TWO 1. Bundesliga sides battling to qualify for next season’s Europa League go head-to-head on Saturday afternoon as sixth-placed Hannover visit seventh-placed Mainz. While Mirko Slomka’s side have had no trouble scoring goals this season (their tally of 27 makes them the joint-third most lethal top-tier side), Mainz have been more profligate, relying mainly on the goal-scoring prowess of Hungarian hotshot Ádám Szalai (who, admittedly, only has one goal in the six games he has played since bagging a hat-trick against the team with the division’s worst defence, Hoffenheim). Nevertheless, Thomas Tuchel’s energetic and resourceful Mainz team have a good home record so far this season, and in their last away game, Hannover were hammered 5-0 at Bayern Munich.
Both teams’ form in the 2012/13 season to date is very balanced, and, in fact, identical: won six, lost six, drawn two. Before last weekend’s 2-1 defeat to Borussia Dortmund at the Coface Arena, no top-flight team had conceded as few goals as Mainz had at home (two). Having said that, Mainz’s five home games prior to facing the reigning champions had been against sides who have spent most of the season in the bottom six or seven positions. Tuchel has seen his side defeat bottom-placed Augsburg, plus fellow strugglers Fortuna Düsseldorf, Nuremberg, and Hoffenheim. However, at the end of August, Mainz made history by allowing Greuther Fürth to take their first ever 1. Bundesliga points by virtue of a 1-0 victory.
Despite losing only their second home game since April 2011 a fortnight back at the hands of Freiburg, Hannover have been a real Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde outfit this season. Although Slomka’s side breezed through a tricky Europa League group with ease, the so-called 96ers are nearly just as close to the relegation zone as they are to the Champions League qualification spots, primarily owing to their inconsistent away form. Yes, Hannover may have struck four goals or more in six games already this season, including a quartet at Stuttgart to come back from 2-0 down to win the game; but, they also have a frustratingly leaky defence on occasion (see last weekend’s Bayern Munich hammering, admittedly played just over 40 hours after the conclusion of a Europa League tie versus Dutch side Twente, and a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Borussia Mönchengladbach last month). This is despite the team playing a previously very effective tactical system of three close-together banks, and sit, absorb and hit-on-the-break football.
Slomka has veered between 4-1-3-2, 4-2-3-1, and 4-4-2 systems so far this season, using a total of 20 players in the league. Since matchday two, Konstantin Rausch – who spent last season playing as a winger – had been the club’s left-back, most commonly featuring in defence alongside Karim Haggui, Mario Eggimann, and club-stalwart Steve Cherundolo (right-back). However, during Tuesday night’s comfortable 2-0 win against Fürth, Slomka played Rausch as the left-sided attacker in a 4-2-3-1, with set-piece specialist Christian Pander at left-back. In a bid to nullify Mainz, who primarily like to play their football in the centre of the pitch, it is likely the 45-year-old former Schalke coach will stick to that system this weekend.
Whether Rausch plays, though, remains to be seen, as Slomka rested players for the match against 1. Bundesliga’s 17th-placed side (the tie was Hannover’s third game in just six days). Ever since Danish midfielder Leon Andreasen sustained another long-term injury, having only just come back from more than a year on the sidelines, Slomka, who has been given a deadline of mid-December by club president Martin Kind to sign a new deal with the Lower Saxony side, has generally fielded Lars Stindl and Szabolcs Huszti on the wings, with Sérgio Pinto and Manuel Schmiedebach in the defensive-midfielder roles (the latter, however, was hauled off at half-time against Bayern, and replaced by Christian Schulz, who then started the game on Tuesday in his place). Jan Schlaudraff, meanwhile, can also play in midfield – he can either operate on the wing, or be handed something of a free role, such is his talent and creativity.
With an array of strikers at Hannover’s disposal (Mame Biram Diouf, Mohammed Abdellaoue, Artur Sobiech, Didier Ya Konan, and Adrian Nikci, not to mention Schlaudraff), Slomka has chopped and changed every game, although the hard-working, goal-poaching Diouf is the surest bet to start at the moment – the best of an erratic bunch. Abdellaoue, though, has been brought on as a substitute in eight of his side’s 14 1. Bundesliga games, so pretty much knows his brief by now.
Tuchel, meanwhile, has used a total of 22 players so far this season, mainly trusting those who have served him well over the last two 1. Bundesliga campaigns. Thus, summer purchases such as Nikita Rukavytsya and Chinedu Ede – both attackers – have had to be patient, although Costa Rican defender Júnior Díaz has featured on a fairly regular basis. Striker Ivan Klasnić, who returned from injury last weekend, probably would have been used more had he not got injured after his first – goal-scoring – appearance for his new employers back in August.
The first XI ever-presents for Mainz are Macedonian centre-back Nikolče Noveski, and goalkeeper Christian Wetklo. Austrian defensive-midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger also features on a regular basis for Mainz, as well as in referees’ notebooks – the 24-year-old has picked up five bookings in 1. Bundesliga, and received the club’s first red card of the season during Tuesday night’s impressive win at top-flight high-fliers Eintracht Frankfurt. Fellow centre-back-cum-centre-midfielder Jan Kirchhoff, meanwhile, has picked up four bookings, while Noveski and Szalai – who put through his own net during Tuesday’s 3-1 win in the Rhine-Main derby – have each received three yellow cards. Mainz accumulate a number of bookings as a team because fouling is a big part of Tuchel’s tactics. Sometimes, it’s the only way to stop teams taking advantage of the space multi-player-attacking Mainz leave at the back.
