Many might have considered Eintracht Frankfurt’s Europa League an unwelcome distraction from Bundesliga matters. But the Eagles might not have ended their continental adventure empty handed after all.
On the evening of December 7, Frankfurt were in desperate trouble. They had just slumped to their eighth loss in 15 games, and were winless in 10. There had been very few positives for the Hesse club at that stage of the season, bar one - their Europa League form.
Having qualified via an impressive sixth-placed finish in the 2012-13 season, the Eagles - before that low point of league form - had won six of their seven Europa League matches. It was the only defeat they were to suffer before theirRound of 32 exit on Thursday
at the hands of Porto on away goals.
Many believe Frankfurt's run in the Europa League stretched their squad, and their arguments carry weight. Coach Armin Veh prepared for a busier schedule by adding depth, and the list of arrivals during the European summer was long. Marco Russ, Jan Rosenthal, Joselu, Vaclav Kadlec, Johannes Flum and Tranquillo Barnetta were all among the signings used regularly by Veh, who got active again in January when he snapped up midfielder Tobias Weis and defender Alexander Madlung.
Frankfurt used 27 players last season, and have already bettered that by using 28 this campaign. But even if it was their European commitments that hurt them early in the season, it could be just that that could save them now.
It is a fact of which Veh might already be aware, having elected not to make any changes from the side that drew 3-3 with Porto on Thursday to the lineup thatran out in the Bundesliga on Sunday
. For almost 80 minutes against visiting Stuttgart, Frankfurt looked every inch a fatigued team that could not wait for their next day off.
Veh's men then clambered off the canvas to land a one-two blow that laid Stuttgart out. It was stirring stuff, and demonstrates why Frankfurt - now six points from the relegation zone - should avoid the drop, even with the shock announcement the morning after of Veh's departure at the end of the season.
Hard work is a trademark of Veh's Frankfurt, but the Europa League adventure seems to have injected even more steel. The Eagles had been in Germany's second tier as recently as 2012. Last Thursday, they were minutes from sending Porto out of the Europa League.
They have lost just two league games since that December 7 defeat, and those were to Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. On the back of their bright continental campaign, it is form that is now propelling Frankfurt further away from the bottom of the table - form they might not otherwise have.
The wounds they earned in their continental battles have now healed into tough scars. And while Frankfurt might not grace the Europa League next season, they at least look like they have the mettle to retain their top-flight place.