1. BUNDESLIGA strugglers Greuther Fürth continue their top-flight adventure this weekend as they travel to North Rhine-Westphalian big-guns Bayer Leverkusen. Mike Büskens’ side lost their third home game of the season during the week at the hands of Fortuna Düsseldorf, but have been in good form on the road, if you exclude their cup exit at the hands of Kickers Offenbach on August 18. Although Leverkusen – under joint coaches Sami Hyypiä and Sascha Lewandowski – have looked decent enough at the BayArena in 1. Bundesliga so far, they haven’t exactly made a flawless start to the season overall; losing two away games, and being held at home in the Europa League by Ukrainian outfit Metalist Kharkiv.
However, there was a marked improvement in the team’s performance during Wednesday evening’s ruthless 3-1 win at Augsburg. Despite the south-west Bavarian outfit being bottom of the table, clinical Leverkusen ensured there were no scares by scoring three first-half goals. With seven 1. Bundesliga goals scored, seven goals against, and seven points to their name after five games, Hyypiä and Lewandowski’s side now sit in eighth place – eight places ahead of third-bottom 1. Bundesliga debutants Fürth, but eight points behind league-leaders Bayern Munich.
Still, Bayer go into this Saturday afternoon’s home game with the club’s players and fans in better spirits than their counterparts at Fürth. Written off as relegation certainties by most fans and pundits before a ball was even kicked, Fürth have since gone on to lose all three of their home 1. Bundesliga games so far this season, not even scoring a consolation goal in the process. Although they have had to face Bayern Munich (0-3) and Schalke (0-2) at the 15,000-seater Trolli Arena, games they were always likely to lose, Tuesday night’s 2-0 defeat at home to Düsseldorf was a real low. Büskens’ side looked totally out of their depth, albeit against the only side in the division yet to concede a goal in the first five games. The 44-year-old’s first-half long-ball tactics just did not work, with strikers Edu and Ilir Azemi getting little change out of the North Rhine-Westphalian side’s confident and strong defenders. Büskens also failed to address the fact that his four-man midfield was being outnumbered by opposite coach Norbert Meier’s five-man system – something that highlighted despite his many attributes, he still has a bit to learn as a coach.
There was also a distinct lack of quality, leadership and creativity in the centre of the Franconian side’s midfield against Düsseldorf, although Edgar Prib’s energy and enthusiasm after his half-time introduction improved things slightly. The trickery of wide-midfielders Tayfun Pektürk and Sercan Sararer also offered the occasional bit of penetration, but on the whole, Fortuna goalkeeper Fabian Giefer had a quiet night. Although Büskens has played the same four defenders in every game, there have now been far too many preventable goals conceded, and Fürth’s full-backs have offered little attacking threat. Left-back Baba Rahman’s introduction in the second-half of the Düsseldorf game, though, hinted that Büskens might be about to alter things.
Despite their home woes, Fürth have looked decent enough on the road in their début top-flight season, winning 1-0 at Mainz, and drawing 1-1 at Wolfsburg last weekend (an Emmanuel Pogatetz own-goal handing Büskens’ side the lead, which they later squandered). Playing away where there is more space to exploit seems like it could be going to suit Fürth this season, because as was apparent against Düsseldorf, they will struggle to break down teams – namely relegation rivals – who sit back and look to hit them on the break. This is something Bayer won’t be doing this weekend, not least because they are the home team, and thus, Büskens might fancy his side’s chances of at least getting a point at a ground that has been a regular Champions League venue in recent seasons.
Leverkusen’s key signings over the summer were Chilean attacker Junior Fernándes (Club Universidad de Chile), who scored twice on his début for the club during their 4-0 win against Carl Zeiss Jena in the DFB-Pokal, centre-back Philipp Wollscheid (Nuremberg), and 20-year-old right-back Daniel Carvajal (Real Madrid B). Jens Hegeler and Hajime Hosogai, an attacking midfielder and full-back/defensive-midfielder who were out on loan at Nuremberg and Ausburg respectively last season, returned to the club during the summer, and both are now important members of the squad.
Leaving the club over the summer, meanwhile, were Vedran Ćorluka, who returned to England’s Tottenham Hotspur after a loan spell, fellow full-back Danny Da Costa, who joined FC Ingolstadt, iconic centre-midfielder Michael Ballack, who was released after a disappointing second stint at the club, Swiss winger Tranquillo Barnetta, who moved to Schalke 04 to revive his flagging career, striker Eren Derdiyok, who was sold to Hoffenheim, and goalkeeper René Adler, who has been Hamburg’s best player in practically all of their games so far this season. Leverkusen were willing to let him go because youngster Bernd Leno had made the #1 jersey his own while Adler was absent through injury. Michael Rensing, who had a solid season for near-neighbours Cologne last year, has been signed to act as his deputy.
