Hoffenheim prevailed 3-1 in the first leg of their relegation play-off against second division Kaiserslautern on Thursday night. But the Red Devils' away goal gives them a fighting chance in next week's return match.
It was a battle between the young and old of German football on Thursday night in the first leg of Bundesliga's relegation play-off, where the league's third-from-bottom side played for a place in the top tier against the third-from-top side in the second division.
Hoffenheim, raised from regional obscurity by the financial aid of a former player turned businessman in 2005, were tipped as narrow favorites as they hosted their local rivals Kaiserslautern. Lautern are a formerly great club (four Bundesliga titles and two German Cups) fallen on hard times in recent years after almost four decades of continual participation in the first division.
Lautern, also known as the Red Devils, were competing to win re-entry into the top tier after being relegated last season, while Hoffenheim were struggling to remain in the top Bundesliga after a last match-day miracle win over Dortmund.
Despite Hoffenheim's season, the statistics show that the top Bundesliga sides tend to prevail in these play-offs, and Kaiserslautern had never beaten them in their six previous matches.
Hoffenheim took the lead in the 11th minute, capitalizing after forcing the guests into a string of fouls close to their penalty area early on. Sejad Salihovic took the free-kick from the right, driving the ball low and hard towards the middle of the goal, where Roberto Firmino was on hand to clip it past the stranded goalkeeper Tobias Sippel.
The Brazilian forward doubled his tally in the 29th minute, when Hoffenheim's Kevin Volland and Andreas Beck sliced through Kaiserslautern's insipid defense with a slick, Barcelona-esque short-passing move. Firmino was left with a tap-in after the Lautern defenders let him out of their sight for the second time.
The guests for their part offered little going forward other than long balls aimed mainly at their star striker Mohamadou Idrissou, who had scored 17 goals this season. Nevertheless, their best first-half chances fell to the Austrian Erwin Hoffer, who was unfortunate to see his fifth-minute effort tipped around the post by Koen Casteels. Hoffer had another opportunty just before the half, but he volleyed a poor effort well over from a slightly tight angle.
Second half struggle
The Red Devils returned bullish in the second half, possibly having been reminded by their coach Franco Foda that an away goal - decisive in the event of a tie over two legs - would put them right back in it. The second division side duly got their goal in the 58th minute, when Baumjohann sent Idrissou through on goal. The Cameroonian muscled his way past the last defender and deftly rounded Casteels to slot home.
Hoffenheim coach Markus Gisdol responded bravely to the setback, taking off defensive midfielder Sebastian Rudy for pitbull-like attacker Sven Schipplock, the man who won the decisive penalty against Borussia Dortmund on the last day of the season to put them in the play-off.
It proved to be an inspired change, instantly testing a stretched Lautern defense, and it was Schipplock's hustling that forced an error from defender Marc Torrejon. Schipplock scored in his second minute on the pitch - and with his third touch of the ball.
Kaiserslautern couldn't get a second away goal, their forwards getting caught offside far too easily by a Hoffenheim defense that had not looked this solid all season. But despite their healthy lead, Hoffenheim will head into Monday's away leg with a difficult job to finish. They will at the very least be guaranteed a stormy atmosphere in the Red Devils' Fritz-Walter-Stadion.