Cologne - TSG 1899 Hoffenheim went into the 2014/15 campaign with two main objectives: one was to concede fewer goals, the other was to produce on a more regular basis the level of performance that had seen them thump VfL Wolfsburg 6-2 and hold FC Bayern München to a 3-3 draw at the Allianz Arena last term.
A tally of 26 points from their first 17 league matches, not to mention a defensive record of 25 goals conceded, suggests that Markus Gisdol’s side are well on their way to achieving those aims at the half-way point of the current campaign. One player who could yet play a pivotal role in die Kraichgauer’s pursuit of a top-seven finish, though, is Ermin Bicakcic, who flew out of the traps at the beginning of the season.
In the closing stages of the Matchday 3 clash with Wolfsburg, however, Bicakcic suffered a thigh muscle injury which would rule him out of the following seven league encounters. Hoffenheim had been leading the Wolves 1-0 up to that point, but as Gisdol had already made three substitutions, Bicakcic’s withdrawal reduced the hosts to ten men for the final few minutes of the contest. Wolfsburg duly made the most of their numerical advantage, Ivica Olic scoring an 89th-minute leveller for Dieter Hecking’s team.
Prior to his injury Bicakcic had arguably been the signing of the summer transfer window. In the first three games of the season, the Bosnia and Herzegovina international won 75 per cent of his attempted challenges and formed an integral part of a defence that had yet to concede a Bundesliga goal before Olic’s late equaliser.
After eight long weeks on the treatment table, Bicakcic finally returned to the Hoffenheim starting line-up for the Matchday 11 clash with 1. FC Köln at the WIRSOL Rhein-Neckar Arena, but a lack of match practice had inevitably left him somewhat rusty. A late Pawel Olkowski goal secured a 4-3 win for the Billy Goats who, having led 3-1, had been pegged back to 3-3 before half-time.
Although Bicakcic re-cemented his place in the starting XI over the coming weeks, the 25-year-old was unable to reproduce the sort of displays that had made him such a formidable opponent at the beginning of the campaign. Furthermore, having won three quarters of his attempted tackles in his first three appearances of the season, he only managed to win 56.4 per cent of his challenges in the seven matches following his injury.
European hopefuls collide
With a full mid-season training camp in South Africa tucked firmly under his belt, though, it’s surely only a matter of time before ‘Iron Ermin’, as the Eintracht Braunschweig fans affectionately nicknamed him during his loan spell in Lower Saxony last season, starts producing the goods again. Despite his uncompromising approach, Bicakcic has committed only six fouls in 880 minutes on the pitch this season - a highly impressive record for a defender.
Hoffenheim kick off their Rückrunde with a trip to FC Augsburg, who currently sit one point and one place above Hoffenheim in sixth. Victory over die Fuggerstädter, whom Gisdol’s charges beat 2-0 on the opening day of the season, could potentially lift them into the UEFA Champions League places, depending on other results. A place among Europe’s elite is unlikely to be one of Hoffenheim’s top priorities this season, but with a fully fit Bicakcic back in the fold, a Europa League berth remains a realistic possibility.