Wolfsburg will be relying on top marksman Mario Gomez (l.) against Onel Hernandez's (r.) Eintracht Braunschweig.
Wolfsburg will be relying on top marksman Mario Gomez (l.) against Onel Hernandez's (r.) Eintracht Braunschweig.

Close neighbours, unfamiliar foes: Wolfsburg and Braunschweig prepare for relegation play-off

There's a place in the Bundesliga at stake as Lower Saxony neighbours Wolfsburg and Eintracht Braunschweig go head-to-head in the relegation play-off on Thursday and Monday, but while the two clubs are geographically close, historically they have always been curiously disconnected.

Read: Mario Gomez issues rallying cry to Wolfsburg ahead of Thursday's play-off first leg.

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Thirty-five kilometres. That's all that separates Wolfsburg's Volkswagen Arena from Braunschweig's Eintracht-Stadion, and yet the short journey will be a relatively unfamiliar one for the Wolves and the Lions as they prepare to do battle for a place among Germany's football elite.

Since the Bundesliga was set up in 1963, the two clubs have played just 10 competitive games – and they have only met four times in Germany's top two divisions.

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Champions in 2008/09 and runners-up behind Bayern Munich as recently as 2014/15, Wolfsburg will be desperate to preserve their top-flight status against a Braunschweig side who have only enjoyed a single Bundesliga campaign over the past 30 years.

That was back in 2013/14, when the newly-promoted Lions stunned their illustrious neighbours with a 2-0 victory at the Volkswagen Arena on Matchday 8. In the reverse fixture five months later, the Wolves could only manage a 1-1 draw at the Eintracht-Stadion.

'Twas not ever thus. While Wolfsburg have emerged as a major footballing force in recent years, they were plying their trade fairly anonymously in the second-tier Regionalliga Nord when the Bundesliga began in 1963/64.

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Braunschweig, on the other hand, were one of only 16 teams invited to play in that inaugural campaign – unlike, say, record champions Bayern. The Lions secured their first and only Bundesliga title in 1966/67, beating off competition from heavyweights such as 1860 Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt.

They remained top-flight regulars through to the mid-1980s, playing in four European campaigns and reaching the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1967/68. However, relegation in 1984/85 marked the beginning of a long stretch in the wilderness, and it wasn't until 2012/13 that they finally returned to the Bundesliga following a 28-year absence.

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Wolfsburg's journey has been the polar opposite. After many years in the backwaters of German football, the Wolves began to creep through the divisions in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It was around this time that their destiny briefly intertwined with that of Braunschweig. In 1987/88, Eintracht travelled to Wolfsburg needing victory to secure promotion from the third-tier Oberliga. The Wolves were determined to spoil the party but Braunschweig ran out 2-1 winners, much to the delight of 10,000 away fans packed into the old VfL-Stadion am Elsterweg.

Wolfsburg got their revenge in the Bundesliga 2 season of 1992/93, as they cruised to a 4-1 home win over the Lions on Matchday 17. Even better, they edged their local rivals 1-0 in the latter stages of the season to boost their survival hopes and put Braunschweig back on the slippery slope to the third tier. Their paths would not cross again for a generation.

The Wolves continued on their upward trajectory, reaching the DFB Cup final in 1994/95 and advancing to the promised land of the Bundesliga in 1996/97. While many predicted a rapid return to the second tier, Wolfsburg defied expectations and soon established themselves as a solid mid-table outfit.

The club's ambitions grew in the 2000s and they began to back them up with some serious bite, reaching the UEFA Cup in 2007/08 and finally landing a historic maiden Bundesliga title in 2008/09. Since then the Wolves have become European regulars, and lifted their first DFB Cup in 2014/15 at the expense of Borussia Dortmund.

Now both clubs find themselves at a crossroads once again. Recent history suggests that Wolfsburg have the edge, given that the Bundesliga side has won the relegation play-off in six of the past seven seasons. Striker Mario Gomez is also firing on all cylinders, having scored 10 goals in his last 12 Bundesliga outings.

Watch: Mario Gomez's top five Bundesliga goals:

But Braunschweig – who finished third in Bundesliga 2 behind VfB Stuttgart and Hannover – will be determined to get another shot at the big time after their all-too-brief cameo in 2013/14. And while their rivalry with Wolfsburg pales in comparison to the one they share with Hannover, they would still be delighted to get one over on their neighbours, just as they did in 1988.

Funnily enough, there is no airport in Wolfsburg, which means the Wolves are forced to fly from Braunschweig when they travel away from home. What an ironic twist it would be, if their gateway to the wider footballing world proved to be the setting for the end of a 20-year adventure in the Bundesliga.

Andy Smith