HUNGARIAN striker Ádám Szalai scored a last-minute winner as ten-man Mainz defeated fellow Europa League-qualification hopefuls Hannover. The home side more than held their own against their guests for the 40 or so minutes they played with one less player (plus a 19-year-old débutante goalkeeper in red-carded Christian Wetklo’s place), and were actually good value for their win. But, boy did Mainz’s second goal come late! Just as it looked as though we were on course for the third successive 1. Bundesliga game in which these sides have drawn 1-1, Szalai headed in a Eugen Polanski cross – his ninth goal of the season, albeit only his second in the last seven games – to send the home fans wild!
The home side took the lead in the 11th minute, Nicolai Müller turning the ball into the net after Ron-Robert Zieler did well to keep out a Shawn Parker volley. Hannover equalized following a set-piece – situations Tuchel’s side are more than happy to concede – in the same half, with Christian Schulz turning the ball into the net following a Lars Stindl lay-off. Thereafter, the game was pretty stop-start, with both sides committing lots of fouls, and giving away countless corner-kicks, but only Wetklo received his marching orders.
Ultimately, Hannover should have taken advantage of having the extra man for such a long period of time. But that was easier said than done given the way Mainz defended for the 40 or so minutes they had to play following the sending-off. Wetklo’s replacement, Loris Karius, didn’t have that much to do, mind – Hannover just couldn’t break down their hosts, who showed superb tactical discipline, and tremendous spirit.
Chances on goal had been few and far between throughout this afternoon’s occasionally feisty game at the Coface Arena, though. Perhaps such an occurrence is unsurprising given that these sides have two of 1. Bundesliga’s youngest and most intelligent coaches at the helm – 39-year-old Thomas Tuchel, of Mainz 05, and Mirko Slomka, 45, of Hannover 96. The former’s side – now up to sixth-place in the table – face a Borussia Mönchengladbach side on the same number of points as they and Hannover (21) next weekend, while Slomka’s side – who drop four places to tenth spot as a result of today’s loss – host the team currently in the division’s runner-up position, Bayer Leverkusen.
Mainz (4-4-2, from right to left): Wetklo; Zdeněk Pospěch, Nikolče Noveski, Bo Svensson, Radoslav Zabavník; Müller, Polanski, Elkin Soto, Andreas Ivanschitz; Parker, Szalai
Hannover (4-4-2, from right to left): Zieler; Steve Cherundolo, Mario Eggimann, Karim Haggui, Christian Pander; Stindl, Schulz, Sérgio Pinto, Konstantin Rausch; Jan Schlaudraff, Mame Biram Diouf
The home side saw more of the ball in the opening few minutes, but despite using it sharply with width and urgency, Hannover’s three banks stuck close together: constantly trying to push as high up the pitch as was possible, all the while compressing Mainz’s space, and vigorously zonal-pressing whoever was on the ball. A deflected shot and two cleared corner-kicks – all Mainz – were as close as either side got to breaking the deadlock in the opening ten minutes, as Hannover stayed strong, determined to suck the early signs of life out of the game.
With both coaches playing nigh-on identical formations, space was at a premium on the pitch from the word ‘go’; particularly in the middle of the park. The 4-4-2 systems, therefore, often became 4-4-1-1 structures, with Parker and Schlaudraff dropping into the corridors between the respective opposition’s defence and midfield banks to find space to work in. And, such positional floating essentially led to the game’s first goal, when the former found space just off the D in the 11th minute. After Hannover failed to fully clear a Mainz throw-in taken from within the hosts’ final-third of the pitch, Polanski scooped the ball back into the box. Eggimann got his head on the cross, but the clearance landed on Parker’s chest. The Germany U20 international had enough time and space to place a sumptuous right-footed volley towards the bottom left-hand corner (before the ball bounced), but Zieler showed superb reflexes to get down and palm the youngster’s volley onto the post. However, the ball rolled back across the face of goal, where Müller was the first player to respond, smashing home for 1-0!
