A year ago, Wolfsburg were a goal away from eliminating Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals. Today, the reality is very different as they face Braunschweig in the relegation playoff.
Wolfsburg's relatively sustained period of recent success in the Bundesliga has evaporated over the course of this season. The 2008-09 Bundesliga champions - a regular fixture towards the top of the table in recent years and the German Cup winners in 2015 - are now facing a two-leg tie to save their Bundesliga skins.
Volkswagen has been the driving force behind the club’s achievements. After all, the automaker’s financial backing made it possible for the team to sign strikers of the quality of Edin Dzeko and Grafite, who bagged more than 25 goals each during their Bundesliga title-winning season.
The diesel emissions scandal may have had an effect and they have sold off some of their top players. But Wolfsburg remain one of the Bundesliga’s most valuable clubs, despite a strong squad not delivering on the pitch. Wolfsburg's market value of over 154 million euros ($172 million) leaves clubs like RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim in the dust. Yet both those clubs will play Champions League next season.
Keeping friends close and enemies closer
The city of Braunschweig, located less than 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from Wolfsburg, is home to Wolfsburg’s opponents in this relegation playoff - Eintracht Braunschweig.
"Playing against Braunschweig is just an exceptional situation," said Wolfsburg’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, Francisco Javier Garcia Sanz, who is also a member of Volkswagen‘s Board of Management.
The Volkswagen Group sponsors Eintracht Braunschweig too. But unlike Wolfsburg, the team’s jerseys sport the logo of Seat, a Spanish subsidiary of the German manufacturer.
That revenue accounts for 25 percent of Braunschweig's budget - no small sum but far less than is the case for Wolfsburg.
While Eintracht Braunschweig were one of the founding members of the Bundesliga and this year celebrate 50 years since their sole Bundesliga title, the team has been much less successful in recent years.
They have largely languished in the second and even third division for the last 30 years, except for the 2013-14 campaign, which was their last in the top flight. They finished bottom and were relegated, but the points tally was close and their fate only sealed on the final day.
Braunschweig are clearly the underdogs over the two legs, on Thursday and Tuesday. The club suffered a 6-0 loss in the penultimate match of the second-division season - but their form against local rivals Wolfsburg is encouraging and the second leg is at home.
Braunschweig’s only two Bundesliga games against Wolfsburg were a 2-0 away win and a 1-1 draw at home. But prior to Thursday's first leg, Wolfsburg striker Mario Gomez was certain his team would get the result they need.
"We are not getting relegated," said Gomez. "We cannot just wait and see what happens, we need to be focused from start to finish."
Return to the Bundesliga: Mario Gomez joined Wolfsburg last August after stints in Italy and Turkey.
Gomez has done an awful lot of the heavy lifting under coach Andries Joncker. With 16 goals, Gomez is Wolfsburg's top goalscorer and is the league's fifth best marksman.
Braunschweig, meanwhile, know the magnitude of the task they face.
"It almost appears impossible when comparing [the teams'] strength," Eintracht Braunschweig coach Torsten Lieberknecht conceded. "You just have to look at both squads and their budgets."
However, the coach added that this high-stakes local derby was starting to feel like a cup match in the dressing room - and hinted that Braunschweig could hold the edge in areas that are harder to assess on paper.
"Our team spirit is not lying dormant, it's far more highly developed," Lieberknecht said.