The UEFA Europa League competition is often maligned and criticized as being a “nothing” tournament. Some feel that the substantially lesser monies earned from play in the Europa League, contrasted with the financial windfall resulting from play in the more prestigious Champions League, provides insufficient compensation for smaller clubs. Besides, the extra European midweek spiels can expose the lack of roster depth for some (think Gladbach last season), as competing in the EL can frequently sidetracks a club’s performance domestically (think Stuttgart last season). The flip side, of course, is that earning a spot in the Europa League marks achievement by a club, and Thursday’s play-in matches, may provide the supporters of Eintracht Frankfurt and Stuttgart reprieve from what has been a less than satisfactory start for both clubs.
The Swabians opened the season with a 2-3 loss to Mainz followed by an expected yet still disappointing 1-0 defeat at home to Leverkusen. Frankfurt had a more promising Matchday 2 at home to Bayern, managing to only lose 1-0 after an equalizing goal was questionably called offside, but supporters at the club are more concerned about a shock 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Hertha Berlin to start the season. Both clubs can erase those bad memories with positive away results in the first leg of their Europa League Qualifiers Thursday.
Croatia awaits Stuttgart as they face HNK Rijeka while Eintracht Frankfurt head off to Azerbaijan to play hosts Qarabag FK.
For Stuttgart the game will be a return for Sporting Director Fredi Bobic, who finished his playing career at the coastal Croatian club in 2006 and knows just how loud the rock surrounded ground Rijeka calls home can get when the stakes are high.
A 50 meter rock and a passionate fanbase will welcome the Swabians into an environment that will not be kind to the visitors, regardless of their firm status as favorites. Stuttgart qualified for the Europa League knockout stage in the 2012/13 tournament and were runners-up in the DFB Pokal, experiences that they will rely on as they attempt to turnaround a tough start for trainer Bruno Labbadia.
The importance of the match is not lost on Stuttgart’s veterans, who have been speaking of the importance of a positive first leg result in the papers leading up to the match. Captain Christian Gentner told kicker. “We want and need to get past this hurdle. That is the goal and duty.” “We want to get ahead. We need a good result,” said Cacau as the former German national eyes another season in Europe.
HNK are currently third in the Croatian league and unbeaten, but are missing a key player after central midfielder and captain Dario Knezevic picked up a red card in an earlier Europa League Qualification match. Manager Matjaz Kek knows Stuttgart will provide a tough challenge, but the boisterous voice of their supporters could be the “rock” the underdogs need to get a home result..
With FC Augsburg on the weekend, Stuttgart have one eye on ending their unbeaten start in the Bundesliga at the same time as having an eye on keeping their European campaign going. They could kill two birds with one stone in getting things going with a huge away win over a HNK side that could be trickier than the Swabians would like.
Jetzt checkt die Mannschaft ein für den Start in die Europa League. In BILD pic.twitter.com/daGODuDbdW
— BILD E. Frankfurt (@BILD_Eintracht) August 21, 2013
Meanwhile Frankfurt will look to realize their European dream after last year’s Cinderella return to the Bundesliga netted them a European place. So far 2013/14 has been less magical for the Eagles as a 6-1 spanking from Hertha Berlin rattled the confidence of a club that is fearful of the “second year slump” after their surprise campaign and the newfound challenge of European competition.
Frankfurt manager Armin Veh has already been forced into some tough decisions in the juggling act between getting a Thursday result and being prepared for a Sunday league trip to Brunswick. Bild reported Thursday morning that Veh would leave captain Primin Schwegler, a strain keeping him out of Thursday’s match and showing Frankfurt the harsh reality of the demands of European competition.
Veh did not reveal the replacement for his captain, but regardless of the lineup this is a game that Eintracht must win. Some poor moments of defending prior to the Bayern game did not show the form the team had to start their return to the Bundesliga last season when they were competing for a Champions League spot before tailing off after the winter break. Thursday is a chance to show that their magical year was something to build on, while Sunday’s matchup with Eintracht Braunschweig will provide an indication of whether or not Veh and company can balance both their new European life with positive domestic results.
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