VEDAD Ibišević grabbed a hat-trick as Stuttgart put on a counter-attacking masterclass to beat Schalke and move level on points with Huub Stevens’ side in the table. The Bosnian’s eighth, ninth and tenth goals of the season mean Bruno Labbadia’s side have now made it three wins out of three in the league, and could even end the first half of the campaign in a Champions League qualification spot. Stuttgart deserved their win this afternoon, after putting in a solid shift defensively, being tactically disciplined and versatile in midfield, and lethal on the break. It helps, of course, when you have someone of Ibišević’s calibre leading the line – the 28-year-old has scored 50 per cent of his team’s league goals this season, and looks on course to be one of the contenders for the golden boot for the fifth consecutive year.
As for Schalke, perhaps they just didn’t fancy the cold? Today’s clash was one fought in a sub-zero temperature; but one that also often had the relaxed feel of a friendly. However, both sides did end proceedings at the Mercedes-Benz Arena with ten men, following straight red cards for Stuttgart right-back Gōtoku Sakai and Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones. The visiting side’s latest failure to win means despite making their best-ever start to a season, Schalke – still fourth in the league, but only by virtue of goal difference – have picked up just two wins from their last ten games. Although 59-year-old Stevens’ side bossed possession for large spells and looked the much-more technically accomplished of the two teams this afternoon, they didn’t trouble Stuttgart goalkeeper Sven Ulreich at all, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar starved of service. Yes, the visitors were level for a while, after Ciprian Marica scored against his former club, but with Stevens already under pressure, this was not a performance that will have convinced the pen-pushers that the Dutchman is the right man for the job.
Stuttgart (4-1-4-1, from right to left): Ulreich; Sakai, Maza Rodríguez, Georg Niedermeier, Arthur Boka; Zdravko Kuzmanović; Martin Harnik, Christian Gentner, Raphael Holzhauser, Ibrahima Traoré; Ibišević
Schalke (4-1-2-1-2, or 4-4-2 diamond; from right to left): Timo Hildebrand; Atsuto Uchida, Benedikt Höwedes, Joël Matip, Christian Fuchs; Roman Neustädter; Jones, Julian Draxler; Lewis Holtby; Marica, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
With the temperature well below freezing, the match started at a frantic pace, with everybody desperate to get warm. Going into the third minute, Schalke were enjoying a lengthy spell of one or two-touch ball-holding around the second-third area of the pitch, When they ventured nearer to Ulreich’s box, the ten outfield players pushed up as a unit. However, when possession founds its way into Stuttgart’s hands, the visitors were blown away by the pace with which Boka broke. Carrying the ball up to halfway, the diminutive left-back slipped a pass in to Holzhauser. Wasting no time and looking to exploit the space, the 19-year-old played a first-time through-ball down the flank to Traoré on the swivel. The Guinea international whizzed along the chalk, before placing a perfect pass across the box for Ibišević to decisively slam home for 1-0! The expression ‘caught cold’ had never felt more appropriate…
Holzhauser was in the thick of things again a minute later, firing a bullet-shot wide after a cleverly-worked short corner. Although the effort didn’t trouble former Stuttgart goalkeeper Hildebrand, it was considerably closer than Jones’ long-range attempt a few moments later at the other end. The away side probably had about 70 per cent of possession in the eight or nine minutes contested after the opening goal, but it was the ever-space-locating, pass-spraying Holzhauser – still just 19 years of age – who was pulling the strings whenever Stuttgart got on the ball, and looking by far and away the most dangerous player on the pitch.
However, Labbadia’s side were getting a bit too casual and risk-taking – epitomised by Boka’s constant runs infield and upfield simultaneously. In the 14th minute, a home side attack broke down on Stuttgart’s right, with Jones gathering possession and bringing it up the pitch. Remaining unchallenged, the American international was able to delay before scooping a ball into the box. Marica, taking advantage of the fact both Boka and Niedermeier were either unaware of his presence, or delegating responsibility for marking the Romanian to the other, timed his run perfectly to get on the end of the ball in space and slot it beyond Ulreich for 1-1! Unsurprisingly, the 27-year-old – who moved to Schalke last summer following several relatively decent seasons with Stuttgart – didn’t celebrate the strike.
