When FC Augsburg made their way into the 1. Bundesliga for the first time in 2011, nobody gave them much of a chance of avoiding the drop straight back down. Having consolidated their place in the top flight against all expert expectations under Dutch coach Jos Luhukay, Die Fuggerstädter then climbed up to eighth place in 2013/14 under Luhukay’s replacement Markus Weinzierl, before improving further still to finish fifth in 2014/15 – securing a place in European competition for the first time.
Through astute team selection, solid tactics and a physical style of play that successfully nullified opponents with far larger budgets, Weinzierl has been seen as a miracle worker in the Bavarian city known more for its Roman history than its football team. Somehow, little Augsburg were not just competing with the big boys, but holding their own and finishing above the likes of Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund. In describing the squad in clichéd terms, they were – and continue to be – the perfect example of where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
After their continued rise up the charts, the start to the 2015/16 season was something of a comeuppance for Weinzierl’s men. While suffering only one defeat by more than two goals – a 5-1 pasting in Dortmund – results never quite went their way and by the end of match day twelve they were bottom of the pile with just one win.
The shaky start to Augsburg’s season was best defined by their meeting with defending champions and Bavarian rivals FC Bayern München, where they first took the lead and them came within a whisker of snatching a deserved draw – only to be killed off a death by a last-minute Thomas Müller penalty. Even as a dyed in the red wool Bayern fan I thought both the penalty award and the 2-1 final score was unduly harsh.
With the team sitting at the foot of the table and on the brink of European failure, things must have been looking grim for Weinzierl. Fellow strugglers VfB Stuttgart, TSG Hoffenheim and even Borussia Mönchengladbach had all dispensed with their coaches after slow starts, and the odds were closing in on the former FC Bayern youth product being next on the hit-list.
Unlike the others however, the movers and shakers at the WWK Arena seemed to have their heads screwed on. They knew Weinzierl was a good coach, they knew the team had been unlucky, and they knew that things would finally start to turn around. A 4-0 win against Stuttgart in a winner-takes-all Kellerduelle lifted FCA off the basement to get their Bundesliga campaign back on track, but the biggest story was of their European campaign, which had more ups and downs than the “Colorado Adventure” ride at the Phantasialand theme park – and more scares than the “Geister Rikscha”.
Group L of Europe’s second club competition pitted the debutants alongside tournament regulars and twice runners-up Athletic Bilbao, former finalists AZ 67 Alkmaar, and Serbian champions Partizan Belgrade, European Cup finalists in 1965/66. Nobody in Augsburg was expecting big things, and at the start most FCA fans would have been happy with a couple of wins to do them proud.
Two matches into the competition, even this had started to look like a pipe dream. Turkish international Halil Altıntop had got the campaign off to a stunning start with a fifteen-minute opener against Athletic in Bilbao, but three second-half goals from the Basque outfit quelled any hopes of a winning start for Die Fuggerstädter.
Worse was to come at home against Partizan, where Weinzierl’s men found themselves three goals down less than ten minutes into the second half. Paraguayan hitman Raúl Bobadilla got the Bavarians on the scoreboard, but the 3-1 defeat left them rock bottom of the group table, a full six points behind leaders Partizan and three behind both Bilbao and AZ. To carry on with the Phantasialand theme, it was like being right on the “Black Mamba”, gripping on for dear life in anticipation of the next downward plunge.
AZ had held off group favourites Bilbao to record a 2-1 win in Alkmaar, and Augsburg fans must have been fearing the worst before their trip to the Netherlands. One more defeat would surely have sent them firmly towards the exit. It was a game where everything came together for Weinzierl’s team. The home side created double the amount of chances and managed eight shots on target to Augsburg’s two, but Fuggers‘ ‘keeper Marwin Hitz was in fantastic form as he almost single-handedly kept the Dutch side at bay. At the other end, former German international Piotr Trochowski converted one of Augsburg’s two shots on goal, sending in a perfect free-kick to snatch the three points two minutes before half-time and seal a first win in Europe.
