ONE of Germany’s more storied clubs take on the footballing epitome of the nouveau riche this weekend, as Eintracht Frankfurt travel to Hoffenheim. While Frankfurt may not be Germany’s most fashionable or celebrated club these days, they do have a UEFA Cup and several DFB-Pokal trophies in the cabinet. Hoffenheim, on the other hand, were playing in the fifth-tier as recently as 1999. Since then, though, software mogul Dietmar Hopp has ploughed a small fortune into Hoffe, building a 30,000-seater stadium – that is usually at least 90 per cent full – and turning the club into an established top-flight side: albeit one unpopular with football fans who deem them to be a soulless club, and an un-German-like rich man’s plaything.
Despite having history on their side, Armin Veh’s Frankfurt spent last season in the second-tier. They returned to 1. Bundesliga with a bang, defeating Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 at their Commerzbank Arena last Saturday evening. Markus Babbel’s Hoffenheim, meanwhile, slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Borussia Mönchengladbach. This will be the seventh time these two sides have met in the top-flight, with Hoffenheim winning the last encounter – in April 2011 – 1-0. A 19-year-old Roberto Firmino scored his first goal for Hoffenheim that day, and continued his new club’s streak of never having lost to Eintracht Frankfurt.
There has been a lot of change at Hoffenheim over the past 18 months or so, with popular and successful coach Ralf Rangnick and club stalwarts such as Peniel Mlapa, Chinedu Obasi, Tom Starke and Vedad Ibišević now long gone. Two other notable players, attacker Ryan Babel (Ajax) and centre-back Isaac Vorsah (Red Bull Salzburg), both left the club a few hours before the closure of the summer transfer window, although it’s fair to say neither will be entered into the Hoffenheim hall of fame. However, despite some behavioural issues, Brazilian playmaker Firmino remains at the club, and scored what proved to be the consolation goal at Gladbach last Saturday.
Several formational changes and the poor form of key players at critical periods of the season saw Hoffenheim score far too few goals in the 2011/12 1. Bundesliga campaign (with set-pieces often looking to be the side’s only means of penetration at times). Hoffe also conceded too many goals for a team looking to reach the Europa League qualification berths, and judging by the first goal conceded against Gladbach last Saturday, where Mike Hanke easily outjumped Andreas Beck to head home, work still needs to be done on this side of their game.
Markus Babbel took over from Holger Stanislawski in February 2012, ending a rotten reign for the former St Pauli coach, who had to contend with problems at boardroom level and squad indiscipline. Babbel, however, restored something resembling tranquillity at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, even if Hoffenheim did lose their final three matches of the season, resulting in an 11th-placed finish.
As well as losing to Gladbach last Saturday afternoon, Hoffenheim also exited the DFB-Pokal in the first round, and boy did they do it in style! The 1. Bundesliga outfit were hammered 4-0 by Regionalliga Nord side Berliner AK. The result was the greatest ever achieved by a side from the fourth-tier against a top-flight team, and it was more than deserved. Some might argue in Hoffenheim’s defence that the capital city side’s league season had started a few weeks before the cup tie, and that a lot of players both left or joined the 1. Bundesliga side over the summer, meaning that the first XI is going to need time to gel (even if they have been holed up together in an Austrian training camp over the summer).
However, for me, to concede four goals and score none against an amateur side which probably costs less to run for an entire season than Ryan Babel earns in a week is inexcusable, and although much like one swallow not making a summer, one result does not define the job being done by a coach, Babbel still has a lot of work to do to show that he can coach a side at the highest level of German football.
Perhaps the biggest name to leave Hoffenheim over the summer was Gylfi Sigurðsson (who joined English Premier League outfit Tottenham Hotspur). However, the Icelandic midfielder contributed nothing of note for the Sinsheim side last season, and only really came to international prominence thanks to a successful loan spell with English Premier League minnows Swansea City.
Other players who left the Rhein-Neckar-Arena over the summer include Knowledge Musona (an attacker loaned to Augsburg), Starke (a first-choice and very handy goalkeeper who has now gone to warm the Bayern Munich bench), Obasi (a winger who completed his move to Schalke after a loan spell), Andreas Ibertsberger (a veteran defender rarely used last season, and therefore allowed to leave on a free), and Srđan Lakić (a Croatian striker who has really lost his way since a fine campaign with Kaiserslautern in 2010/11. He offered nothing during a short stint with Hoffe before being sent back to his parent club Wolfsburg).
