At the end of last season, SV Darmstadt 98 finished in 18th place in the 3. Liga and therefore were relegated to the Regionalliga. Only 8 victories in 38 matches and 32 goals in the whole season were enough to relegate the Lillies. However, as the club were preparing for life in the Regionalliga, the news that Kickers Offenbach’s license had been denied offered them a lifeline. With Offenbach’s relegation, Darmstadt were safe and were to play another year in Germany’s third tier.
Fast forward a few days to August 4th 2013. Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Branimir Hrgota tries to be clever and chip his penalty but the ball rebounds off the bar and out. Darmstadt have just beaten the Bundesliga club on penalties (0-0 AET) and are through to the Second Round of the DFB Pokal, quite the turn in fortunes for the club faithful. In the Second Round, yet another Bundesliga team stands in their way, Schalke 04, perhaps a sterner test than die Fohlen not so much in terms of the difference in quality between the two sides but rather because the Bundesliga has been underway for a few weeks now, unlike when they played Gladbach.
Darmstadt are, most definitely, the in-form team in the 3. Liga. After a slow start (1 point in the first three games), they’ve gone on to record 4 victories in the following 6 games (plus 1 draw and 1 defeat) and sit in 7th position in the league with a game in hand, which could take them up to third if they were to win it. Tied second for the highest number of goals scored in the league (although tied with four other teams), they are clearly a team who enjoy going forward and who defend tight, boasting the second best record for goals conceded.
The architect to this ongoing project is Dirk Schuster, a former player himself known especially for his time at Karlsruher SC and 1. FC Köln in the 90s. Schuster took over at Darmstadt in December 2012 after a spell at Stuttgarter Kickers where he got them promoted from the Regionalliga Süd. What Schuster has done at Darmstadt is nothing short of a miracle, turning a losing side into a giant killer and an outside contender for promotion, especially if they can carry on with this form. Schuster employs a 4-4-2 system that’s adaptable to 4-2-3-1 or even 4-2-4 when the occasion arises. Darmstadt’s style of play is adaptable to the occasion. In the league they are a team that enjoy going forward but they can be equally as effective sitting back, as they were against Gladbach.
Every successful team has a defined spine that goes from end to end. In goal is Jan Zimmermann, a tall goalkeeper with excellent presence and who stands his ground well on one-on-ones. At 6ft 3″, Zimmermann has Bundesliga experience with Eintracht Frankfurt back in 2009, coming on for the second half in substitution of Oka Nikolov precisely against Schalke 04. That night he conceded two goals and committed a penalty but with four years experience behind him now, his composure is one of his greatest assets.
The two rocks in defence are Benjamin Gorka and Aytaç Sulu (capitain), with especially Gorka standing out at 6ft 5″, dominant in the air in both areas, quite clearly a threat that Schalke will have to neutralise during set pieces. Michael Stegmayer, a set-piece specialist, and Sandro Sirigu have been flanking the Darmstadt defence but young Aaron Berzel has filled in for Sirigu in the last two matches and is expected to start tonight.
In central midfield, Jerome Gondorf and Hanno Behrens marshal central midfield, with Gondorf being the one who enjoys going forward and arriving from the second line while Behrens sits tight. On the wings, Milan Ivana and Marcel Heller are constant threats, with dashing runs up the wings, dangerous crosses and cuts inside that are of special danger.
Up front, Marco Sailer supports the undoubted star of the team, Dominik Stroh-Engel. While Sailer enjoys drifting forwards and backwards in attack, Stroh-Engel is your standard target man. Standing tall at 6ft 6″, the former Eintracht Frankfurt man also has Bundesliga experience (26 minutes spread over three substitute appearances in 2006), signing for Darmstadt this summer from Wehen Wiesbaden after also playing for SV Babelsberg. His height might fool those who have not seen him play. It’s quite obvious that his aerial play is one of his strengths but Stroh-Engel is also capable with both feet and is an excellent finisher. Having scored 10 goals in 9 league games this year, he’ll be the main man to watch tonight for the Schalke defence.
What Schalke can expect
Despite their strong current form, Darmstadt and Schuster are no fools and know well that they are facing a team in a whole different class. It’s quite probably that they will use an approach similar to the one employed against Gladbach, of sitting deep at the back and tightening the lines, with Hanno Behrens dropping deeper than usual in front of the defence. If Schalke want to exploit Darmstadt’s weaknesses, they should look to play wide and look for the individual skills of their wingers, as it’s likely that Darmstadt will pack the middle.
In terms of attack, die Lillien will most likely use the speed of their wingers Ivana and Heller to their advantage, breaking quickly on either wing and looking for close support from Sailer to play it inside or for the height and presence of Stroh-Engel inside the box. It’s quite likely that Stroh-Engel will endure a lonely match today and that he won’t shine as he usually does, as the main attacking threats will come from the aforementioned wingers who will be those in charge of executing the quick transitions. Having already been victims of four penalties, mostly through their sheer speed and quick feet, Schalke’s defence will have to tread carefully.
As mentioned before, set pieces can be of great danger to Schalke as Darmstadt have excellent deliverers and the height to get on the end of those, especially through Gorka and Stroh-Engel, although Behrens and Sulu are also men to be considered dangerous inside the area due to their height.
Coming off the back of scoring ten goal in two matches (0-4 at MSV Duisburg and 6-0 against Hansa Rostock), Darmstadt’s firepower is not to be underestimated and their confidence could not be any higher going into this match.
SV Darmstadt 98 – FC Schalke 04 (20.30 CET)
DFB Pokal Second Round
Venue: Stadion am Böllenfalltor, Darmstadt.
Date: Wednesday 25th of September, 2013