The Augsburg roller coaster was back on the up, and reached breakneck speed in the return match against AZ at the WWK Arena. At times it felt like I was watching two completely different teams, as the Bavarians put all of their domestic woes behind them. Bobadilla was the man of the evening, netting a superb hat-trick either side of half-time. When Korean Ji Dong-Won added a fourth to complete a stunning 4-1 win. With Athletic completing a goal-packed double-win over Partizan the Spanish side lead the way with nine points, three ahead of both Augsburg and Partizan with AZ back in fourth on three. Despite the nothing from six start, Augsburg were back in the hunt.
Match day five was perhaps the most dramatic of them all, with everybody stepping off the roller coaster to engage in a game of group table musical chairs. After just ten minutes Bilbao took the lead in Germany, and with AZ and Partizan locked at 0-0 in Holland Weinzierl’s team found themselves sitting in third spot, six behind Athletic and one behind Partizan. Then came a lifeline courtesy of Trochowski, whose second goal of the competition took Augsburg into half-time at 1-1.
Things would get even better in the second half, with Bobadilla hitting his fifth goal in as many European games to snatch the lead and fire them up to top spot in the table. When news started to filter through that AZ had taken the lead against Partizan, the crowd of just under 24,000 in Augsburg were bouncing.
Then it happened. Partizan found an equaliser in Alkmaar, and two strikes in as many minutes for Bilbao turned things around completely in Bavaria. Just like that, Augsburg were back down in third spot, and their misery was made complete when Andrija Živković snatched all three points for Partizan a minute from time. Suddenly, Augsburg didn’t just have to win in Belgrade, but better the 3-1 scoreline achieved by the Serbs in match day two. It looked like mission impossible for Weinzierl’s men.
With Athletic already sure of top spot, the objective was clear for Augsburg before their journey to Serb capital. They had to win by two or more clear goals, while scoring at the very least three.
When Cameroonian striker Aboubakar Oumarou opened the scoring after just eleven minutes for the home side, it was like a punch in the guts for even the most fervent of the few Augsburg fans that had travelled from Germany. Then, if just to compound matters, Nikola Ninković somehow managed to remain on the field are committing a tackle on Jan-Ingwer Callsen-Bracker that was tantamount to a personal assault. While Ninković was shown a yellow card by the Italian referee for his two-footed lunge, Callsen-Bracker was forced to limp off the pitch just minutes later.
Many other teams might have folded at that point, but not this Augsburg team. With their backs right up against the wall, Weinzerl’s men gave their travelling supporters with a comeback to remember. As it turned out, the departure of Callsen-Bracker turned into something of a blessing in disguise. Deep into injury time before the break, substitute Hong Jeong-ho levelled the scores from a Trochowski corner, and the mood in the dressing room at half-time was far more upbeat than it might otherwise have been.
With forty-five minutes separating them from gloom or glory, the men in red knew what they had to do. They simply threw everything and the kitchen sink at their opponents. The pay-off was almost immediate: just six minutes after the restart and two missed opportunities for Trochowski, skipper Paul Verhaegh hit the back of the net from close range.
Augsburg still needed another goal to match Partizan’s score from the first match and clinch second place on goal difference, and they just kept going. It was like a series of red waves, with the defenders becoming increasingly agitated. The visitors were given an additional boost nine minutes from time when Andrija Živković was shown a second yellow card for a handball offence, but as the clock started to run down it looked as though the beleaguered Partizan defence had done just about enough to stumble through.
The visitors had other ideas however, and into the breach stepped that man Bobadilla. Burly, barrel-chested and with the appearance of an extra from Cidade de Deus, the Paraguayan headed home from close range to score the vital third goal. Bobadilla received a yellow card for removing his shirt in the wild celebrations that ensued, but it was surely worth it. With his sixth goal in as many European matches, Bobadilla’s goal crowned one of the most dramatic – and unexpected – comebacks in the history of the tournament.
Augsburg fans will no doubt be talking about this fantastic night many years from now, the moment their team made history in what must sure be dubbed der Wunder von Belgrad. And the momentum gained carried into Sunday, when fCA defeated Schalke 2-1, for their first Bundesliga win over the Royal Blues in history..
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