Polish striker Artur Sobiech came off the bench to salvage an 89th minute equalizer for Hannover away at Mainz. It was no less than the visitors deserved after an even, positive and entertaining game between two of the sides bidding to qualify for next season’s Europa League. Mainz had taken an early lead through Mohamed Zidan, and had at least half-a-dozen chances to put the game to bed before the 21-year-old Hannover substitute struck. Although Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel will no doubt leave the Coface Arena tonight lamenting the fact that his side were seconds away from a win that would have put them level on points with tenth-placed Hoffenheim, deep down he’ll be pleased at his side’s performance, and realise that a share of the spoils was a more accurate reflection of the game.
Mainz (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Christian Wetklo; Radoslav Zabavník, Niko Bungert, Nikolče Noveski, Zdeněk Pospěch; Elkin Soto, Eugen Polanski; Marco Caligiuri, Zidan, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting; Ádám Szalai
Hannover (4-4-2, from right to left): Ron-Robert Zieler; Steve Cherundolo, Mario Eggimann, Karim Haggui, Christian Pander; Jan Schlaudraff, Lars Stindl, Sérgio Pinto, Konstantin Rausch; Mohammed Abdellaoue, Mame Biram Diouf
The opening few minutes were rather scruffy, with Mainz pressing Hannover high, hard and fast, but passing the ball about a little too carelessly whenever they were in possession. By and large, both sides struggled to get their line-leaders into the game, although midfielders on either side showed some nice touches and flashes of inspiration early on. However, Szalai had proved himself to be a handful whenever he was fed either in the air or along the ground in the opening eight minutes, and when he was fed with an aerial pass – something Mainz looked to do fairly often early on – in the eighth minute, the Hungarian’s movement ensured that the visitors momentarily lost their defensive shape. Polanski got given the knockdown by Soto, who’d taken on Szalai’s knockdown, before he masterfully slipped the ball through to Zidan, who’d snuck into the space left between the Hannover centre-backs. Zieler rushed off his line to cover the angle, but the Egyptian calmly slotted home to make it 1-0!
One minute later, though, it should have been 1-1. Diouf, who, like Zidan, was a January buy making only his second appearance for his new club, shot over from a couple of yards out after Rausch’s burst and accurate square found him in space. Mainz now had the luxury of sitting off and looking to attack their guests as and when the space became available. Hannover’s midfield and defence banks, normally so close together, were getting further apart as we approached the quarter-hour mark. Thus, in the 14th minute, an away side attack was cleared with the ball fed to the lively Zidan, lurking in the corridor. He played a through-ball to Szalai, who’d darted out to the left flank, with the Hungarian then showing his class and confidence by cutting in with his ease, beating his man and firing a right-footed shot not too far over the bar.
As much as Hannover were trying to find chinks in the Mainz armour, the hosts were playing with so much swagger and working so hard that as we approached the 20th minute, all Hannover had to show from their game since Diouf’s miss was a yellow card picked up by Stindl for a frustrated hack at the slick and tricky Soto. Although Wetklo still tended to hoof the ball long in a manner more akin to Wimbledon in the 1990s, Mainz at least generally used the ground they gained via these route one tactics to play some sumptuous pass-and-move football in a bid to pierce their way through one of the league’s toughest defences. To his credit, not only were Tuchel’s tactics proving effective, but the coach had picked exactly the right players to enact them – Szalai and Choupo-Moting, for instance, not only offer a great aerial presence, as both attackers are also extremely technically gifted.
At the other end, Pander’s awareness allowed him to nick in ahead of Caligiuri to first rob possession, and then sting Wetklo’s fingertips with a thunderous blast from range. Although the visitors weren’t getting as many openings as they would have liked, they were at least attacking Mainz via a range of means – be it through Rausch, who offered width, Schlaudraff, who offered creativity, or Diouf, who offered power and energy. As for Abdellaoue, he had done very little in the opening 25 minutes, but a minute later, Schlaudraff crossed from the right, and, there in the right place – in this case the back-post – as ever was the Norwegian, who just slid his effort wide of the post.
As we approached the half-hour mark, the away side were starting to boss possession and do even more of the attacking. This was because left-back Pander was getting even more involved in the play (Hannover coach Mirko Slomka is not really an overlapping full-backs kinda coach, and Cherundolo’s restraint showed that Hannover did still have one eye on having cover at the back). Despite some of the telling crosses he’d managed to put into the hosts’ box, Schalaudraff was wasted on the right, as he’s quite easy to play against as a winger (as opposed to a roaming support-striker, when he’s at his best. Here, though, Slomka was sticking by the decision he started the game with, namely having Diouf there to run about a lot behind Abdellaoue).
As the 35-minute mark came and went, the game had become something of a stalemate, the sting removed (save, perhaps, for Caligiuri, who had a several-minute spell of roaming and running here, there and everywhere; embarking on mazy dribbles, or making bank-splicing passes). Gradually, Hannover began to exert more pressure once again, aided primarily by Mainz’s propensity to give away lots of silly fouls (a negative by-product of heavy pressing, I guess). Diouf and Abdellaoue didn’t stop running during the final ten minutes of the half, ensuring that the Mainz defence – who didn’t always look comfortable – endured a few nervy moments and last-ditch clearances. However, Tuchel’s back-four, much like Slomka’s, were holding a decent shape, ensuring that although both sides’ attackers found it easy enough to find space in the final third, any balls in behind the back-four at either end of the pitch were usually chaperoned by a defender back to the goalkeeper, or the attacker getting the chance to shoot had to do so from an inhibiting angle.
