Europe A-Høj: Can Ji and Højbjerg help Augsburg to European Qualification?

It’s fast becoming a worn out turn of phrase as far as the Bundesliga goes, but as the Winterpause begins to melt away in favour of one of the most anticipated Rückrunden of recent years, it’s a phrase of increasing relevance; the future at Augsburg looks very bright indeed.

With the loan signing of Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, and the annual signing of ex-Dortmund and Sunderland man Dong-Won Ji (this time permanent), as well as the club’s excellent 2014, in which (throughout the whole year) FCA collected more Bundesliga points than the likes of Borussia Mönchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen. 2015 looks like it could burn yet brighter for Augsburg. This expectation is a testament to the work of coach Markus Weinzierl and sporting director Stefan Reuter over the past few years, and the work of the players on the pitch.

In 2013/2014, Augsburg didn’t quite manage a European spot, thanks to a slight drop in form after March, meaning Weinzierl’s men fell one point short of a Europa League qualification place. This letdown was due in part to FCA having a relatively thin squad; beyond the likes of Andre Hahn, Tobias Werner and Daniel Baier, there wasn’t a great deal of depth in crucial positions.

This season, however, a deeper squad – featuring the aforementioned Højbjerg and Ji, along with summer signings Matavz, Caiuby, Djurdjic, Baba, Feulner and Parker – holds hope of bridging the very narrow gap into Europe. The squad may still be without the individual stars one might usually see in a top club’s team (Halil Altintop is one of FCA’s only players familiar to laymen fans outside of Germany) but the players in the squad fit Weinzierl’s system like a glove, which in turn gives the club greater hope of finishing in a European slot.

Here’s why.

First, the league’s current situation: Augsburg currently sit sixth in the table, a position which perhaps belies how close they are to a possible Champions League slot if their excellent form continues, as FCA sits just a point off of Bayer Leverkusen, who occupy third place. It seems ridiculous to tip Augsburg to come close to the Champions League this season, but given that challengers for the continent’s premium cup competition often fizzle out in the Rückrunde, a good run from a relative outsider, which Augsburg still are, could prove crucial in the race for Europe.

Second, Dong-Won Ji is back. Ji’s previous spells at the Swabian club have been relatively successful, though he didn’t play much of a role in the half-season he spent at Augsburg last year, other than scoring the goal which secured a point against his future employers Borussia Dortmund, but an additional forward adds options. With Sascha Mölders (a fan favourite) seemingly out with injury for awhile, and with Tim Matavz and Shawn Parker yet to hit a vein of form, Ji’s presence could take pressure off Raul Bobadilla, who has had to serve as the main striker for most of this season.

Of the other winter transfers, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg is more of an unknown quantity; the 19 year old joined Bayern in 2012, made his professional debut in 2013, and has since played a bit part role. The move seems to suit all parties, as Højbjerg should receive game time, Augsburg get a young talent who will very likely be one of the first names on the teamsheet, and finally Bayern can develop a player without having to play him, instead of one of their more established stars.

Højbjerg could, in this sense at least, be the catalyst for a sustained European push for Augsburg during the Rückrunde this season; the likes of Dominik Kohr and Markus Feulner are talented players, but it has looked for some time that Augsburg have needed a hot talent next to the ever-impressive Daniel Baier to further improve their first team. Additionally, Højbjerg adds a little star quality to the Augsburg team; while he’s not achieved much in football yet – given his young age – his name has been linked with a number of clubs, thanks to his expressed wishes for more playing time, and many people have already seen what he can do during his limited game time at Bayern. Whether this means that Augsburg have a player who will take their midfield to the next level, or perhaps take the creative burden away from the other players in the Augsburg midfield somewhat, is unclear. Either way, the move is a statement of intent from Augsburg, and hopefully another move in the right direction for a team who could become a real mainstay in the top half of the Bundesliga over the next few years, if their current trajectory is anything to go by.

Between Højbjerg and Ji and any other hypothetical signings between now and the end of the January transfer window, FC Augsburg appear to have another incredible Rückrunde on the horizon – whether it’ll be enough to guarantee the club their maiden European campaign is yet to be seen, but Weinzierl and Reuter look to be doing everything to make something which, a couple of years ago, would have been seen as a wild dream, into a reality.

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Conor Garratt

I am Conor Garratt, a 21-year old student from South West England. I study German and History at the University of Southampton, currently spending a year abroad in Mainz, Germany. I love football, especially German football, and am a Swindon Town & Borussia Mönchengladbach fan in my spare time.

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