The goal came a minute before both sets of fans at the Coface Arena were scheduled to make any noise of note – overzealous new stadium safety laws meant football fans across Germany had organised to show their displeasure by creating a sterile atmosphere for the first 12 minutes of the games they were attending. It’s handy for the highlights package, therefore, that Mainz is a stadium where goal music is played. However, as soon as we entered the game’s 13th minute, the atmosphere created by the fans of the side in the lead was electric. On the pitch, though, the ten minutes contested after the goal were a bit of a stalemate. Hannover were now looking to come out and play a bit more, at least, with Mainz attempting to keep things tight instead.
In the defensive phase of play, Tuchel’s side tend to give away a lot of set-pieces – the tactics seemingly being to stop the side attacking as soon as possible so as to prevent momentum from being built. Thus, as we approached the 25th minute, Hannover – now holding possession about 70 per cent of the time – won a number of free-kicks and corners, as they looked to break down the sturdy Mainz door. The best chance of the bunch was represented by a free-kick awarded just outside the box. Yet Pander – something of a set-piece specialist – slammed the effort straight into the wall, before for the second time in the space of three minutes, Pinto was too slow to get to a loose ball on the edge of the box, resulting in his subsequent first-time shot being blocked by a red-shirted player charging out of Wetklo’s area.
The Mainz safety-first tactics are also a by-product of the team’s energetic, heavy pressing, off-ball strategy. This was in evidence in the 27th minute when Stindl – as is his wont – dribbled infield, being clumsily hacked down by Ivanschitz despite being surrounded by Mainz colleagues. Pander curled in the subsequent free-kick, which Diouf met with a decent header. However, the ball was placed too near Wetklo, even though the goalkeeper still had work to do in order to palm the ball to safety. The visitors retained possession in the Mainz half, however, and when another Pander free-kick was swung into the box a minute later, panic ensued among the home defence. Tuchel’s side had several windows in which they could have cleared the ball, but alas, they didn’t. And thus, after some box pinball, it was innocuously turned into the net by Schulz, who wheeled away in celebration at his equalizing goal! Wetklo was furious, believing there had been several infringements committed by Hannover while the ball was in the box, but referee Günter Perl wasn’t interested, merely brandishing a yellow card in the tall custodian’s direction.
Just after the half-hour mark, Mainz had a great chance to retake the lead. Ivanschitz played a cute through-ball between the standing-in-a-rigid-bank green-shirted defence, but Szalai broke the line, timing a disguised dart perfectly, before getting onto the end of the Austrian’s pass onside. However, Zieler was alert to the danger, and showed great speed and agility to send the Hungarian hotshot away from goal, before Zabavník erratically blasted a cross-cum-shot across the six-yard box which led to nothing.
As we reached the 35th minute, the game was in the midst of an entertaining phase, with Mainz attacking in a far more expansive fashion, and Hannover committing more players to attacks whenever they came forward. It wasn’t quite exhilarating end-to-end football, with both sets of defences and midfields exerting energy and showing desire to either get back/stand strong and clear the danger. At this stage, Slomka had changed his formation, now playing a 4-5-1, with Stindl at inside-right, and Schlaudraff on the flank; both players probing and pushing on regularly, though (along with the ball-hungry Pinto), so as to ensure Diouf wasn’t isolated.
In terms of chances, perhaps the closest we came to either side taking a lead in at half-time came during the 41st minute, when Svensson headed a free-kick into the side-netting. That was certainly as good as it got in the final seven or eight minutes chance-wise, mind, as the game had become somewhat bitty, niggly, and bogged down in the centre of the pitch; neither side showing that much determination to go all-out before Perl blew for the interval.
Formations that started the second-half
Mainz (4-4-2, from right to left): Wetklo; Pospěch, Noveski, Svensson, Zabavník; Müller, Polanski, Soto, Ivanschitz; Parker, Szalai
Hannover (4-4-2, from right to left): Zieler; Cherundolo, Eggimann, Haggui, Pander; Stindl, Schulz, Pinto, Rausch; Schlaudraff, Diouf
Neither coach made personnel changes for the second-half (although Schlaudraff was now back in a central position), which started in some fashion. First off, three minutes in, Pinto was booked for tackling Polanski by using his legs as pincers. A minute later, a long and hopeful punt upfield saw Svensson – up against Schlaudraff – struggling to keep the situation in his grasp. Without looking, the centre-back headed the ball back towards his own goal. But, Wetklo had already charged out of the box to take matters into his own hands. With the ball about to sail over his head, Wetklo’s instincts saw him raise an arm in the air and slap the ball to safety. Perl had no choice but to show the 32-year-old a second yellow card! With normal reserve goalkeeper – and former Hannover player – Heinz Müller still convalescing and not on the bench, Tuchel was forced to bring on Karius to make his first ever first-team appearance for a professional side.
