It’s a battle of the Baden-Württemberg sides this weekend in the Bundesliga, as Freiburg take on Stuttgart on Saturday afternoon. As Uli Hesse noted in his column on ESPN last week, it may be surprising to football fans outside of Germany that this match is a derby, let alone a heated one, considering the two cities are more than 80 miles apart. But, wrote Hesse, “the thing about this game is that it pits a club from Swabia (Stuttgart) against one from Baden (Freiburg), and to say there is no love lost between these two regions and ethnic groups is an understatement.”
Fans of the away side will be more anxious than ever to come out on top from this clash, with their side currently bottom of the division. Admittedly, Freiburg are level on points with the two other sides in the drop-zone (Augsburg and Kaiserslautern), but the club’s goal difference of minus 20 is currently keeping them in 18th spot.
Stuttgart, on the other hand, sit in ninth place with 26 points, and a goal difference of plus one. However, things are not particularly rosy in Bruno Labbadia’s garden right now, with the club’s form indifferent to say the least. At home, results are alright, although Stuttgart have lost at the Mercedes-Benz Arena four times so far in 2011/12, and have also dropped points in drawn games against inferior-on-the-day opponents such as Cologne, and scraped by teams such as Augsburg.
Meanwhile, whereas Freiburg could so easily have beaten Bayern Munich last weekend in the sides’ 0-0 draw, Stuttgart, shot themselves in the foot during last weekend’s 4-2 loss to Hannover after conceding three goals from corners in the space of 20 minutes thanks to their ineffective zonal marking system – something only adopted not too long ago after the problems Labbadia’s side had encountered while defending set-pieces using a man-marking style.
Nevertheless, Stuttgart will be encouraged by the fact that Freiburg have conceded the most goals in the league on their travels (31), and have won just once away from home. The visitors’ PR people, though, would counter those stats by highlighting the good work being done by new coach Christian Streich, promoted from his role as assistant coach after Marcus Sorg’s departure shortly after Christmas. The 46-year-old has instilled confidence and fight into the relegation-battlers, and his willingness to promote youngsters into the first team has paid dividends – his side drawing with high-flying Bremen and Bayern Munich in recent weeks, and narrowly losing 3-2 to Wolfsburg thanks to a deflected winning goal for Felix Magath’s side.
Despite a terrible and costly 17 minutes at the start of the match against Mainz, Streich has also guided the team to a win over Augsburg, so Freiburg have tasted victory in recent weeks, and certainly have what it takes to defeat a Stuttgart side, who a 5-0 win over crisis club Hertha Berlin two weeks ago aside, have just one other win in their last 11 games.
Another incentive for Streich to try and win this game will be the fact that he is a former Stuttgart Kickers player. His defender, Oliver Barth, is from Stuttgart, and played for VfB at youth level, as is right-back Andreas Hinkel, who was at Stuttgart from 1992 to 2006. Neither player is getting a look in right now, however, as youngsters such as Immanuel Höhn, Oliver Sorg and Fallou Diagné have pushed to the front of the defensive queue under Streich, a youth team coach for about a decade and a half at Freiburg prior to taking on the assistant coach’s job. Julian Schuster also spent four years at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, although like Barth, the piano-carrier will miss out on this weekend’s match through injury. Streich will be comforted by the fact that in the 26-year-old’s recent absence, Cédric Makiadi has not performed too shabbily in the defence-screening role.
When Stuttgart and Freiburg met back in September at the MAGE SOLAR Stadion, Stuttgart won 2-1, courtesy of two goals from the in-form Martin Harnik (who has since lost his way), with, who else, Papiss Demba Cissé netting a late consolation. Last season, however, Freiburg did the double over Stuttgart, and Cissé played a key role in both those victories. But, whereas Freiburg lost their goalscorer to Newcastle during the January break, Stuttgart signed one in Vedad Ibišević to replace the outgoing Pavel Pogrebnyak, and to provide competition for the misfiring – but latest Germany squad-making – Cacau.
Stuttgart sporting director Fredi Bobic fanned the flames ahead of Saturday’s match, the former Bolton Wanderers striker claiming that it doesn’t really matter whether Freiburg are in 1. or 2. Bundesliga. Labbadia, who will be missing the suspended Christian Molinaro and injured wing duo of Timo Gebhart and Ibrahima Traoré, was a bit more respectful to the opposition in the pre-match presser, coming out with the usual platitudes. As for Streich, who was somewhat blase about the draw against Bayern Munich (saying: We got a point. That’s nice. Otherwise, it has no meaning”), he told the media: “We really want to stand up to anything VfB offer.” The Freiburg coach will most likely be without Schuster, Barth, Anton Putsila, Pavel Krmaš and Mensur Mujdža for the game, though, leaving him to rely on the rookies once again.
Stuttgart against Freiburg kicks off at 2.30pm in the UK, and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com. The referee will be Wolfgang Stark, who takes charge of a game involving the hosts for the third time this season (this is the first time he’ll have refereed a game involving Freiburg in the 2011/12 campaign, however). The weather on the day is expected to be a rather chilly three degrees.