Augsburg - Markus Weinzierl summed it up succinctly with the comment, "We've pulled off a minor miracle." In Bundesliga terms, at any rate, the 38-year-old FC Augsburg head coach certainly had a presentable case in the wake of his side's 3-1 home victory over Greuther Fürth on Matchday 34.
Play-offs the target
The win, combined with Fortuna Düsseldorf's simultaneous 3-0 defeat at Hannover 96, lifted the provincial Bavarian outfit clear of the bottom three for the first time since mid-September, so early in the season that the standings still had little to impart. More pertinently, by the time the winter break came around, Augsburg still only had a meagre nine points to their name - and no team with a tally that low had ever managed to escape relegation from the Bundesliga before.
Far from despairing at the 'impossible', the club set about trying to achieve it. With a
new sporting director at the helm in former Germany international Stefan Reuter and Weinzierl - himself only six months in the post - given the unstinting backing of the board, a shot at the relegation play-offs by way of 16th place was now the declared season goal.
US international Michael Parkhurst was signed from Denmark's FC Nordsjaelland to provide extra cover at the back and South Korean forward Dong-Won Ji arrived on a half-season loan from Premier League outfit Sunderland AFC to give Weinzierl's side more options up front.
Manninger rises to the task
While Parkhurst has had to be largely content with following the action from the sidelines, in part due to injury, Ji went on to start all 17 league games over the back-end of the season, chipping in with five vital goals - Saturday's 3-1 clincher against Fürth among them. Nobody, however, has had more of an impact on Augsburg's remarkable form turnaround than Alex Manninger. Picked up by Weinzierl on a free transfer back in November, the former Austria international was given his opportunity when regular No1 Mohamed Amsif was injured, and he seized it with both hands.
Manninger's fifth-minute save of Edgar Prib's twice-taken penalty at the weekend set the tone for Augsburg's season-defining victory and after the match the head coach was fulsome in his praise for the 35-year-old shotstopper's "exceptional professionalism," stressing that, as regards talks on a possible contract extension, "We'll be giving it a thousand percent to try and keep him here."
Better start next time?
They have kept themselves there, in the Bundesliga, in the notoriously "difficult" second season following promotion. Bundesliga newbies when they came up in 2011, the modest Bavarian Swabian outfit have demonstrated in each of the past two campaigns that they are not a team to crumble under pressure and, on the back of another noteworthy survival tale with a happy ending, they are starting to take on the look of a team increasingly at home in Germany's top flight.
Come the final whistle against Fürth, the players gleefully pulled on T-shirts bearing the logo "The puppets are still dancing through the Bundesliga. First-class!" As to ensuring that remains the case, Weinzierl knows that "making a better start than this time" will be a pivotal step in the right direction. That said, the coach added with a glint in his eye, "I could always make out that my training plan was focused right from the start on the second half of the season. Because it's where you are at the finish that matters."