“We were in generous form on Saint Nicholas' day,” Stevens noted drily of a contest in which Stuttgart found themselves 3-0 down with just over 20 minutes on the clock. Under the circumstances, moving on swiftly seemed the most sensible option for the veteran Dutch coach, who stepped into the breach for the second time this calendar year following Armin Veh's unexpected resignation twelve games into the campaign. “I told the lads it's better to lose one game 4-0 than four games 1-0. We need to learn from this and focus on preparations for the next match,” he summarised.
Mainz on downward spiral
That next game is away to a Mainz team themselves drifting ever closer to the wrong end of the standings after having made a solid start to the season. Last weekend's 2-1 defeat at Hamburger SV was their fourth in six outings which, with two draws thrown in, makes for the longest winless streak in the division at present. Eleventh in a tightly-packed lower table-half, they are nonetheless still only four points clear of their cellar-dwelling visitors and head coach Kasper Hjulmand admitted after the latest setback that it's “up to me to get the team playing better”.
Above all, at the moment, that means providing better service to the forwards than has been the case in recent weeks. At Hamburg, Shinji Okazaki, Sami Allagui and Filip Djuricic once again found themselves feeding off crumbs as the possession game favoured by Hjulmand foundered on a lack of precision in the final third of the park. One particularly telling statistic from the contest showed that while Mainz enjoyed more than 60 percent possession, their first attempt on goal came from substitute Elkin Soto - in the 72nd minute.
Okazaki did finally get the ball in the net with a minute of regulation time remaining but his eighth goal of the season was little consolation for a team who, in the words of their own coach, “were far too late finding the right heart and attitude.” Club president Harald Strutz weighed in on the same subject, calling on Hjulmand to “inculcate the players with (the) aggression” necessary to prevail in the relegation dogfight die Nullfünfer are now reluctantly steeling themselves for.
Six-pointer in bottom-end dogfight
An ongoing flow of goals from Okazaki will also be a vital factor in that struggle and next in his sights are his former VfB team-mates. Stuttgart was the Japan international's first stopover in Germany, with two-and-a-half seasons and 63 Bundesliga appearances there delivering up a modest ten-goal return. By contrast, he has hit the net 23 times in 46 top-flight outings for Mainz, a rate of precisely one goal every two games. The scoring transformation went hand-in-hand with a change of position as well as club, with Okazaki moving in from the right wing to the central striking role in which he feels much more at home.
Mainz have a good recent record against former bogey opponents Stuttgart and have won five of the last eight encounters, including a home-and-away double last season. Okazaki scored in both those matches and is aiming to extend that record as well as the winning sequence against his ex-employers, not least because he feels “even more responsibility in that area since Nicolai Müller and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting left the club”. Of this much the Stuttgart defence can be certain: any repeat of those early lapses against Schalke is likely to be ruthlessly punished on Saturday by FSV's ever-ready Japanese sharpshooter.