Nuremberg - Up until 1987, 1. FC Nürnberg were the all-time record German champions on nine titles, albeit with only the last of them a product of the Bundesliga era and the first five dating way back to the venerable Franconian outfit's “golden twenties.”
New coach, same old outcome
By the time FC Bayern München reeled in that best-mark however, Nürnberg were already well on the way to becoming one of German football's 'elevator teams,' thus named for their habit of shifting up and down between divisions with fairly predictable regularity. In their current incarnation, FCN are fast coming to the end of a fifth straight season in the top flight and as it stands, with just two regular-season games to go, they are about to step into the lift again for another short, sharp downward journey.
It is one they would be making for the eighth time, an unenviable Bundesliga 'best-mark.' Last Saturday's 2-0 defeat at 1. FSV Mainz 05 left der Club still second-bottom of the table in an automatic relegation slot, the sole consolation come the end of the weekend action being that the teams respectively a single point to either side of them, Eintracht Braunschweig and Hamburger SV, both lost as well.
The first game under Roger Prinzen, who had replaced Gertjan Verbeek only a couple of days earlier as head coach on an interim basis, offered little indication of a team on the brink of turning around a disastrous run of form which has seen them lose nine of their last ten matches. The thread by which their destiny hangs has not been severed quite yet, though, and for Prinzen, who welcomed back Makoto Hasebe to training this week, “All that counts now is our next game against Hannover 96.” With Hamburg, just above them in the relegation play-off berth, themselves having to simultaneously square-up to champions FC Bayern, Nürnberg can indeed go into their final home game of the campaign in the reasonable expectation that all is not yet lost.
One player they will be looking to to make the difference against the 96ers is undoubtedly Hasebe's compatriot Hiroshi Kiyotake. The 24-year-old Japan international has been a virtual ever-present this season, starting all but one game in the Bundesliga and chipping in with three goals and eight assists to date, whether from the right forward flank or in the more central playmaking role he himself prefers. Although still the team's top provider by some distance - no other Nürnberg player has laid on more than three goals in the current campaign - Kiyotake has struggled, along with the rest of his colleagues, to reproduce the consistent good form that helped them to a solid tenth-place finish last season and propelled the gifted no13 into the Bundesliga spotlight.
Inspiration and perspiration required
That was his first year in Germany and, like so many of his compatriots arriving from the J-League, he wasted no time at all adapting to the radically different environment of the top-level game in Europe. This time around, Kiyotake's star has perhaps understandably struggled to shine with the same luminosity in a turbulent campaign which has seen Nürnberg first set an unwanted Bundesliga record by failing to win a single game before the winter break, then stage a promising but unfortunately short-lived revival under Verbeek at the start of 2014 before spiralling dramatically downwards again.
With the most miles on the clock and the second-highest number of ball contacts in the team behind left-back Marvin Plattenhardt, Kiyotake has certainly not been shirking his responsibilities. On Saturday, the home support at the Grundig Stadion will be fervently hoping he can pull a moment of right-footed magic out of the hat against Hannover, to at the very least carry the possibility of Bundesliga survival over to the final matchday. Given that scenario, Kiyotake and Co. will be called on to reproduce the goods in an even tougher assignment, away to an FC Schalke 04 side who will themselves very possibly still be battling for a UEFA Champions League group stage berth. It promises to be a nerve-wracking couple of weeks for Franconia's hard-pressed finest.