Coach Dieter Hecking’s VfL Wolfsburg side did most everything right Thursday evening at home, downing iconic Italian side Inter Milan by a 3-1 score. The Wolves will carry that two-goal advantage to Milan next Thursday when they face Inter in the 2nd leg of the Europa League contest.
Wolfsburg have been quite impressive in the new year, as 2015 has seen seven wins, two draws and only one loss in Bundesliga, Europa League and Pokal competition combined. But the loss was in the Wolves last game, as an always determined FC Augsburg were able to hang an “L” on Wolfsburg by negating red-hot striker Bas Dost and getting their goal from Dominik Kohr as he knocked in the rebound from a PK originally saved by Diego Benaglio. The loss in all probability knocked Wolfsburg out of all but the most remote chance of catching holders Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race, with 2nd place Wolfsburg now trailing by 11 points with only ten league matches remaining.
Thursday night’s Wolfsburg performance demonstrated, though, that Hecking’s men aren’t easily sidetracked, even surrendering a dream start to the game by the Italian side. Five minutes after kickoff, a challenged ball between Danilo D’Ambrosio and André Schürrle fell to Mauro Icardi, who forwarded the ball to teammate Rodrigo Palacio. The former Boca Juniors striker ran in acres of space, advancing untouched before knocking in a low shot under Benaglio to grant Roberto Mancini’s Inter club the lead and an important away goal.
The half continued on a fairly even basis, as Schürrle had two chances to score his first Wolfsburg goal since arriving at the end of the winter transfer market, but he missed one and had another block. A save by Inter goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo on a Daniel Caligiuri went over the bar in the 28th minute, and the Wolves found their equalizer from the resulting CK. Kevin De Bruyne sent an outswinger from the corner that was met by an unmarked Naldo, who crouched and powered the ball with his head for a 1-1 scoreline. The half ended with the score the same as two chances by Vierinha and one from Josuha Guilavogui went for naught.
The second half showed Wolfsburg in better form, and more fluid, than the first, and provided the game’s winning margin as De Bruyne’s talent shined for all to see. Caligiuri missed from the left on a curling shot minutes after intermission, and left back Ricardo Rodriguez sent a stinger into Carrizo’s hands early on, both set up by De Bruyne as Wolfsburg kept most of the play in Inter’s half of the field, keeping pressure on and limiting Inter to a few long-distance strikes at goal. In the 63rd minute, Hecking’s men earned the desired lead when a poor pass from Carrizo to his left was grabbed by a streaking Vierinha, who hustled forward before squaring back to a wide open De Bruyne whose kick from the center of the box was true. De Bruyne struck again, in the 75th minute from a free kick granted from a Nemanja Vidić foul on Caligiuri. The 23 year-old stood with Naldo and Rodriguez also possibilities to take the kick, but it was the Belgian who fired a well-aimed one-bounce kick that eluded Carrizo to his left. 3-1 Wolfsburg.
That’s how the score remained, despite two additional chances for De Bruyne to earn a hat trick, a nice chance from Caligiuri and efforts from Inter to obtain another away goal. At the end of the day, Wolfsburg led Inter in shots taken 16-10, with 10 on target (forcing seven saves by Carrizo) as opposed to only two shots on target from Mancini’s team (forcing one save from Diego Benaglio). The Wolves held 56% of possession while leading Inter in CKs 6-4 and completing 486 of 535 passes, while the visitors completed 344 of their 388 attempts to pass the ball.
Wolfsburg are such a fun team to watch. They have undoubtedly established themselves as the second best club in Germany this season; not able to match what Bayern Munich and it’s deep, deep squad can do, but certainly better than the rest. Wolfsburg give the impression that they don’t play air-tight defense, which they don’t, but on the other hand, only the Pep’s boys and Borussia Monchengladbach have conceded less Bundesliga goals than the 28 that the Wolves have allowed (Schalke have also allowed 28 league goals). With Robin Knoche and Naldo anchoring in front of Diego Benaglio, Wolfsburg’s defending isn’t always pretty, and sometimes error-prone, but they often make up for mistakes by hustle and Benaglio’s steadiness in goal.
Hecking’s Wolves are a forward-oriented club, second only to Bayern in Bundesliga goals, and Thursday’s match was more proof of that attacking mentality, with Wolfsburg creating 47 dangerous attacks, almost twice as many as Inter’s 24. With fullbacks Rodriguez and Vierinha constantly venturing upfield and creating pressure on opponents, chances multiply for the green and white clad team.
But all that dangerous flanking push needs a facilitator, a traffic cop, and Kevin De Bruyne is quickly becoming one of the game’s best. His ability to distribute quality along with his ever-growing ability to finish makes him one of Europe’s true danger men and a delight to watch as he interacts with his teammates with both art and craft.
There were a few negatives deriving from the Wolfsburg’s sparkling win. There was the yellow card given to Naldo, which means the towering Brazilian will miss next Thursday’s 2nd leg in Milan. Additionally, Schürrle continues to have difficulty finding his place in the otherwise-rampant Wolves’ attack, and was subbed off at halftime for the less dynamic but effective Christian Träsch. After handing out two assists in his Wolfsburg debut against Hoffenheim February 7, the man who has scored 57 goals in all competitions for Mainz, Leverkusen and Chelsea over the last five-plus seasons hasn’t really added to Wolfsburg’s fiery offense thus far. Finally, Inter was able to bottle up Bas Dost as well or better than Augsburg did last weekend, with the Dutch dangerman not able to get a shot in his 70 minutes on the pitch.
But the positives far outweigh the negatives for an overall healthy Wolfsburg squad that enters a busy next few weeks. Sunday they take on relegation-battlers SC Freiburg at the Volkswagen Arena prior to their re-match with Inter, who figure to do better at the San Siro despite the fact that this edition of the proud club is nowhere near a match for Inter clubs of the past. Wolfsburg end March away to Mainz before the international break. Hecking’s side returns to action April 4, hosting Stuttgart before playing Freiburg again at home in the Pokal quarterfinals.
Wolfsburg: Benaglio – Vieirinha (Perisic, 87’), Naldo, Knoche, Rodriguez – Luiz Gustavo, Guilavogui – Caligiuri, De Bruyne, Schürrle (Träsch, 46’) – Dost (Bendtner, 70’)
Inter: Carrizo – d’Ambrosio, Juan Jesus, Ranocchia, Santon (Kuzmanovic, 83’) – Medel, Guarin, Hernanes (Vidic, 58’) – Shaqiri (Kovacic, 83’) – Palacio, Icardi
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