“We have to accept the point,” said coach Markus Weinzierl summing up the mood in the VfB camp after the 1-1 draw in the relegation six-pointer against FC Nürnberg. On the one hand, it is fair to say his team missed out on the opportunity to take all three points at home to a direct rival and move closer to FC Augsburg in 15th place in the table. At the same time, the game against the Bavarian team could have ended in tears as VfB were behind up to the 75th minute and a defeat would have reduced the lead over FCN to one point. That means the play-off spot of 16th, which Stuttgart have occupied since December, is safe at the moment – both from above and below. Four points away from safety and four points above automatic relegation: There are still plenty of matters to be settled this term down on the Neckar.
Although VfB have only won once in the second half of the season to date, that can hardly be down to the lack of transfer activity over the winter break. The opposite is true if anything: The two current key performers in the team only joined the club in January – and they have provided six of the last seven goals scored. Kabak, Kabak, Zuber, Kempf, Zuber, Kabak – that is the somewhat curious roll call of the most recent VfB goalscorers. The Switzerland midfielder Steven Zuber has really shone since moving from Hoffenheim to Stuttgart on loan and his five goals in eleven games in 2019 make him the club’s second highest goalscorer over the whole season behind Mario Gomez (six goals). Ozan Kabak (pictured above in challenge with Frankfurt’s Rebic), signed from Galatasaray in January, has not only scored three goals so far – including the incredibly important equaliser against Nürnberg – but has also demonstrated his enormous potential in his main role in central defence and he has made a serious contribution to steadying the ship at the back after the winter break. It is even more impressive when you consider the age of the Turkish central defender: Kabak only turned 19 at the end of March. The rising star at Stuttgart should be in the line-up against the Werkself – if he can play. Kabak missed the first full training session of the week due to a cold but there is a decent chance the defender will be fit and available for the game against Bayer 04.
The outlook is somewhat more pessimistic than with Kabak for three midfield stalwarts. Gonzalo Castro, Christian Gentner and Dennis Aogo only trained on their own this week and are doubtful for the Bayer 04 match. Above all, the long serving Leverkusen player Castro, who was sidelined for the away game at Nürnberg with a muscle injury, is sorely missed as the man pulling the strings in midfield. “We’ve not just missed him at set pieces but also the fact he is able to help us build from the back,” said coach Weinzierl to the ‘kicker’. The coach is also sceptical about his chances of playing against the Werkself: “At best, it will be very, very tight. But I don’t think he’ll make it.” The same applies to the captain Gentner (muscle injury and Aogo (thigh) who can both provide the driving force in midfield. The possibly only leaves the highly talented but injury-prone Daniel Didavi for the playmaker role. The 29-year-old last started a game in the middle of February.
In spite of all the injuries: VfB’s position in the table does not reflect the quality of the squad . In addition to experienced international players Zieler, Badstuber, Beck, Aogo, Castro, Gentner and Gomez, the Swabians also have up-and-coming players like holding midfielder Santiago Ascacibar, central defender Marc-Oliver Kempf – as well as Kabak. It would be good if he can follow in the footsteps of his fellow defender Pavard. The Frenchman, who helped France win the World Cup last summer, was a relatively unknown quantity when he signed for Stuttgart in 2016 and he will bring in millions to VfB with his forthcoming transfer to FC Bayern in the summer. Sporting director Thomas Hitzlsperger made clear his desire to promote youth development when he started at the club in February – that approach has certainly paid off in the past at Stuttgart.
If VfB Stuttgart do finish in the play-off spot then no second division team will look forward to playing them given the strength of their squad. Therefore, it is not an unrealistic proposition for the team from the Baden-Württemberg capital to finish fifteenth and thereby secure their place in Germany’s top flight. Stuttgart have a possibly crucial fixture immediately after the game against the Werkself. The team coached by Markus Weinzierl are away to a direct rival in the relegation battle on 20 April in the shape of FC Augsburg.
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