Clinical finishing from Stuttgart made the difference on Friday in a game where hosts Hoffenheim had more shots on goal. The Stuttgart goals hailed from a familiar face - Hoffenheim's all-time lead scorer Vedad Ibisevic.
Two teams mired in the Bundesliga midfield, but still perhaps dreaming of European football, locked horns in the Friday evening fixture. It was Stuttgart, not hosts Hoffenheim, who claimed three points to keep their continental ambitions alive. More merciless finishing in front of goal, from one man in particular, separated two evenly matched sides.
The match was a homecoming for Vedad Ibisevic - the most prolific marksman to ever wear a Hoffenheim shirt - as Stuttgart's January signing returned to his erstwhile home stadium in Sinsheim.
The Bosnian international striker punished his former employers within just eight minutes, opening the scoring for Stuttgart with a characteristically no-nonsense left-footed finish. Khalid Boulahrouz provided the curling early cross from the right flank, with Ibisevic creeping in behind a back line he surely knows inside and out after years together on the training ground.
Hoffenheim fans will have recognized the scorer all too well. The goal might have stung the statisticians in Sinsheim particularly keenly, given that Ibisevic failed to score in six outings against Stuttgart during his time at Hoffenheim.
Hoffenheim goalie Tom Starke kept the score at 1-0 on 20 minutes with a spectacular save from a diving header by Stuttgart right-back Boulahrouz, who showed his penchant for wandering forward frequently in the early going.
Hoffenheim's best first half moment culminated with the ball in the back of the Stuttgart net after two 20-year-olds combined. Striker Peniel Mlapa, however, had strayed offside as playmaker Roberto Firmino dissected the Stuttgart defense at a single stroke. The disallowed goal served as an alarm call for the visitors as Hoffenheim started to settle into a rhythm of their own.
Ibisevic twists the knife
Moments before the break, however, the hosts suffered a body blow - delivered once again by Ibisevic. This time the versatile poacher got his head to a right-wing cross, again delivered by Boulharouz. Coach Markus Babbel, whose side had done well to establish a foothold in the game prior to conceding the second goal, was left with a rather difficult half-time team talk.
Babbel brought on an extra attacking option in set-piece specialist Sejad Salihovic at half-time, replacing holding midfielder Sebastian Rudy. Hoffenheim had the better of the game after the break, but were unable to convert a flurry of quality chances.
Stuttgarthad given German youngster Julian Schieber his fourth start of the season in Sinsheim, with the natural striker occupying a spot on the left flank. Once tipped as a German national team candidate, before being plagued by injury in his formative years, Schieber came within inches of completing an audacious solo effort around the hour-mark, only to be denied by Starke's outstretched leg.
A glimmer of hope
Having spurned more chances than their visitors could create, Hoffenheim's lifeline finally came in the shape of a 74th minute penalty. Stuttgart defender Francisco Rodriguez, better known as "Maza," clipped full back Fabian Johnson's heel with an ill-judged slide tackle. At the extreme left corner of the area, Johnson was posing relatively little threat to the Stuttgart goal. Substitute Salihovic, usually a safe left foot, rifled the spot kick into the top left corner.
Perhaps smelling a point, Hoffenheim dominated proceedings in the closing stages of the match, with the exception of one Stuttgart breakaway when Ibisevic might have completed a bitter hat trick. Instead, Ibisevic was booked for contact made in a scuffle with goalie Tom Starke, meaning he will miss Hoffenheim's next league match after racking up five yellow cards this season.
After Friday's win, Stuttgart move up to seventh in the table - at least for the moment - while Hoffenheim stay 12th, with trailing sides Hamburg and Cologne potentially in striking distance.
And in this weekend's action…
League leaders Borussia Dortmund host sixth-placed Werder Bremen on Saturday afternoon in one of match day 26's most enticing fixtures. Bayern Munich travel to the German capital to take on an imploding Hertha Berlin in desperate need of points. Stuttering Borussia Mönchengladbach are also on the road, taking on Bayer Leverkusen, while fourth-placed Schalke visit bottom-of-the-table Kaiserslautern on Sunday afternoon.
In the weekend's other games, Augsburg host Mainz, Freiburg travel to Hamburg and Nuremberg play host to Wolfsburg, who are seeking to shed their unhappy status as the worst Bundesliga team on strange soil. Finally, on Sunday evening, Europa League hopefuls Hannover entertain Cologne, who will be missing captain Lukas Podolski - suspended after a somewhat controversial red card in last week's scrappy 1-0 win against Hertha Berlin.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Darren Mara