Sinsheim - The rain was pouring down on the Rhein-Neckar Arena come the final whistle on Thursday evening, but not on 1899 Hoffenheim's parade as the fans at the home end gave their heroes a protracted standing ovation after witnessing them take another decisive step towards Bundesliga survival.
Class pays off
The moment was emblematic of a palpably strengthening bond between the team and their supporters over the past few weeks. The 3-1 victory in the first leg of the promotion/relegation play-off with their regional rivals leaves the men in blue from the South West well placed to finish the job in the return at the Betzenberg next Monday and complete an escape act few would have reckoned with ahead of, or indeed for much of, the final matchday of the regular season.
The hosts were good value for the win, earned courtesy of a brace from Brazilian midfielder Roberto Firmino and a goal from substitute Sven Schipplock, with Mohamadou Idrissou briefly reducing the interim deficit to one. Kaiserslautern certainly had their chances and put in a decent performance themselves, but on the night, in terms of the quality of football, Hoffenheim undoubtedly held the upper hand over their second-tier opponents.
In stark contrast to the Red Devils' tendency to bypass the midfield and get the ball forward as quickly as possible - resulting in Idrissou "getting caught offside what must have felt like 30 times," as home coach Markus Gisdol put it - 1899's highly variable attacking play, with Firmino and Kevin Volland switching around to great effect, had the opposition defence constantly on the back foot. "3-1's a comfortable lead to be taking into the second leg," skipper Andreas Beck said after the game, while assuring his interlocutor that, no, the team would not be "making the mistake of thinking we've achieved anything yet."
Turnaround under Gisdol
Supersub Schipplock, scorer of the potentially decisive third goal, meanwhile voiced his bemusement as to why he or his teammates should be intimidated by the notoriously frenetic atmosphere at "Fortress Betzenberg" (FCK coach Franco Foda), commenting, "I can't see why. We just won at Dortmund, and as a rule of thumb the atmosphere at most Bundesliga games tends to be pretty good anyway."
Even in the event of Hoffenheim still falling at the last, however, the general mood at and around the club appears to have taken a long-term turn for the better of late. The fans have certainly been playing their part, perhaps thanks as well to Gisdol and performance centre director Alexander Rosen's joint commitment to the principles which earned the club so many new followers during their rise to the top under Ralf Rangnick. On Thursday, Rosen was at pains to stress that the way ahead for Hoffenheim would be "through attractive football" and stocking up the senior squad with as many players as possible from "our excellent youth academy."
Gisdol, himself a Rangnick protégé, has swiftly underscored his own expert credentials since taking up the touchline reins in place of Marco Kurz at the start of April. As defender Stefan Thesker succinctly put it, "Substitutions, tactics, team-talk - he's just a good coach." And Kaiserslautern may well be wishing right now that his accession to the post had been delayed for a few weeks longer.
Christoph Ruf in Sinsheim