It’s the stadium where Australian football fans experienced a heartbreaking injustice at the 2006 World Cup, and this Saturday afternoon, the Betzenberg’s primary users, Kaiserslautern, will be hoping for some Italy-esque luck in their battle to avoid the drop. Marco Kurz’s side, firmly planted in the Bundesliga relegation zone and without a win since October, host Wolfsburg – several spaces above Kaiserslautern in the league, but by no means certain themselves of avoiding the drop to 2. Bundesliga just yet. Both these sides have been Bundesliga champions since the German men’s senior side last won a trophy (the 1996 European Championships), and although Wolfsburg’s title-winning coach Felix Magath is still at the club, the only truly notable thing about his side’s 2011/12 campaign is the fact that the 58-year-old has set a new record for the highest number of players used by a coach in a German football season (36 – a figure bolstered significantly after the winter break, because Magath signed nine players in January, the majority of whom he is now using in the first-team).
As if being second-bottom of the league and without a win since beating Eintracht Frankfurt in the cup 15 games ago wasn’t bad enough, Kaiserslautern have also scored the fewest goals in the league this season (16). Creative midfield players such as Christian Tiffert – one of the most productive players in Europe’s top leagues in the 2010/11 campaign – have struggled for form this season, while Kurz lacks quality attacking options when it comes to selecting his full-backs. Ironically, Srđan Lakić, last season’s primary goal-getter, joined Wolfsburg in the summer, only to be loaned out to Hoffenheim in January after failing to score enough goals (his departure also means that the hosts’ defender Jan Šimůnek is the only player in either squad to have represented both Kaiserslautern and Wolfsburg). Kaiserslautern did acquire several strikers during the winter break in a bid to score the goals needed to retain their top-flight status. However, one goal in the club’s last four games, and three since the season started up again – all of which were scored by defenders – tells its own story.
Nevertheless, perhaps Kurz and his squad stand a fighting chance against a Wolfsburg team still getting to know one another. The new-look back-four has looked shaky, and Magath’s side – who sit nine points and four places above Kaiserslautern – have leaked eight goals in their last three games (two of which they’ve lost, including last weekend’s highly disappointing home defeat at the hands of Hoffenheim). Such opponents – who have notched up just one win on the road this season, with that victory coming on the first day of the season – are just the sort of team Kurz and his side need to be playing right now to put an end to their woeful run. Wolfsburg’s players will be making the five-hour drive, however, knowing that they have already defeated Kaiserslautern this season in the reverse fixture (1-0). But, last season, the first time the clubs had played one another since 2005, although it finished 0-0 at the Betzenberg, Kaiserslautern actually won at Wolfsburg.
Unfortunately, Kaiserslautern have been making the headlines – for those stories not dominated by Germany’s 2-1 loss to France on Wednesday – for all the wrong reasons this week. In an interview with a television channel on Sunday, chairman Stefan Kuntz said that he still fully trusts Kurz to lead the team to safety. Later in the week, however, the chairman added: “Because of the defeats, we are in a critical situation. Let’s have a look how the team presents itself against Wolfsburg, [but] I don’t want to see into the too distant future, because our job is too much of a daily business.” Then, on Sunday, about 300 fans attended a training session and demanded the chance to talk to the team. According to the team responsible for the excellent FCK Twitter account: “One idiot kicked over the terraces and shouted something racist to the substitutes from the game on Saturday, including Itay Shechter. The club and the fans are disassociating themselves from the racist abuse, the club making a press release with a campaign called ‘Racism has no place in our club’.
Poor old striker Dorge Kouemaha, meanwhile, received an achilles tendon rupture in training this week, ruling him out for between six to eight months – thereby making it all but certain that the on-loan 28-year-old has played his last game for the club. Kouemaha is expected to be joined on the sidelines by Alexander Bugera, Kevin Trapp and Shechterfor Saturday’s match. Magath, meanwhile, is likely to be without Petr Jiráček, Sebastian Schindzielorz, Jan Polák, Kevin Scheidhauer, Slobodan Medojević and Michael Schulze. Those players aside, it’s hard to rule anybody else out from the Wolfsburg starting XI, especially with Patrick Helmes being a shock inclusion last weekend against Hoffenheim.
Other factors that could influence this weekend’s match include the fact that Kaiserslautern players Antar Yahia, Kostas Fortounis, Thanos Petsos, and Olcay Şahan (in the Turkey, but given no game time), all went away with their respective countries for the midweek round of international games, while Wolfsburg also had a host of players away with their international teams (12 in all), including Christian Träsch for Germany, Ashkan Dejagah, who scored on his Iran début, and the aforementioned Jiráček, who picked up an injury playing for the Czech Republic against the Republic of Ireland.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s game, Wolfsburg midfielder Josué said: “The team, the coaching staff and the fans must stick together if we are to play better football in the future. The next game is very important for us, especially as the last couple of games didn’t go so well. We need to provide the answer on the pitch.” Magath added: “Our fans, over the years, have always been willing to assist us in even the most difficult situation. I’m optimistic that we will now deliver for them in Kaiserslautern.” Kurz, meanwhile, said: “This weekend, it is up to us – the other team is not as important. We need to get our power, and then play a good game.” His team will be cheered on by about 32,500 fans at the 50,000-seater venue, with 200 fans making the trip from Wolfsburg.
Kaiserslautern against Wolfsburg kicks off at 2.30pm (UK time) on Saturday afternoon, and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com. The referee will be 33-year-old Deniz Aytekin.