Kaiserslautern - Having thrown themselves a lifeline with a dramatic late victory at Borussia Dortmund on Matchday 34, 1899 Hoffenheim completed their unlikely escape act with a 2-1 victory away to 1. FC Kaiserslautern on Monday evening, wrapping up a 5-2 aggregate play-off success and securing their Bundesliga status for the coming season.
"We kept our cool"
As the players celebrated with the travelling fans among the nigh-on 50,000-strong crowd at the sold-out Fritz-Walter-Stadion, their joy was mixed with a palpable sense of relief. Central defender Jannik Vestergaard, who headed home a 74th-minute winner on the night, described the recent turn of events as "unbelievable, a fairytale", while Eugen Polanski admitted that the team could breathe a collective "sigh of relief, because it's lifted a huge weight off our shoulders".
For the Polish midfielder, the key to the visitors' success at the famously intimidating Betzenberg was that "we kept our cool and didn't allow ourselves to be provoked. It's even bigger and louder at Dortmund, but I've got huge respect for the fans here at Lautern. The atmosphere was incredible".
The run of the match bore witness to Polanski's assessment as the Bundesliga outfit more than held their own in a physical encounter with their second-flight hosts, shrugging off Sejad Salihovic's 26th-minute penalty miss - brilliantly saved by home keeper Tobias Sippel - to deservedly go in front just before half-time courtesy of David Abraham
With 1899 looking fairly well in control of proceedings, Alexander Baumjohann's excellent free-kick briefly breathed fresh life into the Red Devils with just under 25 minutes to go, but when Vestergaard powered home Salihovic's corner, leaving Kaiserslautern in need of four goals in the final 16 minutes, it was effectively all over as a contest.
Gisdol gives thanks
Come the final whistle, head coach Markus Gisdol leapt into the thick of the celebrations along with his players, clambering the fence at the away end to savour the moment with the 4,600 travelling supporters before giving his analysis of the match: "We were properly focused right from the start today, and the team managed to blank out all the extraneous stuff they were being showered with in the run-up. But this isn't all just down to this evening's game. The team put a lot of faith in us right from the start. Every single player has put the collective good first, and I want to thank them for that."
The players returned the compliment with interest, echoing the coach's communal ethic. Midfielder Sebastian Rudy, subbed into the fray for Stefan Thesker after Salihovic's luckless penalty, noted that "the coach really has a grip on us as a team. He's only been in charge seven weeks, but it feels like a whole season."
Forward Kevin Volland said: "We weren't nervous today, we felt relaxed. We knew what to expect. The whole package has been very emotional, starting with the game at Dortmund. The fact that we're still in the Bundesliga shows the great character of the team. 1899 are a fantastic club."
New season, new start
The pulsating finale at the Betzenberg can by no means whitewash a campaign that started amidst a chorus of European ambitions, only to descend into increasing turbulence that at times threatened to verge on chaos. Gisdol, brought on board at the start of April, became the fourth coach in charge of the team in 2012/13 (after Markus Babbel, caretaker Frank Kramer and Marco Kurz) and almost immediately succeeded in stopping the rot.
A damaging 4-1 home loss to Hamburger SV on the penultimate matchday nonetheless looked like consigning Hoffenheim to relegation from the top flight for the first time. Good fortune may have played its part as the final round of regular-season action unfolded but at the end of the day, Hoffenheim crossed the line under their own steam, with steady nerves and no little panache. And Gisdol can now start planning ahead for an altogether different kind of campaign next time around.