TWO 1. Bundesliga clubs who have been making headlines for positive reasons this week come face to face tomorrow afternoon. On Friday, Hoffenheim attacker Boris Vukčević awoke from the coma he had been in since a car crash on September 28, giving the club and its squad a timely boost. Wolfsburg, meanwhile, travel to the Rhein-Neckar-Arena buoyed by last weekend’s Diego-inspired win over Bayer Leverkusen, and the news that sporting director Klaus Allofs has left northern rivals Werder Bremen after 13 years to join Germany’s 2009 champions.
Wolfsburg have been in fantastic form in recent weeks, winning three of the last four matches. That run, unsurprisingly, has coincided with the aftermath of coach/manager Felix Magath’s departure, with the players verbally expressing and physically playing like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. The popular Lorenz Günther-Köstner – who was head coach at Hoffenheim in the third-tier for several months in 2006 – is now in temporary charge, and most fans seem to want the 60-year-old to stay on. What Allofs has in mind, though, remains to be seen.
Hoffenheim coach Markus Babbel will be hoping for a rub of the Wolves’ green this weekend. Despite beating Schalke 3-2 on home soil a fortnight ago, his young side have only registered one win from their last six games. Thus, the former Bayern Munich and Liverpool defender will be under pressure if his team slip up against Wolfsburg, as going into the 12th matchday of the top-flight season, the 16th-placed guests are only one point behind their 13th placed hosts.
There has been a lot of change at Hoffenheim over the past 20 months or so, with popular and successful coach Ralf Rangnick and noteworthy players such as Peniel Mlapa, Chinedu Obasi, Tom Starke, Gylfi Sigurðsson and Vedad Ibišević now long gone. 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). Babbel – who took over from Holger Stanislawski in February 2012 – must still be frustrated by the team’s inconsistency this season, even if the players have understandably been hit hard by the worrying condition of their friend and colleague, Vukčević.
But, in ill-disciplined midfielder Sejad Salihović (only Diego, of players currently active in 1. Bundesliga, has scored more direct free-kicks than the Bosnian: 11 to seven), Brazilian attacker Roberto Firmino, and American international Fabian Johnson (a full-back-cum-defensive-midfielder who spent a few seasons with this weekend’s opponents), Hoffe have the kind of players who, talent-wise, could walk into most other top-flight sides. Added to that, other potential stars seem to be coming to the fore. These include young striker Kevin Volland (back as a first-choice player after a productive loan spell with 1860 Munich in 2011/12), and former Real Madrid centre-forward Joselu, who has now started to bang in the goals that could keep Hoffenheim away from danger.
The club’s marquee summer recruit, Tim Wiese (a goalkeeper signed from Werder Bremen; then, of course, under Allofs’ transfer control), has been less of a success story, however. The 32-year-old has been responsible for letting in far too many silly goals, albeit conceded while playing behind a defence that has looked shaky and error-prone on numerous occasions. The former Germany international isn’t alone in the failing-to-impress department, mind – Erin Derdiyok (a Swiss international striker brought in from Bayer Leverkusen), Takashi Usami (a talented young Japanese attacker who didn’t get a look in at Bayern Munich last season), centre-back Matthieu Delpierre (a friend of Babbel’s brought in from his old club, Stuttgart), and Stephan Schröck (a winger who excelled during Greuther Fürth’s promotion-winning campaign last year) have all yet to prove to Hoffenheim fans that they are worthy recruits.
As is to be expected under Magath, Wolfsburg’s squad was transmogrified during the summer. Returning from loan spells and now back in the first-team picture are Brazilian attacker Diego (Atletico Madrid) and Danish centre-back Simon Kjær (Roma). They have been joined in the starting XI – a 4-2-3-1 – by expensive Dutch centre-forward Bas Dost (Heerenveen), energetic attacker Ivica Olić (Bayern Munich), centre-backs Naldo (sold from Bremen by Allofs) and Emmanuel Pogatetz (Hannover) and full-back Fágner, all of whom moved to the Volkswagen Arena in the transfer window.
Wolfsburg used a record 36 players in the league last season, emphasising just how big their squad is (this season, a ‘mere’ 24 players have pulled on the green jersey; one more than Hoffenheim have called upon to wear their blue strip). Thus, a number of players left for pastures new over the summer, even if Wolfsburg still have a big squad, with the likes of Marco Russ, Felipe, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Ferhan Hasani and Hrvoje Čale unlikely to even be invited on the team bus this weekend. Those departing the club included Hasan Salihamidžić (retired), Petr Jiráček (Hamburg), Thomas Hitzlsperger (Everton, eventually), Tuncay Şanlı (Bursapor), and Ashkan Dejagah (a vital assist-producer and goalscorer who joined Fulham).