Like the aforementioned Wetklo, the only ever-present for Hannover so far this campaign has been a goalkeeper; former Manchester United rookie Ron-Robert Zieler. Nevertheless, Swiss centre-back Eggimann – featuring more in the first-team these days after the summer sale of Emmanuel Pogatetz to Wolfsburg – has only missed 17 minutes of Hannover’s stop-start season up to now. Stindl, meanwhile, would only have missed 17 minutes of the league campaign had he not informed the German FA that he picked up his fifth – and not fourth – booking of the season against Bayern Munich on the weekend (his honesty meant that he was suspended for the Fürth match)! Twenty-four years old and a versatile midfielder most at home on the right flank, Stindl has been in inspirational form for the north German side this season, and his return this Saturday will be a boost to Slomka.
His fellow winger, Huszti, is the only 96er to have been red-carded this season after picking up two bookings for one exuberant celebration back in September. The Hungarian has also been shown three yellow cards – one less than centre-back Haggui. After a blistering start, Huszti’s form has dipped, although the attacker is still joint-second goalscorer at Hannover, where goals have been spread out among the squad. Diouf and Abdellaoue both have four, Huszti and Sobiech three, while four other players have two goals in the league, with another quartet bagging one goal each. In the assist stakes, Huszti leads the way with seven, Stindl trails him with four, Rausch and Diouf have each set up three goals, while Schlaudraff and Ya Konan have both laid on two.
Szalai is Mainz’s top-scorer with eight goals, followed by centrally-situated attacking-midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz, who has four (as well as three assists; one less than in-form winger Nicolai Müller). Noveski has scored twice, while five Mainz players have a single goal to their name. Bar Klasnić, though, only one other of this quintet is a striker. That man is young Shawn Parker, who made a surprise start ahead of the Croatian international at Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena. The 19-year-old Germany U20 international justified his coach’s selection, mind, by getting on the scoresheet just before half-time, essentially sealing all three points.
The number of strikers Mainz feature differs from week to week, as Tuchel loves to tinker with his formation. Mostly, the 39-year-old deploys a 4-3-1-2 system (as he did on Tuesday), but 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-2 shapes have also been seen in several matches. If Tuchel opts to play a 4-3-1-2 this weekend, expect to see Wetklo in goal; Zdeněk Pospěch, Noveski, Bo Svensson and Radoslav Zabavník in defence; Elkin Soto or Eugen Polanski as the lone midfielder, operating behind Ivanschitz, Marco Caligiuri – scorer of a fantastic goal against Dortmund – and Müller; with Szalai leading the line alongside one of Parker, Klasnić, Marcel Risse, or Rukavytsya (the latter two being converted attacking-midfielders).
This will be Hannover’s second visit to the 34,000-seater Coface Arena, which only opened last season. The two sides drew 1-1 in the league in both their 2011/12 1. Bundesliga encounters, with Sobiech bagging an 89th minute equalizer in an entertaining clash at Mainz’s ground. Mohamed Zidan opened the scoring that day, and the Egyptian attacker’s campaign-resuscitating goal-rush towards the end of last season made his departure for Baniyas SC of the United Arab Emirates a real blow.
These two sides also met in the cup last season, as Mainz knocked Hannover out of the DFB-Pokal in the second round. However, in the 2010/11 campaign, Hannover won both their games against Mainz. You’d have to go back to the 2006/07 season to find a game between these sides – which are based in cities about a four-hour drive apart – that saw more than two goals scored (Hannover’s 2-1 win at Mainz being the game in question). In general, the 96ers have a pretty good record at Mainz so far this century.
The only players in either squad to have represented both teams are Mainz’s second-choice goalkeeper Heinz Müller, who played for Hannover nine times between 1997 and 2000, and Hannover’s Andreasen, who played for Mainz 15 times in the 2006-07 season, scoring four goals in a highly successful stint with the numerically-monikered 05ers.
Tuchel is expected to be without attackers Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Ede this weekend, both through injury. The 20-something duo, both former Germany U21 internationals, are likely to be joined on the sidelines by the also-injured defensive pair of Niko Bungert and Kirchhoff, plus the suspended Baumgartlinger. Slomka, meanwhile, is unlikely to be able to call on the services of the injured centre-back Felipe, and Andreasen, as well as midweek knock-victim Abdellaoue.
The weather is expected to be unpleasantly cold but dry at the Coface Arena for the game, which is likely to be a sell-out. The referee will be Günter Perl, from Munich. The 42-year-old has had an iffy season, including a particularly bad game – involving lots of clear-cut decisions being missed – when he took charge of Schalke’s recent draw with Frankfurt. Perl officiated two games involving Mainz last season – the 4-2 home defeat by Schalke, and Tuchel’s side’s DFB-Pokal elimination at the hands of Holstein Kiel. Hannover, meanwhile, have only had a single game refereed by Perl September 2010, and that was a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Hamburg back in April (2012).
Hannover against Mainz kicks off at 2.30pm – UK time – on Saturday. The match can be watched, live, on Bet365.com