With the scores level, the pace of the match had slowed down considerably as we went past the 15-minute mark. Stuttgart seemed nervy and overly-cautious, while Schalke – who had a hold on the ball – were playing things patiently. With both teams having central players flying out onto the flanks on a whim, as well as rampaging full-backs (and wingers, in the hosts’ case), the game was very open, with whichever side was on the ball making full use of the width available to them (not to mention the fact every player was still very willing to move due to the weather, which was about minus four degrees). Nevertheless, as we reached the 20-minute mark, the only work either goalkeeper had had to do was pick the ball out of the net; the teams finding it easier to get the ball into the final-third, than use it when there.
With his team holding a minimal amount of possession further up the pitch, Holzhauser was now having most of his touches as a quarterback collecting the ball from the defence. With Stuttgart’s talismanic playmaker somewhat subdued, the visitors – who breezed through to the last-16 of the Champions League, compared to Stuttgart, who scraped into the last-32 of the Europa League – became the team looking most likely to make the breakthrough; lighter of foot and quicker of mind in the final-third, resulting in them winning a number of set-pieces in the ten or so minutes played after Marica’s equalizer. But, with Fuchs’ delivery erratic, and Stuttgart holding good dead-ball defensive positions, Ulreich remained untroubled.
Schalke kept coming, though – their oft-repeated party trick involving a defender carrying the ball forward, before quickly switching it to a midfielder who would look to play a disguised and ambitious through-ball beyond a relatively high centre-back line with his first touch to the last-shoulder-hanging strikers. The failure of such moves, and referee Felix Zwayer blowing for a series of minor fouls (some of them legitimate; such tactics being deployed by the usual suspects such as Jones), had combined to make the game peter out as we approached the final ten minutes. Another factor was that Labbadia had instructed his players to stand higher as a unit and put more pressure on Höwedes and Matip, who were seeing more of the ball than anyone. While this worked to keep many of Schalke’s passes passive, the idea did require the ten outfield players in white to undergo a transmogrification once the visitors’ clever movement and quick and canny use of the ball in a minimum amount of space had allowed them to find a chink. But, mainly, Labbadia’s players folded back into two close, compact banks of four extremely quickly and efficiently, forcing Schalke down the channels; ergo, blind alleys.
Chances had remained non-existent at either end as we approached the 40-minute mark, even though Stuttgart occasionally frightened their guests with the pace at which they broke. Mostly, such counter-attacks were eventually comfortably contained, but in the 39th minute, Gentner was able to get a cross in for Ibišević. The Bosnian had managed to get himself goalside of Fuchs, who panicked. The Austrian left-back bundled the former Hoffenheim striker to the ground, forcing Zwayer to point to the spot. Ibišević dusted himself off and fired home the spot-kick beyond Hildebrand – his former Hoffenheim colleague – for 2-1! Although undoubtedly unhappy at the way their team had failed to convert possession into goals, with Schalke having drawn three of their last four games 1-1, perhaps some fans of the Gelsenkirchen outfit were secretly relieved that they weren’t going to get that Groundhog Day feeling once again!
If the game felt like it had been petering out before its third goal, the seven or so minutes contested after Stuttgart regained the lead felt just like a friendly. With this being the penultimate round of the season before the winter break, and a fixture scheduled just over 40 hours after Stuttgart completed a European match – and four days after Schalke had played a Champions League match – perhaps you can forgive the players for mutually taking their foot off the proverbial gas for certain periods this afternoon. Nevertheless, Matip had a conclusion to the half that Stevens won’t forget. Firstly, Ibišević caught him flat-footed by knocking the ball around the Cameroonian-German and preparing to zoom past him. The 21-year-old hauled him back, getting a yellow card for his troubles (luckily for him, Höwedes was the last man by about a foot). Then, in the final bit of action of the first 45 minutes, some lazy defending from Matip allowed Harnik to breeze through on goal in the box, only for the Austrian to let himself down with a selfish and wasteful finish.
Formations that started the second-half
Stuttgart (4-1-4-1, from right to left): Ulreich; Sakai, Rodríguez, Niedermeier, Boka; Kuzmanović; Harnik, Gentner, Holzhauser, Traoré; Ibišević
Schalke (4-1-2-1-2, from right to left): Hildebrand; Uchida, Höwedes, Matip, Fuchs; Neustädter; Jones, Draxler; Holtby; Marica, Huntelaar
Stevens sent his players out several minutes early for the second-half, meaning they had to stand around twiddling their thumbs and keeping warm to the strains of a cover version of Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It. Neither coach had made a personnel change for the start of the new half, which started at a slow pace. Both sides’ centre-midfields got progressively busier as we went beyond the 50-minute mark, although unlike the first-half, it was Stuttgart who were doing most of the question-asking, and giving the visiting defence a couple of frights (again, however, no side was able to test the respective opposition goalkeeper – even if Ibišević, such a thorn in the blue-shirted centre-backs’ collective side, worked himself into a great position and dive-headed just over in the 52nd minute).
