DUISBURG HOLD THE DEADLOCK IN AUGSBURG
David Yelldell and an undermanned Duisburg team scrapped together a stalwart defensive performance on Friday night, locking horns with promotion favorites Augsburg in a scoreless deadlock to earn their third straight tough draw on the road.
The game was their third trip to southern Germany in the last four weeks, albeit under far more arduous circumstances, and as in both prior visits they managed to return home with one more point added to their total.
While their previous two road encounters had been against relegation candidates Ingolstadt and the perpetually pedestrian 1860, Friday's game pitted Duisburg against FC Augsburg, who are arguably the class of the division this season.
After barely missing out on a place in Germany's top flight following last season thanks to their capitulation to Nürnberg in the promotion/relegation playoff, the team of Dutch coach Jos Luhukay looks to be leaving nothing to question one year later by maintaining their firm presence in the top two spots destined for automatic promotion.
Adding to the difficulty of visiting such a tough opponent, Zebras coach Milan Sasic was also forced to come up with a gameplan which accounted for the absence of two of his most important pieces. Last week's home win over Aue came with a bitter aftertaste, as forward Stefan Maierhofer and central midfielder Goran Sukalo both picked up their fifth yellow cards of the campaign, and thereby were left out of the squad that took the field in Augsburg on one-game suspensions.
Making matters even more complicated for Sasic, attacking midfielder Ivica Grlic went down in pre-game warmups with an injury to his right knee, forcing the coach to once again adjust his starting lineup in the final 20 minutes before kickoff, inserting Maurice Exslager into the right wing midfield for his first start of the season.
A mere two points separated the teams prior to kickoff, Augsburg in second with 40 and Duisburg in fourth with 38, putting added pressure on both teams to aim for the win in this vital six-pointer for the promotion hunt.
The hosts tested Yelldell lightly in the opening minutes, initially in the second minute when Moritz Leitner's free kick from 30 yards out passed just over the heads of his targets in the box and into the keeper's hands, then again two minutes later when he leapt high to pull down the first of eight Augsburg corner kicks during the game.
Augsburg dominated possession and dictated the flow of the game throughout the early going, first threatening to open the scoring in the seventh minute. Leitner hit a crossfield pass from the left into the opposite side of the area where Tobias Werner had broken free of his defender, however his acute-angled shot from near the endline grazed the back of the side-netting.
The hosts continued to boss the midfield and hold nearly all possession, but were frustrated by a resilient Zebras defense which kept them from really being able to bear their teeth to create any real danger.
Leitner once again was the catalyst for Augsburg's first real chance in the 25th minute when he slid a forward pass to the right side of the area to Uwe Möhrle, whose high shot to the near post was blocked by Yelldell.
The American keeper was again forced into action five minutes later with the 18 year-old Leitner again showing his prowess, aiming a low 22-yard shot just inside the left post that forced Yelldell into a diving deflection.
Augsburg had clearly found their rhythm and continued to pile on the pressure around Duisburg's goal, looking ready to take the lead with each attack.
"It's normal when you play against Augsburg that they will have some chances," Yelldell admitted of their opponents' flurry of scoring opportunities in the first half. "Nobody can keep them away from the goal for 90 minutes."
Rafael's shot in the 35th minute was blocked just inside the penalty area, but fell to Werner on the right side for a shot which whizzed just wide of the far post. Two minutes later, Augsburg central defender Gibril Sankoh split the defense with a long pass to Stephan Hain which gave him a clear path in the right side of the area. Faced with a potentially lethal one-on-one with the attacker, Yelldell charged off his line and dove the ball which was just a touch in front of Hain's stride, bowling him over in the process but avoiding the penalty thanks to his split-second timing.
The Zebras did manage to weather the storm, once again returning the game to its earlier rhythm with their hosts holding the ball but unable to work their way into the immediate vicinity of their goal for the remainder of the first half.
The second half started much as the first ended, however Duisburg did finally manage to take their first shot of the game in the 51st minute when Ivica Banovic's blast flew well over the crossbar.
A 56th-minute corner by Augsburg led to their first close opportunity of the half. Olcay Sahan made a poor attempt to head clear a corner from halftime substitute Sören Bertram, looping it right to the foot of Rafael at the top of the area, whose straight-ahead shot was deflected over the crossbar by Yelldell.
The visitors finally put some pressure on their hosts just before the hour mark taking advantage of a corner to nearly take a surprise lead. Filip Trojan's set piece dropped near the penalty area where Julian Koch's first attempt was blocked by the Augsburg defense and rebounded to central forward Srdjan Baljak just outside the area. His quick lateral pass to Ivica Banovic took the defense by surprise, with the split second enough to allow the Croatian veteran to rocket a shot that careened off the right post.
Duisburg continued to slowly turn matters in their favor, both holding more time on the ball and frustrating their hosts in the process. This latter aspect was most evident over the next ten minutes, as Leitner first picked up a yellow for holding back a Duisburg counter-attack in the 63rd minute, then was again verbally admonished by the referee five minutes later for a chippy trip on Trojan.
Fearing seeing his team reduced to ten men by the young attacker's escalating conduct, Luhukay waited just one minute before pulling him in favor of Axel Bellinghausen, thereby sending his most dangerous weapon to the bench for the last 20-plus minutes.
This seemed to dispose of all creativity on the part of Augsburg's attack, and Duisburg continued on their role of the aggressor for the remainder of the game.
"I think the whole second half we played better than the first - we had more control, and Augsburg didn't create as many chances," Yelldell recognized.
"A few minutes into the second half the Augsburg players started to get annoyed with our defensive play. We didn't let them play because if you let them [do that] they are very strong, they can outplay you and score like they want to."
They again came close with 13 minutes left as Trojan whipped in a cross from the left which was right at the feet of Baljak at the penalty spot. The Serbian striker had a poor touch on the ball, however, letting it get away from him and giving Sankoh the chance to clear outside of box. Unfortunately for the defender he knocked it directly into the path of Sahan at 20 yards out, but he atoned for his poor effort by getting in the way of the subsequent shot and this time sending it well out of danger.
The Zebras had one final chance at glory in the 88th minute when Baljak broke free and stormed inside the right edge of the penalty area with only Sankoh in his way. The defender's tackle clearly upended Baljak and left the visitors shouting for a penalty, however the referee felt the defender had first gotten his foot on the ball, and waived off the pleas for the spot kick.
That would prove to be the final moment of excitement in the contest, with the whistle finally blowing after two minutes of added time, giving each team a well-deserved point.
While the draw was their third over their last four games, with the previous coming two weeks before at neighboring 1860 Munich, Yelldell felt it was still a highly positive result against one of the league's toughest teams.
"We always go out to win but it's not always possible," he evaluated. "We were playing away from home against a very strong Augsburg team. I think we played very well defensively so we are satisfied."
Despite their defensive approach, he insists that they still had a win on their mind if at all possible, however wanted to keep things under control in the back to minimize their chances of going home empty-handed.
"You cannot go into a game and aim for a 0-0, you always play to win the game but sometimes you realize it's not possible. It was our goal to defend so at least we went home with one point. If you draw your games away from home and win your home games, it's very useful."
"Not a lot of teams get [this result] when they come here or to 1860 Munich, so sometimes you have to be satisfied with one point. It's only one game, the season is long and we have to concentrate on our next game at home [against Union]."
The result leaves Duisburg in fourth place and still well within reach of their goal of promotion, just one win out of the playoff.
They return home on Saturday to host Union Berlin, then will go back on the road one week later to visit struggling Oberhausen in a final warm-up before their much-anticipated German Cup semifinal against Cottbus on March 1.