Marbella/ Mainz - 1. FSV Mainz 05 head coach Kasper Hjulmand came away from his side's eight-day winter training camp in Marbella preaching the need for continued improvement ahead of this month's Bundesliga restart.
Step by step
The 05ers made the trip to Spain's south coast having not won a single game since beating FC Augsburg 2-1 on 18 October 2014, and returned no better off in that department after going down 1-0 to SC Freiburg and drawing 1-1 with Bundesliga 2 side Eintracht Braunschweig in mid-season friendlies.
"I'm satisfied with our work on the pitch and with the mood within the camp, but we obviously still have work left to do," Hjulmand admitted. "The conditions were great for us and we made the most of them. We made a bit more progress. Every day, every single training session takes us a little step further."
The Dane's decision to focus almost exclusively on the positives seems a wise move in the circumstances. Having gone into Matchday 9's eventual 3-0 defeat to VfL Wolfsburg unbeaten in the league and trailing table toppers FC Bayern München by just six points, Mainz finished the Hinrunde just a point clear of the relegation zone and bottom of the form standings.
In that sense, the winter break could hardly have come soon enough, especially for influential midfielder Jonas Hofmann. The Borussia Dortmund loanee suffered knee ligament damage against Augsburg on Matchday 8 and has not featured since. Mainz's subsequent crisis in confidence is no coincidence, but the 22-year-old could be about to give the Karnevalsverein a timely lift.
"My knee feels good," he told club website mainz05.de. "The next two weeks will show how it's going. I don't want to say that I'll definitely be playing against Paderborn, but I don't want to rule it out either. We still have two more friendly fixtures and then I will see if I can participate in those a week before the Bundesliga starts up again."
Hofmann scored three times in six league appearances prior to his Hinrunde-ending injury, with only Shinji Okazaki notching more league goals so far this season (eight). The 28-year-old is currently away on with defending champions Japan, however, and could miss the Nullfünfers' first competitive game of the new year at home to SC Paderborn 07 on 31 January as a result.
South Korean international defender Joo-Ho Park's involvement at the Coface Arena on Matchday 18 also hinges on his nation's progress Down Under. The Reds cruised through to the last eight, but will have to see out the rest of the competition without the services of Ja-Cheol Koo, who returned to Mainz this week with an that is likely to keep the midfielder on the sidelines for the foreseeable future.
The prospect of having to find even a temporary replacement for the club's first-choice striker, Okazaki, is a thankless task. In midfield, by contrast, the Rhineland-Palatinate outfit appear blessed with alternatives. Pierre Bengtsson (FC Kobenhavn) and Christian Clemens (FC Schalke 04, loan) have come in during the winter transfer window, while Christoph Moritz (back) and (knee) are both making steady progress following injury.
"You can really sense the team spirit," Hjulmand explained. "That's important for us, but we have to show it in the Rückrunde, especially when things aren't going our way […] The second half of the season's going to be tough with plenty of difficult games, but I'm optimistic that we'll be up to it. We're not stronger than other teams by default. We have to work calmly and with continuity and continue to improve by the day."