Bruno Labbadia arrived in Wolfsburg with relegation-survival pedigree. But against fellow strugglers Mainz on Friday his new players were once again unable to break down their opponents as they surrendered a 1-0 lead.
Mainz 1-1 Wolfsburg
(Muto 44' — Brekalo 6')
The last time Bruno Labbadia took up arms in a relegation battle, he emerged battered but victorious.
Taking over at Hamburg in April 2015, Labbadia took them from bottom place to safety via a rollercoaster promotion-relegation playoff against Karlsruher. His passion and fighting spirit translated to his players and helped push them across the line.
Almost three years later, Wolfsburg are asking him to instigate a similar revival, and against Mainz, Labbadia was there to prove this old dog still remembers his old tricks.
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Wolfsburg, on the other hand, appear to have forgotten all their tricks. On top of that, they’ve failed to pick up any new ideas along the way. The dramatic fall from Champions League participants to relegation fodder has been rapid.
A team that once prided itself on playing attractive football has now had to evolve — or devolve — into a scrappy, hardy outfit that can churn out results. Unfortunately for Wolfsburg, they've failed to complete the transition and are stuck in between.
Twelve draws this season is proof of that, with Wolfsburg incapable of either breaking down teams through individual brilliance or picking their pockets through plucky fight.
Friday's visit to Mainz, however, got off to a dream start when Josip Brekalo forced the ball home in just the sixth minute, despite a hint of handball in the build-up. Minutes later, it was almost 2-0 as Josuha Guilavogui hit the crossbar.
So far so good, but Wolfsburg would rue the miss as the teams entered the dressing rooms for the break. And Labbadia would have been fuming with Riechedly Bazoer.
The defensive midfielder was brushed off the ball far too easily by Jean-Philippe Gbamin just before the halftime whistle. Mainz broke up field, a surprisingly smooth, flowing passage of play ending with Yoshinori Muto netting the equalizer.
Clearly, Labbadia's fighting characteristics will take a while to seep in. And if Labbadia was hoping to call upon the Wolfsburg’s creative talents for the time being, he was to be equally disappointed.
In the 63rd minute, Wolfsburg launched a counter-attack and Yunus Malli was released clean through on goal. With just the keeper to beat, the former Mainz man tried to be too cute and curled his shot wide.
Then in the 84th minute, another of Wolfsburg’s creative talents, Daniel Didavi, could only graze the post with a cross-cum-shot. A missed opportunity, but Mainz will also be kicking themselves after Anthony Ujah failed to beat Koen Casteels from point-blank range in the dying minutes.
The 1-1 finish was a fair result in the end, neither side showing enough quality to deserve three points.
Wolfsburg now sit two points from safety, Mainz just one – and that could change following Saturday’s Nordderby between fellow cellar-dwellers Bremen and Hamburg.
For Labbadia, he now has just 10 games to keep Wolfsburg from falling. He’s been here before, and come through the other side. Whether he comes through battered and victorious this time, or just battered, will depend on how well he can instil a fighting spirit his players.