent years have ended as draws, including the last time they met in the league back in August (1-1 at the AWD-Arena). Last season, Mainz lost at home to Hannover, despite the visitors being reduced to ten men for the last 25 minutes, and have only actually beaten the north German side once in league football since 2005. However, back in October, Mainz went to Hannover and beat their hosts 1-0 in the DFB-Pokal – 30,000 fans being treated that night to Andreas Ivanschitz netting an injury-time winner, and Didier Ya Konan missing a tie-saving penalty on the two-hour mark.
The Ivorian hasn’t been firing on all cylinders this season, but luckily for Slomka, another Hannover player has found the back of the net 11 times. The footballing cliché is that no one player is bigger than any club, but Mohammed Abdellaoue has been doing his best to make people re-think before uttering that phrase. The Norwegian striker has scored the first goal in six games this season, and has been counter-attack extraordinaire Hannover’s match-winner in their last two matches (versus Hertha BSC and Nuremberg – two entirely different goals, but both of exceptional quality). Slomka’s side have then gone on to win these games 1-0, keeping Hannover on course for a place in Europe next season. The 2002 2. Bundesliga champions, who have a Europa League knockout match against Club Brugge to look forward to later this month, have yet to concede a goal since the Bundesliga 2011/12 season restarted, after drawing their opening match 0-0 with Hoffenheim.
Meanwhile, Mainz have had a little bit of everything results-wise since the restart. They began 2012 with a 3-2 loss away to Bayer Leverkusen, before defeating Freiburg 3-1 a fortnight ago after striking thrice in the opening 17 minutes, and then holding title-hopefuls Schalke to a 1-1 draw on Saturday. Opening the scoring in Gelsenkirchen was new signing – albeit one in his third spell at the club – Mohamed Zidan. The Egyptian adds quality to a squad which already boasts a plethora of strikers. But, for all their undoubted ability, Anthony Ujah, Sami Allagui (now back from African Cup of Nations duty with Tunisia), Mario Gavranović and – to a lesser extent – the multi-talented Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Ádám Szalai simply have not scored enough goals.
Zidan spoke of his comfort at playing in coach Thomas Tuchel’s 4-4-2 system at the weekend, although given that Hannover like to sit back and absorb pressure, it’s likely that the young Mainz coach will utilise widemen such as Zoltán Stieber in a bid to find chinks in the Hannover armour. In my opinion, the alternative – a 4-4-2 diamond which deploys a central playmaker like Ivanschitz or Yunus Malli – would not be effective against a side as well-drilled as Slomka’s.
For the hosts, Marcel Risse, Stefan Bell, Bo Svensson are all expected to miss out through injury, while Gavranović – who scored a crucial goal in the knockout stages of last season’s Champions League for parent club Schalke – isn’t even likely to make the matchday squad. As for the visitors, Emmanuel Pogatetz is suspended, Ya Konan is away at the African Cup of Nations with finalists Ivory Coast, while Carlitos, Leon Andreasen – a former Mainz player, and one of only two in either squad to have played for both sides, the other being Mainz’s former Hannover goalkeeper Heinz Müller – and Henning Hauger aren’t expected to be fit enough to play any part in Saturday’s match.
Speaking ahead of the game, Tuchel said: “Hannover are and will be very well organised tactically, be extremely strong running-wise, switch well between defence and offence, and be incredibly dangerous in the offence.” Meanwhile, his counterpart, Slomka (who will be taking charge of his 150th Bundesliga game at the Coface Arena), said: “Mainz are a strong team with a well-staffed squad, but ultimately we want to bring our game.” Noting that his side are determined to qualify for Europe again next season, he added: “We need a win in Mainz.”
Mainz against Hannover kicks off at 2.30pm in the UK on Saturday afternoon, and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com. The referee will be Felix Zwayer, who earlier this week took charge of the DFB-Pokal quarter-final tie between Holstein Kiel and Borussia Dortmund. He also officiated Hannover’s game against Hamburg earlier on this season, as well as Mainz’s trip to Cologne – both of which finished 1-1.