Cologne - Unaccustomed as they generally are to scrapping it out for their very Bundesliga existence, that is the position VfB Stuttgart find themselves in for the second season running. Last April, they went into Matchday 29 third-bottom of the table, on 24 points. At the moment, they are two points better off but one place further down the standings, in an automatic relegation berth.
Getting the balance right
Back then, a 2-0 victory over SC Freiburg lifted them out of the bottom three and there they would remain through to the end of the season. A repeat scenario is just about plausible this time around, given the combination of a clear win at FC Augsburg on Saturday and concomitantly heavy defeat for fourth-bottom Hannover 96 in Leverkusen, along with SC Paderborn drawing or losing at Dortmund. Come what may, this relegation dogfight will in all likelihood go even closer to the wire than the previous one for Baden-Württemberg's traditionally biggest club.
On the upside, having been there before, this is a team who know they have what it takes when push comes to shove at the bottom. That applies not least to the coach himself, Huub Stevens, the very man who guided them clear of trouble just over twelve months ago. On that occasion, Stevens replaced Thomas Schneider in March, with ten games to go. This season, the veteran Dutch tactician has been in charge since late November, when he stepped into the breach again following Armin Veh's surprise resignation.
It has been a rocky road ever since but ahead of the trip to their fellow Swabians – albeit on the Bavarian side of the regional border – Stevens' charges gave themselves a massive actual and psychological boost with a pulsating 3-2 home win against Werder Bremen. The three points, however earned, were vital in themselves, but the manner of the victory also spoke volumes for the team's approach to their precarious situation, reflecting the coach's desire for them to show “a bit of arrogance and a bit of uncertainty,” in suitable proportions.
Two wins in three games
2-1 up with six minutes to go, Stuttgart were reduced to ten men when Martin Harnik was sent off after picking up a needless second booking. Things went from bad to worse when Jannik Vestergaard hauled Bremen level shortly after but the understaffed hosts kept plugging away and in the final minute of regulation time, Geoffroy Serey Die sent Daniel Ginczek clear for an ice-cool finish to seal the win that looked to have eluded them.
It was, Ginczek said afterwards, a moment of “pure emotion, an indescribable feeling.” Having broken his scoring duck for VfB with a brace in the 3-1 Matchday 26 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt, the summer signing is hitting his stride at just the right time. Ginczek, who at the end of last season was prevented by injury from helping 1. FC Nürnberg battle, ultimately in vain, against the drop, is categorical that “There's going to be no second relegation” in 2014/15 and in that regard, he is certainly letting his feet do the talking now.
So, too, is Christian Gentner. The skipper is leading by example once again this year and he it was who hammered VfB 1-0 in front with a typical no-nonsense strike against Bremen. In the same vein, Gentner stressed that while the team were “happy that we won in the end...[..]... we all know we've still got some very difficult weeks ahead.” Starting with the trip to Augsburg, who themselves have gone rather off the boil since confirming their own European ambitions in the wake of their 1-0 success against high-flying VfL Wolfsburg on Matchday 24. Markus Weinzierl's men have managed just one point, and one goal, in the four games since.
Pressure – what pressure?
They have, however, beaten Stuttgart in the sides' last four meetings, a run the visitors urgently need to put an end to at the SGL Arena to maintain the momentum from the Bremen game. The contest at Augsburg is a vital one but, to paraphrase Stevens, no more or less so than the one before or after it. “There's always pressure,” the 61-year-old Kerkrade native noted laconically when the subject of his own status came up, not for the first time, in the wake of the recent 4-0 thumping at Leverkusen.
The management responded with a public assurance that Stevens is there to see the job through, one way or another and Stuttgart have responded since with two wins and a battling performance in defeat at Wolfsburg. Sporting director Robin Dutt is not the only one to have noted that, “Considering we're bottom of the table, the mood in the city isn't too bad at all.”