Saturday evening played host to a game which was very nearly another sign of the incredible maturity Lucien Favre’s Borussia Mönchengladbach side has developed over the course of the current season: a tough away fixture to Mainz successfully hurdled with the return to form Raffael, one of the club’s marquee talents, who delivered a brace in an overall excellent performance.
A substitution of defensive marshal Martin Stranzl, however, played into Mainz coach Martin Schmidt’s hands, with a long range free kick from man of the match Johannes Geis and a late equaliser by Shinji Okazaki giving both sides a share of the spoils.
The match in many ways shared many parallels with the game against Paderborn last weekend, at least until the point of conceding. The first-half goal came through excellent build-up play. The second arrived later via similar circumstances.
The winger duo of Fabian Johnson and Ibrahima Traore once again proved absolutely vital to die Fohlen’s performance – contributing excellent play throughout, with each individual grabbing an assist and generally being involved in most of Borussia’s dangerous play going forward.
It even shared similarities with the difficult cup tie with Offenbach earlier in the week. Kruse got on the scoresheet for the first time in a while against the Kickers paralleled Raffael bagging his first goal since early December, ending a run of nearly ten hours without a goal in all competitions. Borussia had scrapped for seventy minutes against Mainz and seemed to be well in the ascendancy. at least in terms of dominance of play, if not chances created.
But then came the Achilles heel.
Mainz’s first goal was a combination of excellent thinking and technique on the part of lynchpin midfielder Geis and a complete lack of luck for goalkeeper Yann Sommer. Sommer was unsighted by his wall and a handful of Mainz players on the edge of the area as Geis coolly curled a free kick around the wall rather than up and around it, wrong-footing the Swiss custodian and making it all to play for from Mainz’s perspective, in a game which had previously seemed won by the away side.
The second goal was an even tougher pill to take, coming after a catalogue of defensive errors.
Firstly, Xhaka headed up rather than out from a long throw, while nobody managed to close down Hofmann or Okazaki in the middle, with the Japanese international’s header from close range bringing the two sides to terms and gifting die Mainzer a point.
The nature of the game means that the point gained in the table feels more like two points dropped from a Gladbach perspective. It’s hard to look past the negatives of the uncharacteristic errors at the back, from the stingy defensive rearguard becoming altogether kinder to its challengers to Sommer perhaps being beaten in circumstances where he could have made the save. However, taking the original seventy minutes in isolation of the events of the closing stages, there’s still a lot to sing about for Borussia.
Finally, the forward line seem to be back on song. Raffael’s looked stronger than before in recent weeks, though perhaps not as dangerous as in the early weeks of the season and certainly not in comparison to the menace of the year before. With two goals in his belt, his confidence should rise dramatically, perhaps meaning that more of the swashbuckling play which has gained him so many fans since his arrival at the club is in order.
Kruse, too, looked better than in recent weeks, running the channels with aplomb. The former St Pauli forward should also receive special mention for the classy feint in the build-up to the second goal, completely tearing the Mainz defence in half with a mere shrug of the shoulder.
With both forwards on song in future games – starting with next week’s match with Hannover – Borussia should start to regain some of the swagger they’re known for.
Such swagger was key to the build-up in both goals on Saturday evening, with patient passing, a switch from flank to flank, and a tidy, confident finish featuring in both goals from Raffael. Should that remain constant as the season draws to a close, Borussia will have every chance of retaining their current position of third, especially given that the latter twenty minutes of the game, which ended up costing die Fohlen two points, are quite obviously uncharacteristic errors, rather than occurrences which Borussen will have to become accustomed to over the coming weeks. Barring disaster, at least.
And at the end of the day, a point away from home accompanied by three at home, would see Borussia averaging two points a game between now and the end of the season; simple maths, but maths which will be telling in the fight for third. As much as it’s been tempting to play down the prospects of Champions League football all season, Borussia are certainly one of the leading lights as far as that particular battle goes.
So despite the draw, which felt like a loss, but was in some ways a win, life will have to go on for all of those at Borussia Mönchengladbach for the all-important tie with Hannover in the coming weekend. Another slip-up could be a blow; another win a reason to be jubilant. With some tougher fixtures just appearing on the horizon, we’re getting into do-or-die time for Lucien Favre and his troops.
FSV Mainz 05 2:2 (0:1) Borussia Mönchengladbach
Raffael 27. 67., Geis 73., Okazaki 77.
Mainz: Karius; Brosinski, Bungert, Bell, Park; Geis, Baumgartlinger; Clemens (Hofmann, 45.), Malli (Koo, 88.), De Blasis; Okazaki. (4-2-3-1)
Mönchengladbach: Sommer; Korb, Stranzl (Brouwers, 71.), Jantschke, Wendt; Traore (Herrmann, 63.), Kramer, Xhaka, Johnson; Raffael (Nordtveit, 89.); Kruse. (4-4-1-1)
Xhaka 72., Hofmann 80., Wendt 81.