Leagues

In this week’s edition of his column, ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae dissects the tension-packed relegation equation featuring a couple of notable American connections.

Pellegrino Matarazzo is normally one to encourage rather than scold his players in public, but the New Jersey-born-and-raised coach of VfB Stuttgart didn’t mince his words after last week’s damaging 2-0 defeat away to fellow relegation fighters Hertha Berlin.

“It’s simply not enough, no excuses,” he said. “It’s unimportant how the boys train during the week or how loud they are in the dressing room. All that counts is what happens on the pitch, and we weren’t on top of it.”

Bielefeld vs. Hertha Berlin: Saturday, 9:30 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+
Stuttgart vs. Wolfsburg: Saturday, 9:30 a.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+
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Sporting director Sven Mislintat described the torrid opening phase of the game in Berlin as “our worst 30 minutes of the season.”

Stuttgart, one of Germany‘s largest and best-supported clubs, not so long ago looked like the best equipped of all the teams in the Abstiegszone (relegation zone) to fend off demotion. Now they find themselves looking up at revitalised Hertha in 15th, while looking down at out-of-form Arminia Bielefeld in 17th. Eighteenth-placed SpVgg Greuther Furth are already relegated, leaving one of the other three to join them in the 2. Bundesliga next season. The team finishing 16th — currently Stuttgart — will enter a playoff against the side coming in third in the Unterhaus (lower house).

And it’s Stuttgart who have the toughest remaining schedule, hosting VfL Wolfsburg before traveling to Bavaria for a date with champions Bayern Munich and closing out the season at home against FC Cologne. By contract, Hertha visit Bielefeld, host Mainz and then end their campaign at Borussia Dortmund. After the Berliners leave the Schuco Arena, Bielefeld play at VfL Bochum before finishing the year by hosting RB Leipzig.

Unlike Bielefeld and Hertha, Stuttgart have remained loyal to Matarazzo amid all the ups and downs. Mislintat even spoke several months ago about that commitment to the coach carrying on into a potential campaign in the second tier.

Bielefeld and Frank Kramer parted ways last week, with goalkeeping coach Marco Kostmann ascending to the hot seat, assisted by the vastly experienced Michael Henke. The famous new-manager bounce had little effect in a punchless 3-1 defeat away to Cologne, meaning that Arminia have taken a meagre point from the past eight games as they tumble towards relegation. The clock is ticking, and Bielefeld must up their game.

Hertha, on the other hand, have benefitted from the newly introduced partnership of Felix Magath and Mark Fotheringham. Many raised their eyebrows when sporting CEO Fredi Bobic announced the appointment of 68-year old Magath. A noted Feuerwehrmann (firefighter) in the early part of his coaching career (including two decades ago in Stuttgart), Magath’s emphasis on fitness, organisation and experienced player management were thought to be able to douse the flames that were engulfing the west Berlin steamship.

It was the Scot Fotheringham, though, who provided the building block in the duo’s first game against TSG Hoffenheim on March 19 while Magath was absent due to Covid-19. All three goals in a resounding 3-0 win came following Marvin Plattenhardt free kicks to cement Hertha’s first win of 2022.

Defeats away to Bayer Leverkusen and in the derby against Union Berlin followed, the latter a ragged performance marred by the sight of some ultra groups in the Ostkurve demanding the players remove their shirts in an angry face-the-fans ritual at the end. Since then, however, Hertha have got things spot on.

Deserved wins against FC Augsburg and Stuttgart, without conceding, mean they are now well placed to lift the gloom that has been enveloping the club for most of the season. In fact, if they win in Bielefeld on Saturday and Stuttgart lose at home against Wolfsburg, they’ll be mathematically safe from relegation.

Magath has established a hierarchy featuring Dedryck Boyata, Davie Selke and, yes, Kevin-Prince Boateng, who hadn’t started a league match since October until his star turn in the Augsburg game. The improvements of Santiago Ascacibar and Lucas Tousart have helped stiffen the spine of the team. Plattenhardt’s deliveries can provide the x-factor, but he is a slight doubt for the weekend with an abductor injury.

Under Magath, Hertha have improved in all these metric categories: running statistics, taking their chances and goal efficiency. The manager has that surprise element in him, whether in believing in former fifth-choice keeper Marcel Lotka, soon to depart for Dortmund, reinstating Boateng or banishing Ishak Belfodil to the stands for one game only to recall him for the next and get the desired response.

Bielefeld go into their critical showdown knowing full well their basic defending must improve. That includes the young United States international George Bello, for whom the past few weeks have represented a baptism of fire at the sharp end of an Abstiegskampf (relegation fight).

It’s not lost on Bielefeld sporting director Samir Arabi that the difference between the top two divisions is considerable from a planning angle. Twenty-year-old left-back Bello, while still unpolished, is one who would be attractive to clubs in and outside Germany based on strong potential, should they fall into the 2. Bundesliga. Under contract through 2026, the former Atlanta United standout could earn the club a transfer fee that would be useful as they reshape the side for the second tier.

Saturday feels like must win for Arminia if they have designs on staying up, yet the Stuttgart game going on at the same time will undeniably play a part in their frame of mind, too. It gives us a classic German Fernduell (a long-distance duel), although in this case it really is a Ferntriell (a long-distance three-way joust), so this column may just have invented a new German word!

It’s a game from which Stuttgart have to get three points. Wolfsburg are perhaps the flakiest team in the Bundesliga at the moment. From week to week, you just don’t know what you’re going to see.

I’ll be eagerly waiting for news to come through from the Neckarstadt while commentating for the world audience, including ESPN+, on Bielefeld-Hertha. Join me if you can.

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