It’s not exactly a secret that this year’s 2. Bundesliga promotion race is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in years. Not since the four-way tussle between Stuttgart, Hannover, Braunschweig and Union Berlin has it been quite so gripping at the top of the table, and going into matchday 23, four teams were all level on 42 points.
Three of those teams were in action on Saturday, and all picked up points. SpVgg Greuther Fürth could only draw with Hannover, but VfL Bochum beat Würzburg and Holstiein Kiel beat Aue. The fourth, Hamburger SV, go into the Stadtderby against St. Pauli on Monday night outside of the promotion places altogether.
It’s almost impossible to predict just how the season will pan out. But one team more than the others, having found their way to pole position, appears ready to embrace the challenge and get their hands on the silver Schale at the end of the season.
A 3-0 victory over bottom club Würzburger Kickers may on the surface be nothing special for Bochum, but as Thomas Reis pointed out after the game, their rivals had all struggled against Bernhard Trares’s side, who have had the misfortune to play all four back-to-back but have come out of that run with their heads held high.
Fürth and Kiel benefited from dodgy refereeing decisions before beating them, and Hamburg of course had lost at the flyeralarm Arena last week. They performed credibly again this weekend, but were too weak defensively to resist Bochum’s first class attack.
Robert Žulj, not for the first time this season, was mightily impressive, even if he was gifted the opening goal by a Daniel Hägele howler and failed to take three superb opportunities later in the game. He had been marked out of the match by Aue’s Louis Samson last weekend, but there was no such resistance here.
Danny Blum, back from injury, had one of his best games of the season, scoring the second goal just after the hour, whilst his counterpart on the opposite wing, Gerrit Holtmann, showed superb finesse on the ball to walk it past Hendrik Bonmann to settle the contest.
The other member of their front four, no doubt their strongest combination, is Simon Zoller, who has been quiet of late but still has as many goals as starman Žulj (11) and only one less assist, with the ninth of those being the pass to Blum for his goal on Saturday.
Whilst the attack impresses, the men behind them are firmly set. Anthony Losilla and Robert Tesche are both rocks in the heart of the pitch, whilst Cristian Gamboa and Danilo Soares are workhorses at full-back.
The centre-back pairing of Armel Bella-Kotchap and Maxim Leitsch is also one of the best in the league, despite them only being 19 and 22 respectively, whilst Manuel Riemann has ironed out his erratic side to become one of the best goalkeepers in the league.
Such is the settled nature of Reis’s team, they can easily absorb the occasional change. Herbert Bockhorn has filled in for Blum adequately in recent weeks, whilst Saulo Decarli was untroubled covering for the suspended Leitsch against Würzburg.
Whilst Fürth have a wobbly defence, Kiel have issues scoring goals and Hamburg are Hamburg, Bochum have what appears to be the most rounded team of the top four challengers, and whilst the squad would need strengthening if they do make it into the Bundesliga, they are perfectly set for more immediate challenges.
Which is just as well – they play all three of their rivals in the next four games. “The weeks of truth are coming,” as Blum admits. Starting with Fürth next week.
▪ The two managerless teams went head-to-head on Sunday, and the urgency, or not, to find a permanent solution was laid stark as SV Sandhausen cruised to a 3-0 win against VfL Osnabrück. Even before the game, the tendency in Sandhausen is to stick with Gerhard Kleppinger and Stefan Kulovits until the end of the season, with the result and performance only strengthening their case, even if Kulovits was missing due to COVID-19. Osnabrück were hamstrung by Adam Sušac’s sending off after just five minutes but still lacked any ideas under the guidance of Florian Fulland. Sandhausen and Braunschweig are only a point behind them now. They will need to act fast.
▪ SSV Jahn Regensburg had to do without coach Mersad Selimbegovic for the game against Paderborn on Friday after he tested positive for COVID-19, a huge blow ahead of the Pokal match against Werder Bremen on Tuesday. Nevertheless they managed to beat a lacklustre and tired Paderborn – who drew with Heidenheim in midweek – with Sebastian Stolze scoring and Alexander Meyer preparing well for a possible penalty shootout in midweek by denying Dennis Srbney from the spot.
▪ Simon Falette and Hannover 96 – increasingly a marriage made in hell. The former Frankfurt defender has struggled with injuries since joining in October, and they had even been strong rumours of a departure as early as January. The nadir was reached on Wednesday, as he completely lost it and fought three teammates in training. He was fined, kept away from the rest of the squad for the rest of the week and missed the draw with Fürth as punishment but will be back in training on Monday. Most Hannover fans would rather see the back of him, however.
▪ After their defeat to Würzburg a few weeks ago, it was rumoured that Fortuna Düsseldorf would retire their black away jersey after four defeats when wearing it this season. That hasn’t happened yet, however, and after it earned them a draw against Regensburg a couple of weeks ago, they wore it against against 1. FC Heidenheim on Sunday. But the curse continued, as despite equalising twice, they lost 3-2. It remains to be seen if the kit, or coach Uwe Rösler, will make it to the end of the season.
SV Darmstadt 98 0-1 Karlsruher SC
SSV Jahn Regensburg 1-0 SC Paderborn 07
VfL Bochum 3-0 Würzburger Kickers
Hannover 96 2-2 SpVgg Greuther Fürth
Holstein Kiel 1-0 FC Erzgebirge Aue
1. FC Heidenheim 3-2 Fortuna Düsseldorf
1. FC Nürnberg 0-0 Eintracht Braunschweig
SV Sandhausen 3-0 VfL Osnabrück
FC St. Pauli vs Hamburger SV (Monday)