Despite their struggles this season in the Bundesliga, Wolfsburg are the clear favorites against KAA Gent right? Not according to Dieter Hecking, the coach cautioning the Belgian club are no joke.
Wolfsburg will be breaking ground on Wednesday when they play in their first Champions League knockout stage match. What's better? They get to play Belgian club KAA Gent, who have the lowest UEFA coefficient after the Champions League group stage. Despite what the odds makers say, Dieter Hecking is taking his adversaries seriously.
"The people that say Gent is an easy draw are not well informed," the Wolfsburg coach said. "Belgium is small in the world rankings, but is not so small in football. We need two very good days in order to get to the quarterfinal."
Though they topped Group B of the group stage, their solid Champions League showings have not been a commonplace domestically. The Bundesliga runners-up from last season have slipped all the way to eighth in the table, and were knocked out in the second round of the German Cup. Their 2-0 win against Ingolstadt over the weekend was their first league victory in nearly two months.
"The way we have been playing in the past few weeks suggests there's no reason to be favorites," sporting director Klaus Allofs told DW. "But it's a little bit the same for Gent - they've also now lost some games."
Allofs certainly has a case, and a reason for Wolfsburg to be optimistic. Gent meanwhile are well on their way to their second consecutive league title in Belgium, tied on points with Club Brugge atop the Pro League table. However, Brugge have dented Gent's form, eliminating them in the Belgian cup with a 1-0 win before defeating them in the league by the same scoreline four days later.
Wolfsburg fielding a new defense
Wolfsburg will not have all the pieces they may need to make their historic trip to Gent as memorable as they would like. Outside of a yellow card suspension for veteran defender Naldo, Hecking will not be able to call upon his goalkeeper, Diego Benaglio. The Swiss international will miss the match with a rib injury, which will require Koen Casteels to make his first Champions League appearance of his career.
"We have a good feeling as a team that we have a very, very good number two, who can handle the spotlight right away," Hecking said. "I wish for his sake that he has a very good game. That way he can put an exclamation point in the direction of the Belgian national team."
Naldo will be a little easier to replace, even with former backup Timm Klose now playing his football in England. Robin Knoche, who missed a big chunk of the season with an ankle injury, has started Wolfsburg's last two matches, and appeared in 11 of Wolfsburg's 12 Europa League matches last season. Knoche insists there will only be one difference between him and Naldo. "My hair," he said.
Champions League Last 16 first leg ties for Wednesday
KAA Gent vs. Wolfsburg
Roma vs. Real Madrid