The versatile duo Chris and Patrick Ochs, meanwhile, moved to the Rhein-Neckar-Arena over the summer, with Srđan Lakić returning to Wolfsburg after an unproductive loan spell at Hoffenheim. Perhaps the biggest loss for Wolfsburg, though, was the ruling-out of striker Patrick Helmes through injury for most, if not all, of the 2012/13 campaign. The former Bayer Leverkusen man was rotting in the reserves at one point last season, before bouncing back into the first-team and proving to be unstoppable in front of goal.
Under both Magath and Günther-Köstner, Wolfsburg have played most of the season in a 4-2-3-1 formation, even though off-ball, the shape resembles a 4-4-2, the high-pressers being Dost and Diego. Although Marcel Schäfer has been reintroduced into the first-team in recent weeks, the centre-back and midfield positions have generally been pretty well-settled by Wolfsburg standards, with Naldo and Kjær at centre-back,Josué and Jan Polák in centre-midfield, and Olić and Makoto Hasebe on the flanks.
Babbel has also begun to settle on a first-choice line-up in his favoured 4-2-3-1 in recent weeks, with Joselu operating in front of Firmino, Volland and Usami, and Sebastian Rudy and American international Daniel Williams as holding midfielders. The club’s 40-year-old head coach has started incorporating a number of young players into the matchday squad in recent weeks too, introducing youngsters Vincenzo Grifo and Denis Streker from the bench during last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Johnson has been the only Hoffe ever-present this season, playing all 990 minutes of 2012/13 1. Bundesliga football. However, Firmino, Rudy and centre-back Marvin Compper have started all 11 games. Joselu is the club’s top-scorer with four goals; Firmino has three, Johnson and Usami two, and several players one each. Volland, meanwhile, has five assists in the league, while Usami, Rudy and Johnson have two each. In terms of the club’s bad-boys, Salihović (twice), Schröck, and Compper have all been red-carded this season, while Williams has accumulated six bookings.
Although goalkeeper Diego Benaglio is the only ever-present player for Wolfsburg in the league, Fágner and Naldo have started every game for the Volkswagen-backed club. Only three players have scored for Wolfsburg this season – Dost, now looking capable of filling Helmes’ boots, has four, Diego has three, including a brace last weekend, and Olić has chipped in with two goals. Diego has also provided two assists, while several different players have weighed-in with one each.
It’s hard to know whether international football really is a tiring burden for players, but it’s always worth mentioning when a national team fixture is bookended by two weekends of club matches. Nine members of Günther-Köstner’s squad were with sides representing their respective countries during the week: Kjær; Benaglio and full-back Ricardo Rodríguez (both Switzerland); Makoto Hasebe (Japan); Pogatetz (Austria); Hasani (Macedonia); Robin Knoche (Germany U21); Mateusz Klich (Poland U21); and Maximilian Arnold (Germany U19).
Babbel, meanwhile, lost eight players for several training sessions during the week, and at least four or five of them were first-teamers (compared to Wolfsburg’s key two, Benaglio – back in fantastic form – and the ever-reliable Hasebe): Usami; Williams; Johnson; Salihović; Derdiyok (Switzerland); Wieser (Liechtenstein); Volland (Germany U21); and Michael Gregoritsch (Austria U21).
Perhaps these midweek absences will have no effect on proceedings, though – after all, Hoffenheim did the double over Wolfsburg last season. Under Babbel, the Sinsheim side won 2-1 at the Volkswagen Arena earlier this calendar year, and 3-1 at home in September 2011 (under Stanislawski). However, Wolfsburg won 3-1 at Hoffe on the final day of the 2010/11 season, 2-1 at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena in the 2009/10 campaign, and beat Hoffenheim 4-0 twice at home between April 2009 and May 2010 (with five of those eight goals coming from the boots of current Manchester City star Edin Džeko.
Chris, as per usual, is injured for tomorrow’s match, as is his Hoffenheim defensive colleague, Jannik Vestergaard. Compper, meanwhile, is suspended, following his red card last weekend. Along with Helmes, another key player ruled out for Wolfsburg this Sunday is the Czech Republic international and EURO 2012 star Václav Pilař. Refereeing in what are expected to be rainy and chilly conditions will be Günter Perl. In three of his six 1. Bundesliga games this season, Perl has been given a Kicker rating of four or worse (one being good, six being bad in the trustworthy magazine’s system). In the 2011/12 campaign, the 42-year-old officiated in two Hoffenehim home games (a 1-1 draw with Kaiserslautern, and 2-1 loss to Stuttgart), and two Wolfsburg away matches (a 1-1 draw with Hamburg, and 3-2 loss at Stuttgart).
Hoffenheim against Wolfsburg kicks off at 4.30pm (UK time) tomorrow. The game can be watched, live, on Bet365.com