HEROES TO ZEROES
Wolfsburg go from beating Real to brink of relegation
WOLFSBURG have one final chance to avoid relegation from the Bundesliga after the 2009 champions went from stunning Real Madrid to the brink of Germany’s second division inside 13 months.
In April 2016, Wolfsburg produced a superb display to shock Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real 2-0 in their home leg of last season’s Champions League quarter-finals.
Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in Real’s 3-0 return-leg victory at the Bernabeu six days later to reach the semi-finals, en route to winning the 2015/16 title, and Wolfsburg bowed out 3-2 on aggregate.
Fast forward to Saturday and Wolfsburg’s 2-1 defeat at Hamburg saw them finish 16th in the German league, capping a disastrous season in which they have gone through three coaches.
Having reached the Bundesliga for the first time in 1997, Wolfsburg, backed by embattled carmanufacturer Volkswagen, are now just a play-off away from returning to the second division.
They host second-division side Eintracht Braunschweig on Thursday in the first of two legs which will determine their survival, with the return fixture on Monday.
“I’m speechless. Football is brutal,” fumed Wolfsburg’s Germany striker Mario Gomez, who signed from Fiorentina last August, after their defeat in Hamburg.
“Now we have got what we’ve deserved — an extra round of matches!”
Wolfsburg’s fall from grace has been rapid.
After winning the 2009 Bundesliga title, which included a 5-1 thrashing of Bayern Munich, Wolfsburg won the 2015 German Cup final, finishing second in the league in 2014/15.
They beat Bayern 5-4 in a penalty shoot-out to win the German Super Cup in August 2015 having humbled the Bavarian giants 4-1 in the league the previous January.
But the August 2015 sale of chief playmaker Kevin de Bruyne, who insisted Wolfsburg let him join Manchester City, sparked a downturn in their fortunes.
His replacement, Julian Draxler, was signed on a five-year deal just days after De Bruyne’s departure — but stayed less than 18 months.
With Draxler in the attacking midfield role, Wolfsburg reached the last eight of the Champions League a year ago — the furthest the club had ever gone in Europe.
They bowed out to Real in the quarters, but not before Draxler’s majestic display in their 2-0 home win over the Spanish giants, and finished eighth in the league last season.
However, Draxler returned from Euro 2016 with Germany last July insisting he wanted to leave.
He was eventually dropped after a series of lacklustre displays, booed by his own fans when he came off the bench in December, and sold to Paris Saint-Germain in January.
Wolfsburg have been towards the bottom of the table since the first few weeks of this season.
Dieter Hecking was sacked as head coach in October, his replacement Valerien Ismael was fired in February, while director of sport Klaus Allofs was dismissed in December.
The relegation writing was on the wall for Wolfsburg after their 6-0 thrashing at home to Bayern Munich, who secured a fifth straight German league title, at the end of April.
Four points in their final three games has not been enough to halt their slide down the table and head coach Andries Jonker only has two more matches left to keep them up.
“If we combine an order (in our game) with a fighting spirit, then we are one of the best teams in the Bundesliga,” said the Dutchman, who gave up his post as head of Arsenal’s academy in February to help Wolfsburg.
“It is unbelievable that we are in 16th place, but we have to keep going and win the relegation play-off.”