Key players such as the Bosnian midfielder Sejad Salihović (a set-piece specialist who top-scored with nine goals last season. A player with occasional disciplinary issues, though), American international Fabian Johnson (a full-back-cum-defensive-midfielder who was the top Hoffenheim assist-maker last season, albeit with a mere five), and talented defenders Beck (touted as a Juventus transfer target for the last few seasons, the tough-tackling, corner flag-to-corner flag right-back remains the club captain), and Marvin Compper have at least been retained alongside the aforementioned Firmino, and are now joined at the club by a number of key summer signings.
These include young striker Kevin Volland (back as a first-choice player after a productive loan spell with 1860 Munich), Tim Wiese (a Germany international goalkeeper recruited from Werder Bremen), Erin Derdiyok (a Swiss international forward who is still only 24 years old. Brought in from Bayer Leverkusen, a fresh start was just what he needed, and he began the summer in style by bagging a hat-trick against Germany in a friendly international), Joselu (a German-born striker signed from Real Madrid after a protracted chase), Chris (a defender-cum-midfielder who has been knocking around the top-flight for years – at one point with this weekend’s opponents, Eintracht Frankfurt), Takashi Usami (a talented young Japanese attacker who didn’t get a look in at Bayern Munich last season), Matthieu Delpierre (a competent defender brought in from Stuttgart, albeit one not immune to the odd error or two. The 31-year-old is a personal friend of Babbel, who played with and coached the French centre-back), and Stephan Schröck (a winger who excelled during Greuther Fürth’s promotion-winning campaign last year).
Usami and Derdiyok were the two new signings who stood out in last weekend’s 1. Bundesliga curtain raiser, with the former causing a Champions League side problems with his trickery after coming off the bench, and the latter playing a key part in creating the space Firmino needed for his goal. It was a player already on Hoffenheim’s books, though, Boris Vukčević, who stood out the most for the team in blue. Plagued by injuries and a loss of form last season, the 22-year-old’s energy, shooting and delivery caused a range of problems for the Gladbach backline, showing signs that he could be a key player for Hoffenheim this season.
Babbel is a 4-2-3-1 fan, and used the system in last weekend’s loss at Gladbach. Four of the club’s summer signings started that match: Wiese in goal, Delpierre as Compper’s centre-back partner, Volland alongside Firmino (AMC) and Vukčević in the bank of ‘three’, with Derdiyok leading the line. This saw promising young forward Sven Schipplock on the bench, where the former Stuttgart man was joined by Daniel Williams and Schröck (with Tobias Weis and Sebastian Rudy playing as the centre-midfielders), plus Usami and Salihović. Whether Babbel, 39, rings the changes after a second loss on the bounce remains to be seen, although by most accounts, Hoffe were pretty average last weekend, with no grip being taken on the game by the centre-midfield. The team looked decent in patches, but this coincided with moments of the game in which Borussia Mönchengladbach relinquished their control.
Unlike Hoffenheim, who have finished in mid-table in every single one of their four top-flight campaigns prior to this one, the last few years have been pretty topsy-turvy for Eintracht Frankfurt. Despite spending the winter break of the 2010/11 campaign in seventh spot, the team from Germany’s economic capital collapsed in the second half of the season, enduring a woeful run of form that culminated in relegation. However, they were admirably and ruthlessly effective in 2. Bundesliga last season, and although Veh didn’t win them the title, Frankfurt’s automatic promotion practically felt certain from the opening day of the season, when they came back from 2-0 down to beat eventual champions Fürth 3-2.
All the key players from that promotion campaign have been kept at the club, with several signings coming in over the summer. So far, all is looking good – Frankfurt won eight of their nine friendly games in the summer, including wins over Valencia and big-spending Red Bull Salzburg. Added to that, they went on to beat Leverkusen last weekend, looking thoroughly convincing in the process. One blip, though, was their DFB-Pokal tie a fortnight ago – Veh’s side limply exited the cup at the first-round stage after being humbled by 2. Bundesliga side Aue, leading to some pundits and fans making vocal their view that Veh may not be the man to lead Frankfurt and keep them in 1. Bundesliga. However, sporting director Bruno Hübner has backed the coach who led Stuttgart to the title in 2006. As an aside, one of Veh’s key players on the pitch that season? Babbel, of course.