Greek centre-midfielder Thanos Petsos was another player to leave Leverkusen before the start of the 2012/13 season, with the rarely-used 21-year-old going to this weekend’s opponents, Fürth. The Franconian minnows spent about €2.5million overall, recruiting Petsos for a five-figure sum, winger Zoltán Stieber from Mainz, striker/wide-attacker Edu from Schalke on loan, 18-year-old Rahman from Ghanaian side Asante Kotoko, and striker Djiby Fall from Lokeren in Belgium, among others. The club also promoted 20-year-old striker Azemi from the reserve team, and he has subsequently started every game. Although yet to score, the strapping Kosovar-Albanian has looked a handful, having a hand in both of Fürth’s Bundesliga goals.
The players joining Fürth’s first-team squad have been recruited to make up for the losses of Olivier Occéan to Eintracht Frankfurt, fellow striker Dani Schahin to Düsseldorf (a combative player whose every touch was booed on his return during the week), full-back Asen Karaslavov to Botev Plovdiv and winger Stephan Schröck to Hoffenheim.
Since taking charge at the BayArena, Lewandowski and Hyypiä have deviated from the 4-2-3-1 formation used by a number of Leverkusen coaches over the last few years. One might argue that system would be the best bet for getting the most out of the club’s attackers, as it gives the likes of Sidney Sam and Karim Bellarabi the chance to stretch opposing teams, while allowing players such as André Schürrle a number of positions from which to probe, or interchange seamlessly with his fellow attackers. But, the rookie coaching duo have looked to play two tight and narrow banks of four, with either two strikers up top, or a defensive-midfielder making it 4-1-4-1. The fact that the system has been altered several times already in the 2012/13 campaign shows that Lewandowski and Hyypiä are possibly yet to work out what the best formation is for their young team, although since the 3-0 loss to Dortmund a fortnight ago, the team’s understanding and utilisation of the tactics and shape has looked better, which means that Bayer could be about to get into their stride.
Leverkusen should really have beaten Borussia Mönchengladbach last weekend, but Schürrle – playing as a striker – squandered a number of chances, and even missed a penalty. Despite saying his team “desperately” needed to win ahead of the Augsburg game on Wednesday, Hyypiä refused to blame Germany international Schürrle – who at that point had not scored for his club side since May – for Leverkusen’s lack of cutting-edge. The former Liverpool and Finland centre-back said: “When you are going through a difficult time, you really need positive backing. André will get chances again, and I am convinced that he will soon be scoring the goals that we need.” As it was, Schürrle went on to score a characteristic goal on Wednesday, cutting in from the wing and firing into the corner of the net to make it 3-0.
Despite his side’s difficulty against Düsseldorf, it would be a surprise if Büskens ditched his 4-4-2 formation for the trip to the BayArena, although it is likely to be a more defensive, counter-attack reliant take on the system. Fürth’s promotion last season was built on their strong defensive record, and tactics that suited all ten outfield players, and played to their strengths. Despite losing Schröck and Occéan, players who were key to the coach’s system, Fürth have tried to play in the same manner this season, even if Büskens has chopped and changed attacking personnel-wise for every game. As touched upon earlier, the same four defenders and goalkeeper which won the side promotion last season have started every game, but mistakes that seemed beyond that quintet in 2. Bundesliga are happening too frequently in the ruthless top-flight. However, Heinrich Schmidtgal and Bernd Nehrig are full-backs who don’t get forward that often, and this conservatism and inherent organisation might mean that Büskens does pick the same defence for the sixth successive 1. Bundesliga game, while trying more attacking full-backs in next week’s game at home to Hamburg.
Of course, if both sides do play 4-4-2, the game could become something of a stalemate, with little space to utilise. However, Leverkusen’s full-backs are better attackers than their Fürth counterparts, and I think this could be key to the home side breaking down and forcing mistakes from an away team who will look to sit back.
The two sides have never met in 1. Bundesliga, and certainly have not met as clubs since this weekend’s visitors became Greuther Fürth in 1996. The two clubs are about four hours drive apart, so have no real shared history or rivalry. Fürth centre-back Thomas Kleine did spend five years at Leverkusen between 1998 and 2003, making ten first-team appearances – nine more than Petsos did in his two years at the BayArena. Pektürk also spent a year as a youth-teamer at Bayer Leverkusen, but those are the only three players in either squad who have spent time at both clubs in their careers.
The referee will be Guido Winkmann, who sent off two players in last Sunday’s 2-2 draw between Stuttgart and Bremen. The 38-year-old took charge of two Bayer Leverkusen games last season (4-1 wins over Nuremberg and Augsburg), and one Fürth match (the 4-0 win over Union Berlin). The latter side will be without winger Felix Klaus and Fall through injury this weekend, while centre-back Stefan Reinartz is expected to be missing for Leverkusen.
Bayer Leverkusen versus Greuther Fürth kicks off at 2.30pm UK time on Saturday, and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com.