Pellegrino Matarazzo's VfB Stuttgart are all set for a date that could shape their season's fate with the New Jersey native taking his relegation-threatened side to face record champions Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena on Sunday.
In what will be their last home game of the season, the mighty Bayern are gearing up for a post-match party, where the Meisterschale will be presented to the record champions for the 10th season in a row. Matarazzo's men arrive in Bavaria in no state to share in those celebrations, with top-flight survival at stake going into the last two matches of the campaign. Avoiding defeat would be a mighty bonus for Die Schwaben, but victory, however unlikely, could lay the groundwork for a great escape.
"If the guys perform well and work hard, I think it's possible to get points; we have to stay optimistic and [continue] working," Stuttgart's American tactician said ahead of his team's huge Matchday 33 encounter.
Sunday's visitors are currently third from bottom in the standings, lying in the relegation play-off spot. Arminia Bielefeld's loss to Bochum on Friday night kept the former in 17th place while Hertha Berlin - in 15th and four points ahead of Stuttgart, who have played a game less - also lost out on Matchday 33. Both results might favour VfB, if they can get something from Bayern.
"Of course it's not an easy task against Bayern Munich," Matarazzo explained. "They want to celebrate their title." Opposing coach, Julian Nagelsmann, backed up his friend's sentiments, insisting, "Normally we have the idea to win Bundesliga games whether we have won the title or not. We are Bayern Munich and we have to play a different style," the 34-year-old said.
Both know that the friendship they have forged over the years will be benched once the whistle sounds to signal the start of Sunday's game. The pair once roomed together when studying coaching training at a sports university in Cologne. Later, when first-team boss at Hoffenheim, Nagelsmann brought Matarazzo in as his assistant and the pair led the Sinsheimers to their highest-ever finish of third place in the Bundesliga in 2018.
"The time [studying together] during the licences was not as important as the time he pulled me up to his first team to be an assistant coach where we worked together at a higher level," Matarazzo said of his time with Nagelsmann. "That one and a half years was more important to fill in certain gaps and to confirm certain ideas that I always had within me," the 44-year-old added.
In charge of Stuttgart since taking them into the Bundesliga in 2020, the former Germany regional leagues midfielder now needs to call on all of his learning to help save VfB from falling from the division they reigned supreme over on three previous occasions.
The first resource Matarazzo will call on is his group's fighting spirit. A disastrous reverse at home to Wolfsburg last weekend looked all but sealed, until substitute Chris Führich popped up with a last-gasp equaliser to earn a big point for the hosts. It was the fourth time that an especially late goal had helped Stuttgart, meaning that battling right to the last has earned them six valuable points this term.
"We wanted to breathe new life into that game," goalscorer Führich said after the Wolfsburg game. Matarazzo had thrown the 24-year-old into the fray as a second-half substitute. The man who assisted the 88th-minute equaliser, Enzo Millot, also came off the bench to make a dramatic impact. "We'll take the energy of the late equaliser with us and focus fully on the next task and throw everything into it," Führich said of Sunday's meeting with Bayern, the midfielder adding, "We have to be there from the start in that game."
And so to Munich, where, for various reasons, Stuttgart have reason to believe. Sure, there is the glaring statistic that shows Die Schwaben have lost all but one of their 19 previous encounters against Bayern. However, there are similarities with the teams' upcoming fixture to when Stuttgart visited the Allianz Arena four years ago on the last day of the campaign. Just as they will be this weekend, Bayern were due to be presented with the championship trophy on that day in May 2018. The visitors would sour those celebrations somewhat by running out 4-1 winners.
Watch: Stuttgart spoiled the Munich title party in 2017/18
Matarazzo also points to the fact that Bayern will start the game as overwhelming favourites, something the American says can work in his team's favour. "I think Bayern is easier to play than Hertha [whom Stuttgart lost to recently] or Wolfsburg in terms of pressure," the coach explained, in quotes appearing in Bild. "You go there as an underdog; you have the feeling that you have nothing to lose.
"Most of the time we performed best under such conditions," Matarazzo added. "When there was nothing left to lose after falling behind against Gladbach or Augsburg, for example, we turned those games around. We're good at that. We can thrive in the underdog role."
It could well be a case of Bayern beware, then, with Matarazzo's Stuttgart coming to Bavaria fighting for their Bundesliga lives.
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