Checking in with the Debutants: SV Darmstadt 98 and FC Ingolstadt

As SV Darmstadt 98 picked up their first win of the campaign at Leverkusen last weekend and host Rekordmeister Bayern this weekend, while FC Ingolstadt held off last season’s runners-up Wolfsburg for a goalless draw last weekend and visits Bremem this weekend, it’s worth checking in with both of these newly promoted. Both sides have showed enough promises to shrug off pre-season prediction labeling them as pushovers, it seems a good time to get a lowdown on the Bundesliga’s newbies.

Darmstadt – Counting on the veterans

Since making his debut against Stuttgart, Konstantin Rausch and Hannover seemed a perfect fit for years, with the Lower Saxony’s side even making a name for themselves in the continent level courtesy of some decent runs in the Europa League. At the end, though, Rausch choose against a contract extension to join VfB Stuttgart on a free transfer, which vanished his name altogether from the Bundesliga. In addition to his injury worries, the former U21 international was far in the pecking order under both Armin Veh and Huub Stevens, and his versatility couldn’t be of any help to improve his situation at the club. So it was no surprise when he is on the move again this summer, heading to the newly-promoted Darmstadt. Four matches into the season, the bald winger has been in the thick of the action for Lillies, as he is the star player in Darmstadt’s unbeaten streak.

Trainee Dirk Schuster had to build his squad under limited resources in the wake of their return to top-flight football, and he follows a unique transfer policy in the off-season. Recent seasons have seen new comers giving everything they have only to see their sides eventually get relegated, which begs the question on their resistance level when it mattered the most. Having veterans would help in such cases, especially if they are not a stranger to the Bundesliga itself, which was the main mantra in Schuster’s search for new players. But there is one problem, which is called money.

So Darmstadt went looking for experienced players who could be acquired for a reasonable price (better yet, on free transfer). Turning the loan deals of Fabian Holland and Jan Rosenthal to a permanent one was part of the deal, with both players knowing what it takes to prevail in Bundesliga’s relegation fight from their previous experience, especially the latter, who plied his trade at Hannover, Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt.

Indeed Darmstadt broke their own transfer record this summer, and the player forcing the club to spend fortunes was an unused substitute for successive matches. But before you consider this as another story of a big-money signing failing to make an impression, you should consider Darmstadt only paid less than half a million dollar for Mario Vrančić‘s services. Although he couldn’t save Paderborn’s immediate relegation last term, he was arguably one of the best performers in the side, which made it a shrewd transfer by Darmstadt. The Bosnian will find fierce competition for a regular berth, not least from former Hertha Berlin captain Peter Niemeyer, who also inked his signature at Darmstadt in search of more playing times.

D98’s defense was not left with short of Bundesliga experience with Luca Caldirola and Júnior Díaz coming to Böllenfalltor following bench-warming campaign with Werder Bremen and Mainz respectively. Díaz was the catalyst in Costa Rica’s surge to quarter finals in World Cup a couple of years ago, and will be looking to play consistently in the club level. The expectations were high when Caldirola joined Bundesliga, with the vast history of Italian defenders’ success story took its effect, but he was never the answer for Bremen’s defensive woes.

Joining Darmstadt on loan, Caldirola waste no time to assert his place in the side, forming a commanding partnership with Aytaç Sulu at the heart of the defense. Enduring a night to forget on his Bundesliga baptism, where his own-goal denied Darmstadt their first win against Hannover, Sulu made up for his mistake by scoring the solitary goal at Leverkusen, taking full advantage of Rausch’s set-piece delivery.

After an exhilarating opening day encounter, goals have been hard to come by for Darmstadt, which is understandable all things considered. The familiar face of the fairytale story in back-to-back promotions, Dominik Stroh-Engel, somehow still looking for his first Bundesliga strike. Sandro Wagner, another Bundesliga veteran via his stint at both Werder Bremen and Hertha Berlin, signed for a squad depth, but the once highly-regarded striker is not showing any improvements at Darmstadt. Marcel Heller’s stunning brace against Hannover filled the fans with a promise of an unlikely new goal-getter, but looking back to his previous stats doesn’t bode well for such expectations. Marco Sailer,who allegedly resembled a member of Army of Northern Virginia, is making the headlines for his elegant beard, but unlike Houston Rockets’ mega-star James Harden, his performance on the pitch is not on par with his unique appearance.

With away matches at Schalke and Leverkusen, it’s hard to read much into Darmstadt’s early season striking output, but the defense responded well against superior sides, as they only conceded three goals in four league matches.

