Borussia Mönchengladbach ended their league campaign on a high in Matchday 17’s opener on Friday, and they had a touch of Brazilian magic to thank for it.
So often playing the lead role in the Gladbach attack since his arrival in 2013, it may have appeared that age – Raffael is 33 in March – and the ever-improving form of his team-mate Thorgan Hazard was relegating the Fortaleza native to a supporting role. The sprightly young Hazard has indeed been the Foals’ most potent attacking weapon this season, but against Hamburg, it was the relative veteran that largely hogged the headlines.
Watch: Highlights of Raffael's masterclass against Hamburg
Raffael’s pass allowed Hazard to open the scoring, after which the hosts were guilty of letting their foot off the gas and Andre Hahn equalised. They rediscovered their collective intensity, however, and a brace from former Hertha Berlin and Schalke man Raffael was enough for a welcome victory after a three-game winless run.
Dieter Hecking’s side had last tasted victory in that highly impressive 2-1 victory against league leaders Bayern Munch on Matchday 13, a result that was followed by disappointing losses at Wolfsburg and Freiburg. Performing consistently well is a problem for their very talented side, and in truth, the same can be said for Raffael after a somewhat slow start to the season.
Friday's win was the third time this term Raffael has scored a brace, and the other two have also been match-winning contributions, against Stuttgart and Hertha. A tally of six goals is not unimpressive, though scoring more consistently would be desirable in the team’s hunt for a UEFA Champions League spot this season. Encouragingly for Hecking, Hazard and Lars Stindl have also chipped in with vital goals in the meantime.
And what a boost it must be for Hecking to have such an intelligent player in his side from whom Hazard can learn. Both are speedy forwards - even considering Raffael's advancing years - capable of running in behind or holding up play and, crucially, are very handy on the counter-attack, and their understanding was best illustrated by the second goal on Friday, when Raffael finished a flowing move to net for the third game in a row against the Red Shorts.
After once again performing so well in tandem on Friday, Foals fans might consider the upcoming winter break an inconvenience, and Borussia will play only one more game, at Bayer Leverkusen in the DFB Cup, before the year is out. Nevertheless, there is much to look forward to in 2018 for a side that could yet end 2017 in the Champions League places, particularly with a Raffael firing on all cylinders.