The 19-year-old, signed from Manchester City last summer, has represented Germany at U19 and U20 level, at least, but with Mainz now down to ten men, this was the sort of challenge even more experienced goalkeepers dread. The outfield player sacrificed for Karius was Parker, as Tuchel went with a 4-4-1 system. Given the situation, the best thing that could now happen for Mainz was for Karius to immediately make a good save from the long-awaited set-piece – and that the youngster did. As is customary at the Coface Arena, the stadium announcer bellowed out the name of the Mainz goalkeeper for the crowd to shout back at him – this is tradition whenever a good stop is pulled off at the Rhineland-Palatinate club. Here, more than ever, the fans relished the opportunity to calm their new goalkeeper’s nerves, screaming Karius’ name into the late afternoon’s dark sky following his parry from a fierce Pander strike.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Mainz made a good fist of things in the ten minutes following Wetklo’s red card. Ivanschitz wanted a penalty in the 55th minute after being ‘felled’ in the box, but replays showed that he had actually hauled Cherundolo down after nutmegging him (Perl wasn’t interested anyway). On the hour mark, Haggui was skinned by Szalai, and had to resort to desperate measures, hauling the Hungarian to the ground, and earning a yellow card. Luckily for the Algerian, the subsequent free-kick was blasted straight into the wall. Even as we approached the 65th minute, the home side were seeing far more of the ball and looking the more deadly side, although given that it was still 1-1, perhaps Slomka didn’t mind this – after all, Mainz were ultimately wearing themselves out with nothing to show for their toil.
Just after the 70th minute, perhaps growing in frustration at the fact his side were still somehow second-best and toothless, Slomka made his first substitution (Szabolcs Huszti for Rausch, like for like). Although Hannover were seeing more of the ball at this point of the match, it was only in and around the halfway line, with Mainz standing extremely high – not to mention as close-together as possible – in their tight 4-4-1 formation. Thus, Hannover looked to do things patiently, playing ‘duck, duck, GOOSE’ football: that is, passing the ball seemingly aimlessly from side to side, making the home side chase, before all of a sudden launching forward with a dribble or one-two (Huszti, having had a rest, and up against tired legs, was as good a player as any to find the necessary chink or provide the goal-assisting cross).
But, the visitors just couldn’t get the space they required, or make/find the right pass into the final-third. With 15 minutes to go, Slomka turned to his bench again, replacing the roving – but ultimately ineffective – Schlaudraff with Didier Ya Konan. This gave Hannover more of an authentic 4-4-2 shape, with two strikers who are both willing to run the channels, but also two players less inclined to drop down the pitch in a bid to try and make things happen. However, proceedings were still very even, with both sides sharing the ball equally and continuing to take turns to foul and make the game as stop-start as it had been all afternoon.
Both coaches made another change each in the final ten minutes – Artur Sobiech coming on for Diouf, and Ivanscvhitz being replaced by Marcel Risse – two like-for-like changes. But, save for Ya Konan having a header cleared off the line by Pospěch, the game continued to peter out… until Szalai struck in the 90th minute! Polanski, who provided the assist with an inch-perfect cross, worked well to get into a decent position to float the ball into the box: but the away side’s attempts to stop the ball in – not to mention the man eventually heading it – were as feeble as their attacking efforts during the second-half. Mainz held onto their lead during injury-time, with Tuchel bolstering the defence by bringing on Stefan Bell in place of Müller. If anybody had doubted Mainz’s bid for a place in the 2013/14 Europa League wasn’t genuine, this game might have made them think again.
Formations that finished the match
Mainz (5-3-1, from right to left): Karius; Pospěch, Noveski, Bel;l, Svensson, Zabavník; Polanski, Soto, Risse; Szalai
Hannover (4-4-2, from right to left): Zieler; Cherundolo, Eggimann, Haggui, Pander; Stindl, Schulz, Pinto, Huszti; Sobiech, Ya Konan