Thank you, Dieter Hecking.
The knockout stages of this year’s European competitions have not been kind to Bundesliga clubs, and these last few weeks have been kind of a drag for boosters of Germany’s domestic league. Only Bayern Munich will represent German football in the quarterfinals of Champions League play, as Schalke, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund were eliminated in the Round of 16 while in the Europa League, Borussia Monchengladbach was sent packing, leaving only VfL Wolfsburg to fly Germany’s colors IF they could get past the 2nd leg of their tie with Inter Milan at the San Siro Thursday. None of the German clubs were able to put together two good legs in their ties, except for Wolfsburg, who won Thursday in Milan 2-1, advancing to the Europa League quarterfinals by virtue of their aggregate 5-2 margin over the Italian side.
Although the Wolves won handily 3-1 in the first leg and been playing at an elite level, Coach Hecking had no delusions about his club’s advance being a “gimme.” As he stated on the VfL’s website
Inter have to do something following the 1-3. I’m expecting an attacking Inter team, who will put demands on our defence. That’s something we need to be prepared for. We need to be fully concentrated. Tomorrow is Inter’s last chance to have some success this season and remain in the running for a title. That should be enough motivation
Hecking would not have the services of Naldo for the 2nd leg, as the defensive destroyer and goal-scoring threat in the box had to sit out because of card suspension. But in the end, it mattered little, as veteran Timm Klose filled in ably.
With Inter knowing that only by scoring goals would they stave off Europa League elimination, the Italians were quickly on the attack. Five minutes into the match, striker Rodrigo Palacios placed a stinger right at Woflsburg’s keeper Diego Benaglio, who handled the ball with the aplomb of a man who’s been in three World Cups. Gary Medel tried to beat Benaglio from distance, but his chance was off-target. Wolfsburg midfielder Daniel Caligiuri replied with a try of his own, which was followed by either off-target or blocked attempts from Mauro Icardi and Fredy Guarin before Inter hearts were broken by Benaglio’s fine diving save on a another opportunity for Icardi in the 23rd minute.
The fans at the San Siro had their hearts abused again just moments later. Wolfsburg’s elite midfielder, Kevin De Bruyne, squared a pass from the left flank into Daniel Caligiuri, whose shot from inside the box was partially blocked by Inter GK Juan Pablo Carrizo but flew into the back of the goal, giving the German side a 1-4 aggregate lead. Although Inter continued in attacking vein, now really up against the wall, they were continually stifled by poor shooting and stiff resistance from a solid defensive effort from Hecking’s men, with the first half ending with Wolfsburg continuing their 1-0 lead.
Wolfsburg looked well in control as the second half progressed, able to avert every Inter Milan foray forward while creating chances of their own. But in the 71st minute, Roberto Mancini’s charges broke through, as Palacios scored from a short chipped pass ahead from Hernanes. Benaglio, who’d been superb, was finally beaten, and given the luck of Bundesliga clubs in this year’s European knockout matches, one had to feel a bit concerned over Wolfsburg’s fate.
But Wolfsburg proved to be the better side. Three chances by former Stuttgart man Zdravko Kuzmanović went for naught as time wound down, and the final goal of the match went to the Wolves, as sub Niklas Bendtner scored in the 89th minute, with the provider being fellow sub Max Arnold. Inter ended the evening with the majority (59%) of possession and shots (20-13), but were the club eliminated as Wolfsburg proved that their high level of form displayed in Bundesliga competition is successful in Europe,too. Diego Benaglio made six saves in the victory, while Ricardo Rodriguez and Caligiuri led Wolfsburg with three shots each.
Wolfsburg advanced into the Europa League quarterfinals looking as good (probably better) than any of the other seven clubs who survived Thursday’s matches. A Bundesliga club winning the Europa League — wouldn’t that be a novel idea? Hecking’s side will hardly be underdogs in the next round no matter who they draw, and the performance of Germany’s second best team against an Inter side in transition but still with talent salves the disappointing wound of the four Bundesliga clubs who failed to advance.
It’s really about time we begin applauding the efforts of Hecking and Sporting Director Klaus Allofs. It took awhile to pare down the huge roster brought in by Felix Magath in his second go-round as Wolfsburg trainer, but the duo have seemed to made the right decisions regarding who to keep and who to let go. And while they do have the backing of Volkswagen money to bolster their squad, the money does little good if the right purchases aren’t made.
Moreover, Hecking deserves bucketloads of credit for having the individuals on his club playing at such a high level. Once again, Daniel Caligiuri had an excellent game, not only scoring the first goal, but doing the little things, too. I remember a moment in the second half, when Inter were pressuring in the box, and Caligiuri got ahold of the ball, dribbled past three Inter players and got to midfield, bringing a moment of relief to the defense. A small thing, perhaps, but important too. Andre Schurrle has been off to a slow start with Wolfsburg (don’t worry, Hecking will bring him round), but Christian Träsch has been able to take up the slack and Klose did well deputizing for Naldo — Klose doesn’t bring the dynamism that Naldo does leaping high in aerial duels and penetrating defenses with his runs forward, but he had a very solid game. Yes the team’s stars are all playing well — De Bruyne, Rodriguez, Luiz Gustavo, Benaglio — but so are the lower-profile members of the club. Each player seems to know his role and executes, which is the mark of a well-coached team.
Next up for Wolfsburg is a Sunday league match at Mainz, which may be a bit of a tricky fixture as the inconsistent 05ers come off a draw with Gladbach and a win over a quality Augsburg club. After that, the Wolves should have no problem with relegation-battlers Stuttgart and Hamburg, with their Pokal matchup against Freiburg scheduled between those two matches while Hecking and company try to take another step forward in Europe.
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