Second-half starting formations
Mainz (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Wetklo; Pospěch, Bungert, Noveski, Zabavník; Julian Baumgartlinger, Polanski; Caligiuri, Zidan, Choupo-Moting; Szalai
Hannover (4-3-1-2, from right to left): Zieler; Cherundolo, Eggimann, Haggui, Pander; Stindl, Pinto, Rausch; Schlaudraff; Abdellaoue, Diouf
The opening few minutes of the second half showed the value of having a man on both posts when defending a corner, as Cherundolo cleared a Bungert turn-and-volley off the line. Slomka hadn’t made a personnel change for the second half, but had changed formation; going 4-3-1-2, with Schlaudraff now in the hole behind the strikers. As if knowing what his counterpart would change in the second half, Tuchel had made a substitution, replacing Soto with Baumgartlinger in order to give his defence more protection, menace and presence. The Austrian – sitting mainly in front of Bungert – instantly sought to introduce himself to any player in green looking to float into the hole and work the ball, shoulder-charging Stindl – who had tried to nutmeg him – at one point.
But, the away side were looking particularly incisive and urgent down the flanks, with both full-backs offering great support in the early stages of the second half. Added to that, Stindl was surging into or towards the box more often (from his new right-sided centre-midfield position), giving the Mainz midfield more to think about. And, in the 52nd minute, the visitors went extremely close to bagging a deserved equalizer. Some pass-and-move football saw Stindl released through the left-hand side of the box, before he dinked a cross to the back-post. Abdellaoue, of course, was there, and although he looked odds-on to score, somehow, Noveski got himself in the way of the ball and the goal.
A minute later, Hannover went close again, this time via a set-piece, with Pander curling a left-footed free-kick into the side-netting. Shortly before the left-back’s effort on goal, Pospěch had left the pitch with an injury, with Jan Kirchhoff taking his place (he went to right-sided centre-back, with Bungert moving to right-back). Kirchhoff joined his nine outfield colleagues at a time when they were by no means penned-in – the hosts coming forward every now and again in a measured and reserved manner, albeit one which did look to utilise the full-back on whose side possession was. Mainz won a few corner-kicks on and around the hour mark, but Zidan’s right-footed delivery was too often poor.
Looking to inject some energy and fresh ideas into his midfield, Slomka replaced Stindl with Manuel Schmiedebach in the 67th minute. Although in the ten minutes up to this change, his side had barely gone forward, Mainz – who were still looking to press high and in numbers – were beginning to look a little tired, meaning that the time was right for a change. Three minutes later, it looked as though Hannover might have found a way into the game. Diouf, not the most technically accomplished of players (and one who also spent far too much time rolling about on the floor during this game), hoofed the ball past the high-standing Noveski, before both he and the defender charged after it. Despite the Macedonian having a ten-yard head-start over the Senegalese striker, Diouf beat him to the ball, before tamely shooting at Wetklo. Sparing his blushes, the referee blew for a foul on Noveski (who Diouf, in his haste, had shoved to the ground). However, this couldn’t mask the fact that under pressure, the former Manchester United forward had fluffed his lines when it mattered.
Although he’d been brought on to add more bite and physicality in the centre of the park, Baumgartlinger also got forward a number of times: charging into the box as a surprise burster, catching Hannover off-guard (the majority of his subsequent squares resulted in corners). On the break, his side should have put the game to bed on countless occasions. Whenever Mainz broke, they always seemed to have so many options, and as a result of their fast-paced pass-it-this-way, pass-it-that-way one-touch approach to reaching the final-third, they created lots of gaps in the Hannover rearguard. Alas, too often, the final-ball – played when things had slowed down a touch – was lacking, meaning that Zieler was rarely left exposed or tested during these attacks.
With 12 minutes left on the clock, Tuchel made his final substitution, replacing local hero Zidan with experienced Austrian attacking midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz. This was an intriguing and bold switch, because it suggested that Tuchel was going to see the game out in a 4-2-3-1. In the 81st minute, Szalai again showed flashes of his undoubted talent; dropping deep to get a ball, before turning his man and carrying it to down to the corner flag. He won a free-kick, which, after being floated in, resulted in a loose ball just off the right-hand side of the six-yard box. Nonchalant as you like, Choupo-Moting flicked a backheel half-volley towards the bottom corner, only for Zieler to recover just in time and keep it out.
Slomka made his final change after the Cameroonian’s exquisite effort, replacing Rausch with Sobiech. He joined Diouf up front, with Schlaudraff going back out to the right-wing, and this time, Abdellaoue to the left. The latter teamed up particularly well with Pander at a time when the game was very back and forth. The visitors won a corner in the 89th minute, which Mainz just about looked like they’d managed to clear. However, Diouf kept the ball alive in the D, before spreading play back out to Pander. The former Schalke man went for power rather than placing a cross, smashing the ball back across the box. It landed for Haggui, whose shot was blocked. But, Noveski had strayed far too deep, keeping Sobiech onside, and allowing the Polish striker to pass in the loose ball for a late equalizer! Not only did the goal salvage the away side a point, but it also ensured that Hannover remain unbeaten in 2012.
The formations that finished the match
Mainz (4-2-3-1, from right to left): Wetklo; Bungert, Kirchhoff, Noveski, Zabavník; Baumgartlinger, Polanski; Caligiuri, Ivanschitz, Choupo-Moting; Szalai
Hannover (4-4-2, from right to left): Zieler; Cherundolo, Eggimann, Haggui, Pander; Schlaudraff, Schmiedebach, Pinto, Abdellaoue; Diouf, Sobiech