Stories and pictures of the beautiful game.
SC Freiburg finished fifth last year, and they are now playing their fifth Bundesliga season since their last promotion. And, to say the least: it’s not going so well. To be fair, you will probably not finish in the top tier of the league if you sell almost half a dozen key players (four of them filled the club’s coffers with a total of €10m) and have to play Europa League on top of Bundesliga, but nobody expected such a dip in form (13 games, only 11 points).
Under those circumstances, Freiburg can’t really fully breathe in the European air – it’s not stimulating, it’s paralyzing – mountain air if you will, too light and not substantial enough. Just like the club’s recent international results: losing at FC Seville seems ok, but Portuguese club GD Estoril is not really goliath, though Freiburg only tied with them twice. And then there’s FC Slovan Liberec: Freiburg gave away a 2:0 lead at home, but in the end, the current Gambrinus Liga fourth-placed travelled home with a point. The Czech team is still undefeated and in second place in the group (6 points, Freiburg have 3), which makes this match at Stadion U Nisy a must win if Freiburg want to have the tiniest chance to advance.
Liberec is 68 miles north of Prague, it’s close to the Polish and German borders, and it’s the biggest city in its region, home to 100,000 inhabitants. An average of 5,486 of those visited Slovan’s league matches this season, a few more came for Europa League so far (7,600). Today, the attendance at Stadion U Nisy (overall capacity: 9,900) was even 8,800. The ground has an interesting architecture: just like in Plzen, there are three connected stands, seated and roofed like in many smaller identikit modern arenas. The main stand however is clearly separated and still radiates Eastern European charm: it’s almost shaped like a triangle, getting narrower at the top, and it’s built into a hill. Slovan was always part of the first Czech league since the inception in its current form, and even won it three times (last time: 2011/12). Last year, the team finished third and fought its way into Europa League by kicking out big tickets like FC Zurich and Udinese Calsio in the qualification.
Freiburg travelled to the Czech Republic with a significantly weakened squad: two players out with bookings, seven injured – the additional competition is clearly taking its toll on the small club. In sick bay was also Czech player Vladimir Darida, Freiburgs most expensive transfer this season (from Plzen for €4m), his fellow countryman Vaclav Pilar was only on the Freiburg bench for the match, but the club have a third Czech player, and he was actually on the field in his home country: defender Pavel Krmaš. 1,400 fans were not put off by the idea of a 500 mile midweek trip to Liberec, and they started singing right from the start to make it worth their while. Their voices were a very dominant element throughout the entire match, and they set off a few red flares at the beginning to make sure they were seen as well.
It was a different story on the pitch: both teams played a bit faint-hearted, there was little structure and lots of bad passing. It didn’t look like a goal was about to happen, but then – 23 minutes into the game – it eventually did: the Liberec keeper missed the ball during a corner kick and Freiburg’s Matthias Ginter could artfully flick it into the empty net from a difficult angle. Behind that very goal, the away fans went mad and doubled their singing efforts.
Slovan did not show much during the first half – not on the pitch and not in the stands. There were two small groups of active fans in either corner of the ground, but they did not do much to make themselves heard. That changed a bit after the break: the home side put the finger on the trigger, had a few dangerous attacks and even hit the post just a few minutes into the second half. But the match also turned a bit into a slapstick show: players kept missing balls over and over again; it almost looked like they did it on purpose. And while their attack was still not very organized, a Slovan goal seemed more likely with every passing minute. But it actually happened on the other end: Christian Günther shook off three defenders on the left wing, his high cross ended up on Francis Coquelin’s head and from there it was only a short journey into the back of the net. That was in minute 72, and it was Freiburg’s first real attack in the second half – talk about German efficiency.
In minute 82, Liberec eventually managed to score, but it was too late, even with five minutes of extra time. They increased the pressure once more, even sent the goalie in the attack a few times, created some dangerous opportunities but did not succeed. The Freiburg team was panting, they could hardly run anymore and were close to a knock-out, but they still fought with a fiery passion and in the end celebrated a well deserved win. Freiburg now moves to second place and will have to defend it in the last group match at home against top-of-the-table Seville while Liberec travel to last-placed GD Estoril.
Fun fact: in 2001/02 Freiburg also played in a European cup, the UEFA Cup which was played in a knock-out only format back then. They advanced to the third round and only got kicked out by Feyenoord Rotterdam (who would win it in the end). While this was quite impressive, the day-to-day business was going south: the “Breisgauer” finished the season on 16th place and were relegated. 16 is also their current league position, though that would at least mean playoffs today. But maybe Freiburg will recover; maybe this win brought back much needed self-esteem that they can turn into points when they travel to Borussia Mönchengladbach this weekend…
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