HE­ROES TO ZEROES

Wolfs­burg go from beat­ing Real to brink of rel­e­ga­tion

New Straits Times - - Sport -

BER­LIN

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.”

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