If Borussia Mönchengladbach are heading into the final day of the Bundesliga season with their UEFA Champions League qualifying ambitions firmly in their own hands, they can thank inspirational captain Lars Stindl.
"I want to contribute in my way," Stindl had said ahead of the Rückrunde with Gladbach in second place, just two points behind halfway leaders RB Leipzig. "I want to play games, set up and score a few goals. I'm fully determined to do that." He has done so much more than 'contribute'.
Determination has never been lacking for the former Hannover man, who has been at Borussia Park since 2015. Nor has honesty — this was the player who, in 2012, earned himself a one-game ban when he pointed out the DFB had failed to tally a yellow card he'd been shown — and both those qualities meant Gladbach coach Marco Rose was only too happy to give Stindl the captain's armband this season.
Dieter Hecking had also asked the Germany international to lead the side last term, but a shin fracture — ironically against his former side Hannover — ended Stindl's 2018/19 early, and meant his 2019/20 started late.
It also started slowly, but in the second half of the season, Stindl has excelled. All but one of his nine goals this term have come in the Rückrunde, and — most significantly — he has scored when his team have needed him most.
With Alassane Plea already sidelined and Marcus Thuram limping out of the Matchday 31 defeat to Bayern Munich — a second successive league reverse — Bayer Leverkusen had sneaked ahead of Rose's men and into the top four.
The Foals' Champions League hopes for next season were in serious jeopardy. Gladbach needed a hero to replace the French duo, their joint-leading league scorers. Step, no…stride forward Stindl.
"We knew we were missing a couple of important players, but the guys who have been there for us lately were there again today," he said after Jonas Hofmann netted twice in the 3-0 win over Wolfsburg on Matchday 32, helping avoid a potential banana skin and keeping on the coattails of Leverkusen. The other scorer? Do you need to ask?
Stindl's first league goal since the restart set the seal on the impressive win that Germany's 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup final matchwinner himself called "a little message" to their rivals. It was one that Gladbach themselves might have failed to heed though, but for their captain.
Watch: Stindl 'we did our job' against Paderborn
With Leverkusen losing at Hertha Berlin on Matchday 33 and Gladbach winning at relegated Paderborn, things were rosy. An unexpected home equaliser threatened to derail Rose's men, however. A draw and a Leverkusen loss would have seen Gladbach move back into the top four, but on goal difference alone. It would have made the home game with in-form Hertha — coupled with Leverkusen's home encounter with mid-table Mainz — an extremely uncomfortable closing 90 minutes of the season.
Tension will still be tightrope-esque on Matchday 34, but there is a little more breathing space for Rose's men thanks to Stindl. That's because within two minutes of Paderborn's equaliser, the 31-year-old put his team back in front and added an insurance marker 17 minutes from time to a collective sigh of relief from all those connected to the five-time Bundesliga champions.
"It was our aim to do our job today, and we hoped Leverkusen wouldn't win," said Stindl, who was part of the last Gladbach squad to play in the Champions League in 2016/17. "Now it's in our hands, we're happy about that. We want to prepare well and win the game on Saturday."
While the present is in sharp focus, the near future will soon require attention from Stindl, who turns 32 in August, and his club with just 12 months remaining on his current contract.
Both parties appear keen on extending Stindl's stay, and if Gladbach do tie their talisman down, they could well benefit from his talents long after he hangs up his boots.
"For the moment, I still feel good. I really want to play for a couple more years," he said, even if he is already eyeing the next step. "I will stay in football in some way. As a father, I like children and I'm interested in youth development. I could imagine myself working in that area."
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