Munich - With just four points separating the bottom six teams in the Bundesliga table, this year’s relegation battle is set to go right down to the wire.
One man who knows all about last-minute escapes is Jan Aage Fjörtoft. The Sky TV pundit scored the crucial fifth goal in Eintracht Frankfurt’s 5-1 win over 1. FC Kaiserslautern at the end of the 1998/99 season, thereby saving the Eagles from relegation and condemning 1. FC Nürnberg - who had been in 13th place with just a few games to go - to Bundesliga 2. Speaking to bundesliga.com, Fjörtoft relives his all-important goal 15 years ago and gives his views on the tightest basement battle in 33 years.
bundesliga.com: Jan Age Fjörtoft, you saved Eintracht Frankfurt from relegation with a last-minute goal at the end of the 1998/99 season. This year, things are even tighter at the foot of the table. Are you expecting another grandstand finish to this season?
Jan Age Fjörtoft: (laughs) Yes, everyone had their own theories [on who will go down] in the final weeks of that campaign, but nobody could have predicted what happened. Whether this season will be similar depends on which teams can go on a run. Everyone talks about that 5-1 win against Kaiserslautern, but what was much more important was the fact we won our last four matches. It meant we picked up twelve points, which made an unbelievable difference. That just shows that anything can still happen. If Nürnberg win three games, then they’ll be on the verge of safety. From Hannover to Braunschweig, anything can still happen.
bundesliga.com: Which teams do you think are in danger of going down?
Fjörtoft: I fear for Hamburg and Stuttgart, and you can also include Nürnberg in that category. They’re all big clubs with high expectations and are in a position they had not expected to be in at the start of the season. HSV’s victory against Leverkusen at the weekend was of vital importance, but nonetheless it’s always a problem when a big team has to fight against relegation. For Eintracht Braunschweig and SC Freiburg it’s all about the battle, and Augsburg have showed they’re up to the task in the past two seasons. You have to fight your way out. The relegation battle is dictated by so many different factors. Every point, every action can be decisive. One poor throw-in and things can start going downhill.
bundesliga.com: What attributes are most important in a relegation battle?
Fjörtoft: You have to fight - both physically and mentally. You can see that with Eintracht Braunschweig. If they stay up, they will celebrate like they’ve won the title. If you look at HSV, things are very different. Given their high expectations, their season is already over. They have a lot of international players who have had disappointing seasons. Even Freiburg, who qualified for the Europa League last season, knows what’s required. You saw that in their match against der Club.: Freiburg were willing to fight for every ball, but I’m not sure the likes of Stuttgart and Hamburg are.
bundesliga.com: Stuttgart recently appointed a strong personality in Huub Stevens to take over as coach. What attributes does a coach need to save his team from relegation?
Fjörtoft: The coach plays a very important role. With us, it was Jörg Berger - he was such a calming influence: We were losing 2-0 at Schalke on Matchday 33. I made it 2-1 just before the break, and Berger just stayed calm in the changing room and said: “We’ll be fine, the goals will come.” His calm attitude was unbelievable and we ended up winning 3-2. That was an important moment for us. On the one hand, you need a coach who is tough, but on the other he needs to enable his players to find that right balance. You need to stay calm and remember that things can change very quickly when you suffer a bad start to a match. In the 1998/99 season, we knew the scores of our two rivals and we were a bag of nerves! You need that mental balance.
bundesliga.com: Were you aware that your goal would clinch survival for your team?
Fjörtoft: I knew we still needed a goal, I just didn’t know why exactly! We had read about all the potential scenarios in the media, but I wasn’t aware that my goal was sending Nürnberg down. Nobody did! It all came down to goal difference. The worst thing was that after my goal, we still had a couple of minutes left to play and couldn’t afford to concede another. It was horrible.
bundesliga.com: What was going through your mind just before you netted what was probably the most important goal in your career?
Fjörtoft: At 32, I was an experienced player. I was very calm when I was running towards [goalkeeper] Andreas Reinke. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. In situations like that, you need someone who steps up to the plate. At the moment, that’s the case with [Josip] Drmic at Nürnberg and Domi Kumbela at Braunschweig. HSV also have a player like that in [Pierre-Michel] Lasogga, and you need that sort of player in these situations. In a crisis, it’s not all about the actual leader of a team. Other players suddenly rise to the fore who didn’t look like doing so earlier in the season. In a relegation battle, you need players with nerves of steel who improve when the pressure is on. The team that has the most players like that will stay up.
bundesliga.com: And that team is?
Fjörtoft: (laughs) It’s difficult to say. There’s so much that can still happen and it depends on all the teams’ remaining fixtures. Nürnberg have the worst goal difference and have suffered a bit of a dip in form, so that’s a problem for them. By contrast, it’s amazing what Braunschweig are doing - Eintracht are now only two points clear of safety. They have showed incredible fighting spirit, but every team has players who are up for the fight. I really have no idea who will stay up. The only thing I can say is this: I am worried about the bigger teams like HSV and Stuttgart. They have too many players who don’t know how to handle a relegation battle.
bundesliga.com Could this year’s relegation battle be decided by another last-minute goal?
Fjörtoft: It could happen. If you look at the table and the fixtures on the last day of the season, it’s very interesting. Stuttgart are in Munich [against champions FC Bayern München], Hamburg are in Mainz and Nürnberg in Gelsenkirchen. Hannover are also playing against Freiburg. That’s the sort of match that both teams may have to win to stay in the division. It will be an unbelievable finale to the season.
Interview by Michael Sapper