Stuttgart - VfB Stuttgart supporters might have been forgiven for fearing the worst when they saw their team take to the field against FC Bayern München in Matchday 17's rearranged fixture on Wednesday evening.
The visitors from Munich, whose escapades in December had necessitated the game's rescheduling, were bidding to go 13 points clear at the top of the table - an advantage that no side had ever enjoyed at this stage of a season in Bundesliga history - and had also triumphed in their last nine games against Stuttgart in all competitions. Reason enough, then, to expect another regulation Bayern victory.
Pep Guardiola's team did indeed make it ten straight victories over the Swabians with a 2-1 success at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, but not before Stuttgart had put in, by a stretch, their best display of the season so far and one that looked set to condemn the table-toppers to a first defeat of the season, until Claudio Pizarro's equaliser 14 minutes from time. The eventual winning goal, a spectacular volley from Thiago Alcantara, was worthy of deciding any game no matter how close, but that came as no consolation to the crestfallen Stuttgart players, who had also lost captain Christian Gentner to a thigh injury earlier on.
Martin Harnik had covered every blade of grass on the VfB right-wing and despite reflecting at full-time that the "disappointment is huge", the Austrian international also admitted that "at the of the day, it didn't matter when we conceded. We deserved a point." The immediate feeling in the Stuttgart camp, aside from the bitter disappointment at losing the game so cruelly, was regret that opportunities to extend their lead were not taken.
Now that the dust has settled, however, Stuttgart fans will also pose the question of why their team are incapable of producing such battling, inspired performances on a more regular basis - and with good reason: Their most vigorous display of the campaign up until now was preceded by a limp and uninspired 2-1 home defeat to 1. FSV Mainz 05, and Harnik freely admits that their inability to play to their full potential is a worry.
“There's a realisation among us that there are far too few games where we really produce what we're capable of. We played to our limits today but it's easy to do that in a packed-out stadium against maybe the best team in the world at the moment. We didn't show what we can do against Mainz last week and we didn't perform often enough in the first half of the season either."
VfB an enigma
Yet what this game proved - other than that a defensively compact, counter-attacking approach looks to be the most effective way of unsettling an FC Bayern side now undefeated in 43 league games - was that Stuttgart can compete with the league's very best. Thomas Schneider's side have slipped under the radar with just five wins this season, with perhaps a 6-1 mauling at Borussia Dortmund their most memorable game, for all the wrong reasons. One then considers their display against the reigning world and European champions, and there is a strong temptation to agree with Harnik's self-critical viewpoint.
There is certainly much to admire about one of Germany's foremost Traditionsvereine: Their illustrious history, their sterling ambassadorial job for the league in South Africa recently, and Schneider's penchant for blooding young players such as Rani Khedira
and Timo Werner. Nevertheless, the club are in the results business and Harnik is unequivocal in his belief that they simply must improve: "Quality is what matters to push yourself to the limit in every game, against every other team. It can't be that difficult for us to do that once a week."