As we approached the hour mark, the home side looked far more likely to add to their lead than Schalke were to equalize – while Stuttgart were flourishing, making light of the cold conditions and showing real grit and determination, the visitors had wilted, with Stevens, head sunk into the neck of his jacket, providing a nice metaphor slumped on the bench. If only Labbadia’s side had the same technical qualities as Schalke going forward, some of their passing moves and forays forward might have put the game to bed less than a third of the way into the new half.
However, in the 61st minute, one of the home side’s scintillating counter-attacks paid off for the third time, ending in Ibišević bagging his hat-trick! The move started in Stuttgart’s own half, with Schalke losing possession and being caught with their trousers down – well, their midfield now in front of the ball, and the defence high and spread out. Harnik carried possession forward, before playing a sumptuous through-pass to the powerfully sprinting figure of Holzhauser. For someone with such good feet, the youngster’s finish under little pressure was rather disappointing, as he fired straight at Hildebrand, enabling the goalkeeper to stay on his feet while making the parry. However, such is Ibišević’s class, he was able to adjust his standing position in a split-second to capitalise on the loose ball which Hildebrand had deflected, and fired a perfectly-placed and expertly-powered shot beyond the 33-year-old for 3-1!
Alas, nothing resembles plain sailing at Stuttgart these days, and so you wonder how many of the home fans gathered at the Mercedes-Benz Arena were surprised when, five minutes after getting a two-goal cushion, Sakai was sent off. The Japanese right-back got a straight red card for a dangerous, from-behind lunge on Holtby. It may not have been a deliberate bid to injure the Germany international (even though Stuttgart are one of the dirtiest teams in the division, with 16 different players having been booked already in the 2012/13 campaign), but it was reckless play, and Zwayer made the right call. Labbadia was now forced to turn to his bench, and brought on Antonio Rüdiger as a right-back in place of Holzhauser. Stevens turned to his bench at the same time, going for broke by replacing his Japanese right-back – Uchida – with Swiss winger, Tranquillo Barnetta (who the Dutchman actually deployed as a full-back).
Yet, in the 73rd minute, the game took another twist, as Jones received a straight red card for a lunging slide-tackle from-behind on Traoré. Stevens kicked his water bottle in frustration at the decision – I’m not sure if that reaction was because of his midfielder’s stupidity for going in so over-zealously, or because Zwayer had made a bad decision. In my opinion, the sending-off was harsh: the tackle was certainly worthy of a yellow card, but seeing the red produced made it feel awfully like the referee was trying to even things up after having had second-thoughts as to whether Sakai should have gone.
With just over five minutes to go, Stevens went for broke again, replacing Holtby with striker Teemu Pukki. Labbadia, meanwhile, looked to shut-up-shop by taking off Traoré, and bringing on an extra defender, Christian Molinaro. In terms of chances, Rüdiger hit the post one minute from time after another flowing Stuttgart break (the young right-back constantly looking to get forward during his time on the pitch), but that was about as close as we came to getting a fifth goal in the match. Schalke now host Freiburg in their final 1. Bundesliga match before the winter break, and will be desperate to get a morale-boosting win. Stuttgart, now just two points behind third-placed Dortmund after their defeat at home to Wolfsburg this afternoon, make the two-hour trip to Mainz next weekend, looking to reach the 28-point mark. If they can pick up the same number of points in the second-half of the 2012/13 campaign, 56 points normally proves to be enough to earn a side a place in the Europa League.
Formations that finished the match
Stuttgart (4-4-1, from right to left): Ulreich; Rüdiger, Rodríguez, Niedermeier, Molinaro; Harnik, Kuzmanović, Benyamina, Harnik; Ibišević
Schalke (3-1-4-1, from right to left): Hildebrand; Höwedes, Matip, Fuchs; Neustädter; Barnetta, Pukki, Draxler, Marica; Huntelaar