Thursday night was probably the biggest in the history of FC Augsburg. The Bavarian side that was promoted to the Bundesliga five years ago advanced from a poor start into the Europa League knock-out stage with an improbable away 3-1 win over Partizan Belgrade. Paraguayan international Raul Bobadilla scored the third goal at the cusp of regulation time, the tally necessary to push FCA past their hosts into the EL knockout stages.
It hasn’t been easy, and it wasn’t Thursday night, either. After a fifth place Bundesliga finish last season, Markuz Weinzierl’s club qualified for the Europa League, but all the excitement generated by that success was levelled by reality as the Fuggerstadter started poorly in both league and European play. Weinzierl’s team won its Pokal opener against SV 07 Elsversburg handily enough, but didn’t record a Bundesliga win until MatchDay 5 at home against Hannover. Two days prior, they played their first-ever European fixture, but lost away to European veterans Athletic Bilbao. FCA had taken a 1-0 lead over their hosts via a Halil Altintop strike, but Bilbao responded with three second half goals.
FC Augsburg lost their next two league matches, to Gladbach and Hoffenheim, after that first win before hosting Partizan on October 1, but their second bite of the EL apple was as sour as their first, as Partizan left Germany with a 3-1 win. With one win in seven league fixtures, and an 0-2 start to their European adventure, FCA’s chances in international competition looked burnt to a crisp.
But the Fuggerstädter rallied with consecutive EL wins over AZ Alkmaar, and although they again couldn’t get a handle on Bilbao in the home fixture, Weinzierl’s boys came into Belgrade Thursday night with a chance, if remote, to advance IF they could beat Partizan, their rivals to go forward from Group L, by two goals.
As it has been all season, FCA got off on the wrong foot. In the eleventh minute, a ball ahead by 22 year-old Marko Jevtović to Cameroonian Aboubakar Oumarou, who split FCA’s defenders and easily beat the controversial Marwin Hitz to give the home side a 1-0 lead.
But an idea that things may go FCA’s way came about late in the first half. Hong Jeong-ho came on in the 41st minute for the injured veteran Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker. The South Korean center back, not noted for his goal-scoring, gave FCA a lifeline with his equalizer two minutes into stoppage time, as he bent down and headed in from a Piotr Trochowski free kick.
Two more FCA goals were needed, though, in the final 45 minutes. Captain Paul Verhaegh got one. The FCA penalty-taker had not scored from open play this season, but the defender put Weinzierl’s boys ahead only five minutes after intermission. He rounded the Partizan defense from the right and well-handled a looping ball from Daniel Baier.
One more goal needed. Insistent Partizan had two great chances to score again, on a ball that looked to cross the goalline and another ball that rocketed off the woodwork with the rebound fired just wide. Things looked hopeless late, perhaps payback for Hitz’ shenanigans over the weekend. But the 28 year-old Bobadilla, built like a bull, got on the end of a headed pass from former FC Ingolstadt man Cauiby to get the needed third goal and put Augsburg through. A night that Fuggerstädter fans, and Bobadilla, will remember forever as FCA totalled 65% of possession and outshot their hosts 16-12, but needed 89 minutes to accomplish their task.
Not only is the win and FCA’s advance into the EL knockout stage a proud retort to cynics who thought competing in three tournaments would be too much for Weinzierl’s squad, but also the triumph gives the Bundesliga six clubs advancing in Europe, with Bayern Munich and VfL Wolfsburg in the Champions League, while Bayer Leverkusen drop to the Europa League with Group K winner FC Schalke 04, Borussia Dortmund and Augsburg.
Things won’t get easier for Augsburg, as they host Schalke Sunday before again being hosts on Wednesday to Dortmund in the third round of the DFB Pokal. FCA finish the Hinrunde away to surprising Hamburger SV on December 19th. Although the first half of the season has been a disappointment overall, Thursday night will live forever in Augsburg history, and will hopefully be a token of continued improvement for the Bavarian side.