Munich - 1899 Hoffenheim entertain 1. FC Kaiserslautern on Thursday evening (kick-off 20:30 CEST) in the first leg of a promotion/relegation play-off that few in the 30,150 sell-out crowd at the WIRSOL Rhein-Neckar Arena could have anticipated going into the final quarter-hour of regular-season action last Saturday.
"Fate's in our own hands again"
At that point Hoffenheim, 1-0 down at Borussia Dortmund in a game they knew from the off that they needed to win to have any chance of staying up, were seemingly bound for Bundesliga 2 next season via the second direct relegation spot. But two penalties from Sejad Salihovic, the second thumped past stand-in keeper Kevin Großkreutz, turned the game against the UEFA Champions League finalists, and the entire battle against the drop, on its head.
Surviving an added-time scare, when a Dortmund equaliser was belatedly but correctly disallowed for offside, Markus Gisdol's men were almost beside themselves, as much with relief as joy, when the final whistle went moments later. With Fortuna Düsseldorf losing simultaneously at Hannover 96, 1899 had just earned themselves a last-gasp shot at Bundesliga redemption.
Happily acknowledging that "the final minutes and the would-be equaliser were an emotional roller-coaster," Gisdol was nonetheless swiftly at pains to stress that, "We have to carry this euphoria over, but still ensure that the team are properly prepared for the first game against Kaiserslautern." Two-goal hero Salihovic, whose coolness under pressure earned him bundesliga.com users' vote as the Player of Matchday 34, was already leading by example on that front at training the day after, saying, "Yesterday was something special but we haven't achieved anything yet. The next step comes on Thursday - and now our fate's in our own hands again."
Devil in the detail
The same, of course, applies to Kaiserslautern, who made sure of their own play-off place with a matchday to spare. The Red Devils hope to emulate Bundesliga 2 champs Hertha BSC by joining them back in the top flight at the first attempt, both sides having gone down along with 1. FC Köln last year.
At the pre-match press conference head coach Franco Foda, having declared his team the "underdogs" over the two legs, noted that "Hoffenheim are very strong up front, but they have their weak points and it's up to us to exploit them." On the psychological front, Foda reckons, "As the ones potentially going up, there's less pressure on us. I think both teams are on the same footing in terms of mental fortitude and it's going to be the details that decide this one."
On paper the odds do favour Hoffenheim in so far as it is the Bundesliga team who have prevailed in nine of the 14 previous promotion/relegation play-offs down the years. That said, since the sudden-death system was reintroduced in 2009, the figure is two wins apiece for the contestants from each division, Fortuna Düsseldorf edging past Hertha BSC last time out to even the score.
To ensure a repeat success for the second flight this time around however, there is one statistic Kaiserslautern will have to improve on: in six competitive outings to date against their near-ish neighbours in the South West (80 km as the crow flies), the Red Devils have yet to record a single win.