It was a cold Sunday evening in Sinsheim, Germany—it was the Schwaben derby and the final match of Spieltag 22. 1899 Hoffenheim were set to square off with VfB Stuttgart in front of 28,750 spectators at the Rhein-Neckar Arena.
Hoffenheim went into the match searching for a win over Stuttgart, who were experiencing an atrocious run of poor results, that would have widened the gap between them and Augsburg to four points and keep them securely in the demotion play-off spot. Instead, Hoffenheim lost out on the chance to earn what would have been only their fifth win of the season and picked up their 14th defeat. However, what was Hoffenheim’s loss turned out to be a very important gain for Stuttgart, who took the spoils in the 1-0 win.
Stuttgart have floundered since the return of the second half of the season, failing to win or even draw a single match until Sunday. The three points from the derby put an end to the club’s painful five-match losing streak, thanks to a third minute goal from Martin Harnik. While Hoffenheim dominated possession, passing success, and total shots statistics, luck was Stuttgart’s on the night and poor finishing from the home side was the nail in their own coffin.
The win took Stuttgart up two places from 14th to 12th in the league table, but can they get back into European contention? In a word: doubtful. Six is the killer number for Stuttgart at the moment. Six points and six places are sitting heartily between them and a Europa League qualification place. The competition seems to be growing tighter and fiercer by the week and a tricky 1-0 victory over a relegation-battling side is not the indicator of an impending turnaround. 15 colossal dropped points will have devastated any chance they may have previously had of making it to the Europa League for a second year in a row through the table.
However, Stuttgart still have an opportunity to make it back to Europe through the league cup—the DFB Pokal. Stuttgart are one of the last eight sides standing in the domestic competition and are set to face second division side VfL Bochum next week in the quarter-final match at home at the Mercedes-Benz Arena. If Stuttgart are serious in their aims for Europa League, they will need to put all their eggs in the Pokal basket, as either record-cup title holders Bayern Munich (15 cup titles) and current cup title holders Borussia Dortmund will remain in the action after the two giants clash at the Allianz Arena on Wednesday.
No one said the domestic cup would be an easy path to Europe, but it is definitely the more viable option for Stuttgart this season. The southern club’s next three league matches (FC Nürnberg at home, Bayer Leverkusen away, and Hamburger SV at home) offer little reassurance for anything more than a possible top half of the table finish. The only side to give Nürnberg a defeat since the second half of the season has arrived was Dortmund—incidentally, BVB are the only team to have beaten Bayer Leverkusen, as well. A Stuttgart in this form would be lucky to take four points from these three games and they would need the full nine points and a lot of luck to get back into the race for that out-of-reach top-six finish.
Less than a month ago, manager Bruno Labbadia was offered a contract extension that would keep him at Stuttgart until 2015—and he signed it. Hopefully, he can repay the club by restoring the faith in his squad and continuing their fight until the last minute of the last match of the season.
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