Tightening play at the back should prove more fruitful than attacking adventures for a side running under restricted budget. With the vast of experience coming to the club in the off-season, Darmstadt will be hoping their stay in the Germany’s top-flight would not be a fluke. Bayern München are coming to town on Saturday, which will probably end their unbeaten start to the season, but the manner they will going to handle their first setback would tell more about their campaign.

Ingolstadt – Defensive stability key to avoid the drop

It’s not a new thing to hear the automobile manufacturer Audi heavily linked with the rise of FC Ingolstadt, but the squad they counted on in their maiden Bundesliga season is a living prove to suggest otherwise. They were one of the modest clubs in the Bundesliga 2. last term in terms of their squad value, and not much has been changed since they promoted to the top-tier of Germany’s football pyramid. Under Ralph Hasenhüttl, Ingolstadt are never been an entertaining side, as their solid defense made a difference, while they usually find a way in hard-fought matches that seemed rather destined to end in a stalemate. You’d understand Hasenhüttl’s celebration after salvaging a point against Wolfsburg last weekend, but the tactician has been seen jumping upside down with joy in the touchline following a drub goalless draw in the lower division too, as the match at lowly VfR Aalen could be a case in point.

Not exciting to watch is one thing, but there are totally different list of things expected in order to extend their stay in the top division for a newly-promoted side. In the same vein as last season’s Köln’s performance, the Bavarians are showing a defensive stability in the early season that served them well in the Zweite liga. They couldn’t resist a stunning second-half performance by Borussia Dortmund, but that was the only half of a match they conceded a goal in their first four Bundesliga clashes. Usually making your home a fortress is the focal point in a side fighting relegation, but Ingolstadt impressed on their travels, with narrow wins at Mainz and Augsburg.

Last season’s squad is still the core of the side, with no big name signing to mark the occasion of the unexpected promotion to the Bundesliga. The man who bags the debutants first goal in the Bundesliga, Lukas Hinterseer, might look familiar, but unless you are acquainted with the other Bundesliga (Austrian), it’s probably because you see some resemblance with Lahm and/or Kramer on his looks. Hinterseer’s strike that downed Mainz in the curtain-raiser was a beauty, but Mathew Leckie got one better with a thumping strike out of no where to decide a crunching derby at Augsburg. With his impressive World Cup showing, despite the Aussies group stage exit, signing the Australian from league rivals FSV Frankfurt before the big tournament was one of Ingolstadt’s transfer coup. Leckie’s former teammate at Borussia Mönchengladbach, Elias Kachunga, signed from relegated Paderborn to bolster the attacking department, but he is struggling for a starting berth so far.

With veterans of the game Marvin Matip, an older brother of Schalke’s Joel Matip, and Tobias Levels in the defense, Ingolstadt are a though nut to crack, with both players taking the most of their second opportunity. Matip was one of the star players in Germany youth setups for years, but didn’t have the glamorous career as expected, while former ‘Gladbach fullback Levels was unemployed before arriving at the Bavarians. Brazilian Roger provided further aggression in the defensive midfielder role, and there is last season’s toast of the town in creating things in the final third, Pascal Groß.

In the back of 21 assists, Kevin de Bruyne had everything going his way last season, including the individual honor of the Bundesliga Player of the Year. Groß actually bettered his stat, albeit in the second-tier, with 23 of the 53 goals scored by Ingolstadt provided by the Mannheim-born midfielder. The 24-years-old set-piece specialist’s killer passes will certainly be key, provided he repeat his stunning campaign in the Bundesliga. Last year’s top scorer alongside Hinterseer, Stefan Lex, will also be hoping for more of the same in the big stage, despite his slow to the campaign.

Still searching for their inaugural Bundesliga goal at Audi Sportpark, let alone a first win, Ingolstadt welcome renovated Hamburg following a trip to another side in a good form, Werder Bremen. The clear goal of the season is safety, and the decent track of their defense would be crucial. A Friday night match against Bayern München at the Allianz a week before the Winterpause might get the public attention, as it will be played out between two of the sides partly owned by Audi, but the second low budget side in the league (no price for guessing the first) are keeping the faith on a squad that doesn’t have any star player to speak for.

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Eskender born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Despite the geographical differences, he's interested in every detail of German football, if not any kind of football. Wolfsburg's industrious away win at Hamburg started his Bundesliga obsession back in 2005. You can also follow him on Twitter @eskeBMG