Pokal Reflections: Regards for Roman, Robben Redemption and Improvement in Stuttgart

On Wednesday the world football spotlight steadied on German football as Bundesliga giants Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund had their second (third if you count the preseason Super Pokal) clash of the 2012-13 Bundesliga season in the DFB Pokal Quarterfinals. This was the glamour fixture of the Pokal, the clash of Germany’s most dominant team and the current domestic double holders Dortmund that had avoided defeat by the Bavarians in their six previous meetings.

On the pitch this game actually went as many expected. Bayern passed brilliantly and Robben and Schweinsteiger made up for the loss of Franck Ribéry expected with Bastian sitting out of Saturday’s Bremen clash and Robben’s form from their 6-1 win Saturday. Mario Mandžukić worked hard at the front of the attack with Bayern dominating play with 57% possession and nine shots on target to Borussia’s one.  Dortmund opted to their pressing style and the counter attack, but missed Mats Hummels as they struggled to win the ball and keep it out of the back. Bayern gained bragging rights with the 1-0 win, ending Dortmund’s record run against the Bavarians and put themselves as odds-on favorites to win the domestic double.

While Bayern’s reassertion of their German dominance by finally beating their Ruhr Valley nemesis, along with their further legitimizing 2012/2013 treble hopes, were the main stories of this Pokal Wednesday, there were other interesting happenings to reflect upon, too.

The Underrated Roman

One subplot of Wednesday’s clash of Bundesliga giants match was the outstanding play of Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller. The veteran Dortmund keeper had his second straight beastly performance against the Bavarians this season, making countless great saves and all but for a perfect Arjen Robben strike, was one of the stars of a match where world-class talent was on display everywhere on the pitch.

The  noble Roman should certainly be in the discussion for the best goalkeeper in Germany not named Manuel Neuer.  Weidenfeller has had sparkling performances in Dortmund’s biggest fixtures of the season. Enjoying a great run of form during Dortmund’s UEFA Champions League group stage where they took on powerhouses of Europe Manchester City and Real Madrid. During the group stage Weidenfeller showed his class against Manchester City against Joe Hart in a keepers duel. Weidenfeller conceded just one penalty in 180 minutes against City as well as similarly sound performances against Real Madrid to ride Dortmund’s impressive run to the top of the group.

Combine that with a domestic season that, despite Bayern’s dominance at the top of the table, has seen Weidenfeller boast impressive numbers and you start to get even more impressed. In 1980 minutes Weidenfeller and BvB have conceded just 25 goals domestically. With seven of Weidenfeller’s 22 Bundesliga appearances resulting in clean sheets, along with two more shutouts in Europe and another  in the Pokal, Weidenfeller has been good for ten clean sheets and 37 conceded goals in 34 games.

Typically numbers like that and games in big moments lead to a meteoric rise in popularity among keepers. Neuer,Joe Hart, and Iker Casillas are considered by many to be the world’s top three goaltender, while keepers like Juve’s iconic Gigi Buffon, and Barca’s Victor Valdes all also draw praise for being world-class goaltenders. But Weidenfeller’s name is rarely mentioned outside of Germany, or even in Germany for that matter, when the world’s top keepers are discussed.   In Germany, Neuer receives many deserved accolades playing behind one of the best teams in Europe and for the national team.  And now with Germany wealthy in goalkeeping talent, including the revitalized Rene Adler and the legion of young German talents such as Leverkusen’s Bernd Leno, Hannover’s Ron-Robert Zieler, Gladbach’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Frankfurt’s Kevin Trapp and Fabian Giefer of Düsseldorf, Weidenfeller is overlooked again, not only by fans but even national coach Jogi Löw.  Augsburg’s recently appointed number one, Alex Manninger, and another recently promoted number one, Wolfgang Hesl at Furth, have quickly earned plaudits for their solid play with struggling clubs in the last few weeks. Weidenfeller puts up impressive performances and matches in Europe and against Bayern yet is often ignored. Is it crazy to think the 32-year-old German is among the world’s best?

Weidenfeller has had the misfortune of playing in the shadow of the Bayern’s Oliver Kahn when beginning his career at Dortmund, and, as a veteran, playing in the shadow of Neuer. Closing in on 100 clean sheets in Bundesliga play, and 130 in all competitions, Weidenfeller is currently in his thirteenth season, making his overlooked status a distinct injustice, especially considering that he’s the number one goalkeeper on the two-time Bundesliga champions, that happen to be one of most exciting clubs in the world.

With the numbers he is currently putting up (just five losses this season so far) it is time to consider Weidenfeller as a world-class goalkeeper.. He is clearly there and is one of the reasons Dortmund is on the European high they are on right now. If Dortmund make the next step in the Champions League, we may all have to accept Weidenfeller’s current status as one of the game’s best, but it is a shame that he has had to wait so long for that recognition.

Robben’s Redemption

Arjen Robben was brilliant in tonight’s win, scoring the game’s lone goal after an unfortunate Dortmund clearance gave the Dutchman the space to torture the BvB faithful with a patented Robben strike from the corner of the box.  After goals against Wolfsburg and Werder Bremen leading up to his start in the absence of Franck Ribéry, Robben finally got the monkey off his back after the downfall of his reputation at Bayern in the final Dortmund fixtures last season and the missed penalty in the Champions League final against Chelsea. It was all a bit unfair to the man who has done so much positive for the Bavarians but it will be all forgotten as the image of Robben’s misses from last season are replaced with his more popular pose, celebrating a brilliant goal from the right side of the pitch.

Robben has been forced to play in a lesser role this season with the emergence of Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller, but with three goals in his last three domestic appearances it seems the 29 year-old attacker is back on track at the perfect time as Jupp Heynckes’ club looks to continue their trip towards the treble with important CL midweek fixtures.

Stuttgart Earning Results

At eleventh place after qualifying for the Europa League last season, Stuttgart has had a roller coaster season that has seen just eight wins in the league so far and a disappointing -15 goal differential. Stuttgart, however, are now the only German club to advance in Europa League play with their win against Racing Genk last week, and now have added a Pokal Final Four berth following their 2-0 victory over 2nd division VfL Bochum Wednesday. While not overwhelming or particularly artful, Bruno Labbadia’s Swabians are achieving results in a results-oriented business, as team defending has tightened up to the tune of having allowed only two goals in their last five competitive matches.

Striker Vedad Ibišević’s 81st minute goal, his first of 2013 for the Bosnian, gave Stuttgart the insurance marker they needed in the second half to send VfL Bochum out and secure a semifinal spot. Christian Genther gave Stuttgart the lead early on with a strike in the 18th and Stuttgart never looked back, earning a much deserved win and setting up quite an interesting time at the club.

With European football still four points out of reach, a challenging Europa League Round of 16 tie with Lazio gives Stuttgart an opportunity to  inject more momentum into a season where the Swabians still are chasing Hannover 96 and Hamburg for the final two Europa League spots. Play in Europe and the Pokal may add fatigue, but there is no way one can say that Stuttgart’s week (which included a 1-1 draw to Nürnberg) wasn’t a massive jolt in the arm of a team that has failed to go on a positive streak like this since their run in mid-October through early November.

Can Stuttgart continue to ride out their run of recent form and carry it into the Bundesliga? Only time will tell, but for now the monkey is again off the back of the frequently embattled Bruno Labbadia.  Stuttgart and its supports may now enjoy the prospect of riding out this European good fortune and Cup success. If they can avoid drawing Bayern in the semifinals and can somehow take advantage of Lazio’s match ban for their home leg, Stuttgart has a real chance of turning a thus far forgettable season into one of the Bundesliga’s 2012-13 success stories.

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