The first showdown comes tomorrow (Saturday, 28 April, 18.30 CET): tenth in the table VfB Stuttgart are the visitors to the BayArena in the top game on matchday 32. There is no doubt about the importance of this encounter. Accordingly, the Werkself head coach Heiko Herrlich was unwilling to be distracted by the Paulinho transfer announced shortly before the pre-match press conference on Friday afternoon: "I'm really happy we've been able to convince a player of that quality to join Bayer 04. But now our whole focus is on the Stuttgart game," said the 46-year-old. That is understandable given that VfB clearly turned a corner when former Bayer 04 coach Tayfun Korkut took over the helm on matchday 21: His team have only lost once in eleven games with a respectable haul of six wins and four draws. In the 'table since Korkut', VfB are fifth just one point behind second-placed Borussia Dortmund.
No wonder Herrlich believes the next opponents are "on a par" with RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt, Leverkusen's opponents the previous weeks. "It will be a big ask and a great challenge for our young team to take all three points against an opponent like Stuttgart," said Herrlich showing due respect. To come out on top, the coach is calling for another committed performance from his charges: "Our aim is to breach the Stuttgart defence: They are very disciplined, maintain their shape and are solid at the back. Furthermore, they've brought in an ideal centre forward during the winter break with the signing of Mario Gomez. He's not just dangerous in open play but also from set-pieces. That's why we will do all we can to stop him and his fellow strikers getting into the game."
Above all, his team will have to endeavour to show more passion and grit than was the case away to Dortmund that ended in a bitter 4-0 defeat. "We've often bounced back after setbacks this season and have been able to spring one or two surprises. We've always bemoaned lacking consistency at times. But in decisive moments, the players have always shown they definitely want to win and have performed well at the right time," said Herrlich. "We have the opportunity and definitely want to take three points against Stuttgart." He categorically ruled out changing his or his players approach to the game after conceding ten goals in a week: "We always want to be brave, create lots of chances and be secure at the back. That's often worked well this season but not in recent games. But we definitely won't park the bus and just try to play on the break," said Herrlich before adding for himself and his team: "We work all year round in being secure in transition and thereby conceding few goals. I admit there were definitely too many last week – now we really want to keep a clean sheet against Stuttgart."
It could be that currently sidelined players Jonathan Tah (hip) and Wendell (rehab after torn ligament) are joined on the sidelines by a third regular starter in the back four in Sven Bender. The birthday boy on Friday has muscular problems according to Herrlich. "We'll decide tomorrow shortly before the game whether he'll be able to play for 90 minutes," said the Bayer 04 coach who is also without striker Joel Pohjanpalo (rehab after foot injury). "I've always said in such phases it is crucial to be a team and play like a team. When there are injuries then other players have to step in – that's often worked out really well this season. And you also grow into your role," said Herrlich in encouraging his reserves. He will be able to call on his captain and 'guarantee of success' Lars Bender in front of a full house after the skipper completed a one-match ban. The sports journal 'kicker' has calculated that in the current season Bayer 04 have collected 2.05 points per game with Lars Bender on the pitch and 1.0 without him. A fact to encourage the others!
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