Hübner has backed his coach in the transfer market too, jettisoning key promotion-winning players such as free-scoring, defender-bullying striker Mo Idrissou (Kaiserslautern) and centre-back Gordon Schildenfeld (Dynamo Moscow), as well as others whose importance waned as the season went on such as midfielder Matthis Lehmann (Cologne), versatile American Ricardo Clark (Houston Dynamo) and rarely-used Greek defender Giorgos Tzavelas (Monaco).
In these players’ places have come Oliver Occean (a striker getting his first bite at the 1. Bundesliga cherry, but one who clearly deserves it. The 31-year-old Canadian was especially impressive for Fürth last season, and will lead Veh’s line in the coach’s 4-2-3-1 for the foreseeable future), Dorge Kouemaha (a striker capable of the spectacular signed on-loan from Club Brugge, and one who looked good before getting injured while on loan at Kaiserslautern last season), Takashi Inui (a tremendously tricky and talented young Japanese midfielder brought in from Bochum. If he shows an ability to cope with the physical demands of the top-flight, the 24-year-old will have a number of suitors next summer), Martin Lanig (an average, unfussy ex-Hoffenheim centre-midfielder recruited from Cologne), Stefan Aigner (the man who supplied Volland with the ammunition at 1860 Munich last season), Kevin Trapp (a goalkeeper brought in from Kaiserslautern to take the #1 jersey), Bamba Anderson (a centre-back signed after a strong loan spell last season), Carlos Zambrano (an agricultural Peruvian centre-back brought in from St Pauli), Vadim Demidov (a Norwegian centre-back brought in from a Real Sociedad side who shipped goals for fun in La Liga last year), and Stefano Celozzi and Bastian Oczipka (full-backs transferred from Stuttgart and Bayer Leverkusen respectively, and players who rarely got a look in during the 2011/12 campaign).
Veh veered between a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 last season, but this time round, with his side facing the prospect of losing more games than they win, the wily tactician looks set to stick to the latter system, and flood his midfield. Although Occean thrived when working alongside a strike partner, Christopher Nöthe, last season, he will be more than ably assisted by Alexander Meier – a goalscoring revelation in the attacking-midfielder position last year. In fact, if the strapping talisman had picked up a serious injury during the 2011/12 campaign, it’s likely Frankfurt wouldn’t havereturned to the top-flight so soon.
Seven of Eintracht Frankfurt’s summer signings started in last weekend’s win over Leverkusen, which makes that victory all the more impressive (admittedly, one of those players, Anderson, is a familiar face due to his aforementioned loan spell). Trapp, inevitably, kept fellow goalkeeper Ola Nikolov on the bench, while Anderson partnered Zambrano at the back (flanked by Oczipka and the impressive – and supposedly highly sought-after – Sebastian Jung). Blonde-haired midfield whirlwind Sebastian Rode partnered Pirmin Schwegler – back in form after a few months of mediocrity – in the centre of the park, with Aigner (who grabbed Frankfurt’s first) and Inui – who caused Leverkusen’s rearguard no end of trouble – playing alongside Meier in the bank of three.
Unsurprisingly, Erwin Hoffer was on the bench with Occean taking his place up front. The Austrian striker – somehow still at the club – was joined as a substitute by Celozzi, Demidov (starting as a reserve after a dodgy pre-season), Lanig (who came on to score the winning goal), key impact player Karim Matmour, and the versatile wideman Benjamin Köhler.
Veh is likely to have all his key players fit for this weekend’s match, with only Kouemaha (fitness issues), striker Rob Friend (not included), full-back Constant Djakpa (suspended) and centre-back Martin Amedick (illness) set to miss out. Babbel, meanwhile, will have to make do without left-back Edson Braafheid, who is not up for selection, and young centre-back, Matthias Jaissle, who is not yet fit enough to begin the campaign. The referee for Saturday’s match will be Michael Weiner, who refereed the last game between these two sides back in April 2011.
Hoffenheim against Eintracht Frankfurt kicks off at 2.30pm on Saturday (UK time). The game can be watched, live, on Bet365.com.