Cologne - The briefest of glances at the foot of the Bundesliga table tells its own tale as to the significance of VfB Stuttgart's home game against Hamburger SV this coming Saturday. The hosts go into Matchday 33 propping up the rest of the division, on 30 points. Their northern visitors are four places above them - on 32.
Next 'final' against Hamburg
Never before in the 52 years of Germany's national top flight has the gap between the sides in 14th and 18th been so close on the penultimate matchday of the season. Wedged between VfB and HSV, in ascending order, are SC Paderborn, Hannover 96 and SC Freiburg; all on 31 points apiece, separated by goal difference alone. With 34-point Hertha Berlin still in the mix as well, this is a close-quarters dogfight of historic proportions but the only statistic of any concern to the half-dozen combatants is where they will be standing come the final whistle this weekend and, above all, a week later.
Stuttgart needed a win last time out to keep their fate in their own hands and they got it, 2-0 at home to 1. FSV Mainz 05, courtesy of second-half strikes from fit-again playmaker Daniel Didavi and Filip Kostic. For centre-forward Daniel Ginczek, it was a rare recent shift without any direct involvement in a goal - a fact the consummate team player could certainly live with in light of the result.
He will nonetheless be looking to get back on the scoring track when the next 'final' gets underway at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, against the Bundesliga's only ever-present club. And on recent form, Ginczek is the man most likely to make the telling difference for the embattled Swabians in their hour of need. Signed last summer from freshly relegated 1. FC Nürnberg, he arrived to great expectations - and carrying a cruciate ligament injury that saw him miss the entire pre-season preparations with his new employers.
Three pivotal minutes against Frankfurt
Ongoing knee problems reduced the powerful and pacy frontman to a handful of cameo appearances as Stuttgart struggled through the first half of the campaign and the early part of 2015, giving no indication of any dramatic improvement in sight, either for the player himself or the team as a whole. Then came Matchday 26, against Eintracht Frankfurt. With the game entering its final third and a nervy and disjointed home side trailing 1-0, Ginczek struck twice in the space of three minutes to turn it all around. “You could hear the weight tumbling off 50 thousand pairs of shoulders,” VfB sporting director Robin Dutt said of the atmosphere inside the ground after the final 3-1 victory.
The next home game, against SV Werder Bremen, was an even more fraught affair, Ginczek bagging another brace in a 3-2 win, with the clincher coming in added time at the end. His next goal, the following week, was not enough to stave off a 2-1 defeat at FC Augsburg but things were looking up again on Matchday 31, when Ginczek's opener helped Stuttgart into a 2-0 half-time lead against fellow strugglers Freiburg. The Black Forest outfit battled back after the break to salvage a point, however, leaving home coach Huub Stevens fuming at an “inexplicable” performance from his charges.
All in their hands
They improved considerably next time out at FC Schalke 04 but came away empty-handed, nonetheless, beaten 3-2 with Ginczek's two assists ultimately counting for naught. Having all along deflected praise of his own revitalising effect on the team by stressing that “every single player has to do his part to help us out of this,” the 24-year-old sharpshooter leant credence to that assertion with a quietly industrious shift against Mainz, just as Martin Harnik and goalscorers Didavi and Kostic issued a salient reminder that Stuttgart's attack is no one-man band.
That said, Daniel Ginczek has unquestionably brought a desperately-needed edge and presence to the VfB frontline, and just in the nick of time. The man in the number 33 shirt has thrown the South West's biggest club a Bundesliga lifeline over the past few weeks. Now he, and they, have the opportunity to haul themselves to safety - starting against Hamburg on Saturday, and finishing the job at Paderborn a week later.