A crowd of 59,000 at Stuttgart’s Mercedes-Benz were rewarded by the home club Wednesday, as VfB Stuttgart defeated fellow Baden-Wurtemburg club SC Freiburg 2-1, advancing to the DFB Pokal Final on June 1 against Bayern Munich. The Swabians have now beaten the Black Forest club in all three of their Pokal meetings, and return to the Cup final for the first time since 2007. VfB has captured the Cup three times, the last time being in 1997.
Stuttgart’s win was a bit of a surprise, as their neighbors have been the obviously better side this season, having earned 45 points after 29 Bundesliga matchdays, while Stuttgart had only totaled 36 points in a season lacking much in the way of achievement. Though both team have been mediocre in attaining results in their last five league matches, Freiburg has shown flair and performed well enough overall to hold the fifth spot in the league table, sparking belief in European play for next season. The Swabians have plodded along to a 12th place berth. Furthermore, Bruno Labbadia’s Stuttgart men have only won three of their 2013 league encounters; Freiburg have won five and drawn four. Freiburg hopes for a Cup win Wednesday were also strengthened by Stuttgart’s poor home form this season (4-3-7). In contrast, Freiburg sport a winning road record this year in league play.
But Cup matches can play cruelly with expectations. Stuttgart opened the match with a dash and flair more associated with their opponents and mostly absent from their own 2012/2013 performances, banging downfield and creating two fine early chances for Austrian veteran Martin Harnik. That Harnik was unable to light the scoreboard didn’t seem to discourage Labbadia’s men, as they continued to flash forward. Their efforts had the desired effect in the 10th minute, when midfielder Artur Boka knocked in a cross from Ibrahima Traore.
Freiburg levelled with the frisky home side only minutes later, ironically from a combination of two players who have already signed with other Bundesliga clubs for next season. Future Gladbach man Max Kruse found future Eintracht Frankfurt attacker Jan Rosenthal, who raced past Boka on the right and booted a slow but accurate shot that rolled into the Stuttgart net to knot the score at one-all. Barely fifteen minutes into the match, two goals were already in the books in a thrilling, derby/Cup match.
Conceding a goal didn’t deter the Swabians from their attacking ways, though, and they continued finding cracks in a Freiburg defense that has been second only to Bayern Munich in least Bundesliga goals allowed this season. Just prior to the half hour mark, Stuttgart found the game-winner as the previously denied Harnik headed in to make the score 2-1.
Despite the end to end nature of the contest, there were no more goals scored in the remaining hour of play. The home crowd whooped it up, not only in anticipation of a major win to brighten a disappointing season, but perhaps also to allay the anxiety of a narrow one goal lead. Stuttgart had more chances to add an insurance goal, but reverted to the wasteful finishing that has plagued the club all season long. Fine second half opportunities by Romanian newcomer Alexandru Maxim, Christian Genter and Boka were unfullfilled as Freiburg keeper Oliver Baumann made some big saves and defender Pavel Krmas cleared a Vedad Ibisevic effort out of the goalmouth. Freiburg had chances, too, with Sven Ulreich saving on a 70th minute Kruse attempt and Daniel Caligiuri shooting just wide six minutes later. Down to stoppage time, Krmas sent a ball towards goal that had at least one Stuttgart supporter gasping, but Ulreich stretched and denied the potential equalizer. The final whistle blew to the joy of the assembled crowd as the Stuttgart players celebrated with their fans.
Freiburg have justifiably caught the eye of Bundesliga neutrals over the last 15 months since former SCF youth coach Christian Streich took over the coaching duties of the senior squad. Believing in untried young players and some relatively low-profile veterans, Freiburg under Streich have transformed into a strong defensive club that not only cover acres of ground each week but are first-rate in creating scoring chances.
But while Freiburg have been the far more impressive team, Wednesday belonged to Stuttgart., and it’s interesting how a single result can change one’s perspective. In one day, a season that felt very disappointing after considering Stuttgart’s roster of proven veterans and the stability of having the same Coach/Sporting Director (Labbadia and Fredi Bobic) onboard for more than fifteen minutes (Stuttgart have had eight head coaches since 2000) now feels brighter and lighter. By virtue of their win Wednesday, Stuttgart will now at the least be eligible to qualify for Europa League play next summer. And while their performance in this year’s Europa League wasn’t particularly inspiring, they were the only one of the four German clubs in the competition to make it to Round of 16, and were eliminated by a good Lazio squad.
While one wonders why Stuttgart have found it so difficult to display the kind of pacy, visionary attacking exhibited Wednesday against Freiburg, the bottom line is that they have now won five consecutive Pokal matches to earn a spot in the Final. A season has been salvaged, and Labbadia, who always seems rumored to be the next Bundesliga coach to be canned, lives on to fight another day. So whatever happens in the Swabian’s final five league games, it’s off to face Bayern in Berlin June 1. Only a spoilsport would mention that, in the last three seasons, the two clubs have met eight teams in league and Pokal competition, with the Bavarians winning all eight games by a composite 27-8 margin.
Stuttgart: Ulreich – Sakai, Rüdiger, Niedermeier, Molinaro – Gentner, Boka – Harnik, Maxim (90’+2 Holzhauser), Traore (87′ Okazaki) – Ibisevic
Freiburg: Baumann – Mujdza, Krmas, Diagne, Sorg (58′ Santini) – Ginter, Schuster – Schmid, Daniel Caligiuri (84′ Makiadi) – Rosenthal, Max Kruse