Champions League qualification hopefuls Borussia Mönchengladbach will be looking to forget their midweek German cup heartache as they host a Hoffenheim side who remain too close to the relegation zone for comfort. Gladbach suffered a penalty shootout defeat to Bayern Munich – a side they have beaten twice this season – on Wednesday at the semi-final stage of the DFB-Pokal, thereby ensuring that the club’s dream-like campaign will end without silverware. Hoffenheim can only fantasise about being where Lucien Favre’s side are, however, as even since Markus Babbel took over as coach at the Sinsheim side a few weeks ago, results haven’t exactly improved.
Like Holger Stanislawski, his predecessor on the Hoffenheim bench, Babbel is struggling to get the team going after club patron Dietmar Hopp commissioned the sales of several star players in the January transfer window (in a move that suggests the board have now perhaps realised their folly, sporting director Ernst Tanner left the club this week). One of those players was creative-midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson, who is currently in fantastic form for Wales’ second-biggest club, Swansea City, in the English Premier League. Another, Vedad Ibišević, scored twice last weekend as Stuttgart – the side Babbel played for and then coached between 2004 to 2009 – comfortably defeated an invention and confidence-lacking Hoffenheim team by two goals to one. It’s not just players who have been sold this season giving Babbel headaches either – Ryan Babel has intimated that he is ready for a new challenge, Roberto Firmino has been out of form for months now after a scintillating start to the current Bundesliga campaign, and Sejad Salihović was recently handed a two-week suspension for a breach of club discipline by Babbel, who is not yet even a quadragenarian.
The worst moment of the former Liverpool defender’s reign to date, though, was the 7-1 thrashing Hoffenheim suffered at the hands of Bayern Munich a fortnight ago. Strange formational and tactical decisions such as playing Ghanaian centre-back Isaach Vorsah as a sitting-midfielder backfired spectacularly for the 39-year-old, who is, of course, a former Bayern player. The Bavarian giants have since gone on to defeat Hertha BSC 6-0 in the 2011/12 Bundesliga, meaning that they sit three points above third-placed Mönchengladbach in second spot. But, eleven points above fifth-placed Bayer Leverkusen with eight matches to go, Favre’s side look all-but certain of competing in next season’s Champions League. However, Schalke sit just one point behind Gladbach, and they are just as eager as Favre’s side to avoid ending the season in fourth – a position that involves having to play a Champions League qualifier, unlike finishing in third, which sees a team qualify straight for the group stage.
There can’t be many football fans on the planet now who are unfamiliar with Gladbach and their Swiss coach’s story (for those of you who somehow don’t know, in a nutshell, they won a relegation play-off back in May to stay in the top-flight by the skin of their teeth, and the only reason they even got to that play-off was because Favre’s appointment late on in the season sparked a miraculous revival). The club’s main man is, of course, Borussia Dortmund-bound Marco Reus, although some might argue that the team is the real star at Gladbach. Favre’s 4-4-2 system and accompanying sit-and-absorb tactics are understood and enacted superbly by his players, and it is little wonder that along with Dortmund, no team has conceded fewer goals this season (16).
However, Gladbach have experienced a bit of a wobble recently, drawing three of their last seven games 0-0 (they have only scored 39 goals this season – 25 less than Bayern, and 18 less than Schalke), sharing a score draw with struggling Hamburg, and losing to Nuremberg. The absence through injury of midfielder Patrick Herrmann (who plays on the right flank) has clearly been key too, although last weekend’s 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen indicates that a corner may have been turned in the league: Favre’s exuberant celebrations, an odd sight primarily because he’s normally so passive on the sidelines, certainly showed just how much of a key result beating Robin Dutt’s side was.
Despite Hoffenheim’s humiliation at the Allianz Arena, Gladbach could find their guests hard to break down, and not just because the majority of Favre’s first XI will be exhausted from their midweek cup excursions. Stanislawski embedded the tactical approach of sitting back and absorbing pressure, before getting midfield ball-players such as Firmino or Salihović to feed the likes of Babel or Peniel Mlapa on the break, and Babbel hasn’t veered too far away from this philosophy. If picking up points to ensure their survival in the division – Hoffe could end the weekend two points above the drop zone if they lose to Gladbach and results don’t go their way – wasn’t enough of a motivating factor to put in a performance this Saturday, left-sided centre-back Marvin Compper might well have added fight in him this weekend given that he spent five years on Borussia’s books. He is the only player in either squad to have represented both clubs, mind.
When these sides met earlier on this season for the reverse fixture, Hoffenheim won 1-0; Ibišević scoring the club’s first goal in a month. However, Gladbach won the sides’ meeting at Borussia-Park 2-0 last season, although in the 2009/10 campaign, Hoffe won 4-2 in the North Rhine-Westphalian city. Neither coach looks set to have a squad badly depleted due to suspensions or injuries for this clash, with Favre only likely to be missing the suspended defensive-minded centre-midfielder Håvard Nordtveit, and Babbel shorn of several young occasional-bench-makers such as defender Matthias Jaissle and striker Denis Thomalla.
Speaking ahead of the game, Hoffenheim striker Srđan Lakić said: “There’s still a lot to play for in the remaining eight matches. We’ve lost our last two games, but the squad has huge potential still. If we can reproduce the away performances we showed against Werder Bremen [1-1] or VfL Wolfsburg [2-1 win], then we can definitely enjoy a successful end to the season.” Gladbach striker Mike Hanke, meanwhile, said: “In the first game [against Hoffenheim], we did not put in an especially good performance. But, on Saturday, we are playing with our fans behind us, and we’re not undefeated for nothing in the Bundesliga this season in Borussia-Park.”
Borussia Mönchengladbach against Hoffenheim kicks off at 2.30pm on Saturday, and can be watched live on Bet365.com. The referee will be Wolfgang Stark. The weather forecast for that afternoon in Mönchengladbach is sunny and dry with little wind.