INGOLSTADT RUN UNBEATEN STREAK TO NINE
Edson Buddle was on the field for the second half of action on Saturday afternoon as a relaxed Ingolstadt squad celebrated their 2. Bundesliga survival with a scoreless draw against Erzgebirge Aue.
There was already a jovial mood around the Audi-Sportpark, as Friday night results around the 2. Bundesglia - namely losses by both Rot-Weiß Oberhausen and VfL Osnabrück - guaranteed that the Schanzer would be back for another season in the division.
A strong campaign throughout the early parts of 2011 - during which they had racked up the sixth most points in the league and had gone eight straight without a loss heading in to Saturday's contest - brought the team from what looked like a straight path back to the 3. Liga to an early celebration at having avoided relegation.
Aue, who like Ingolstadt were also just promoted from the 3. Liga last season, had far exceeded all expectations during the current term. The eastern team had stayed close to the top of the 2. Bundesliga standings for the duration, however their seven-point gap below the third-place playoff with just three games left meant that a highly unlikely turn of events - beginning with a road win against a hot Ingolstadt squad - were necessary for a second successive promotion.
The hosts had little to play for aside from personal pride, which was evident for much of the game as they clearly lacked a strong impetus to drive towards their visitors' goal, while frustrating their opponents with a sharp defensive display.
A tame opening saw both teams tentatively probing the opposing defense with halfhearted attacks. Ingolstadt made their first real foray in the ninth minute when left back Tobias Fink charged up the left before sliding the ball forward to Moritz Hartmann at the left edge of the 18-yard box. Hartmann tried to hit a cross goalwards, but was knocked over roughly by Aue central defender Adli Lachheb, who was shown a yellow card for his efforts.
Fink again was in the action seven minutes later when he received the ball in the right flank and dropped a short pass back to team talisman Stefan Leitl, whose long-range blast was easily scooped up by keeper Martin Männel.
Towering Ingolstadt defensive midfielder Malte Metzelder was perhaps the team's most goal-hungry player for much of the first half, and had a crack at goal in the 21st minute when he easily outjumped all nearby defenders to get his head on a corner by Leitl, but his attempt was well over the crossbar.
Ingolstadt were beginning to get the game in their control, and given the perfect opening to take the game by the scruff of the neck just three minutes later.
Brazilian midfielder Caiuby received the ball on the left flank and skillfully flipped it over the head of Lachheb, who fell down in the process of trying to keep pace. Unfortunately for the Tunisian defender he was sprawling directly in the path of his opponent who was streaking towards a potentially lethal one-on-one with the Aue keeper, and appeared to bowl him over in his struggle to get to his feet. This caused referee Sascha Thielert to brandish his yellow card for a second time, thereby reducing the team to ten men for the final 55 minutes of the contest.
The resulting free kick from Leitl again saw Metzelder on the attack, breaking free on the right side of goal for a header which was just a few yards wide right.
With the game already turning somewhat in their favor before the sending off, it would be expected that Ingolstadt would enjoy an afternoon of one-way traffic, however that was hardly the case with a fairly even game resulting well into the second half.
"I think knowing that we had clinched our spot to be in the second league for next season the team came out more relaxed and that's probably whey we looked a little flat," Buddle admitted after the game of the team's relatively tame first half.
Ingolstadt did have a stylish link-up sequence in the 28th minute when a long ball forward by Caiuby was headed forward by Marino Biliskov into the path of the streaking Leitl, however it was just too far ahead allowing Männel to reach it in time to prevent any real danger.
Aue had their first real chance in the 37th minute, when a blatant handball by Caiuby set up Jan Hochscheidt with a long free kick opportunity, which was well hit and headed just barely wide right by Rene Klingbeil.
Defender Kevin Schlitte provided a moment of Dani Alves-inspired choreography as he and Leitl jockeyed for position on a high ball into the right side of Aue's area two minutes later, falling to the ground in the embrace of a dramatic pirouette which, while probably not enough to serve as an audition tape for the New York City Ballet, did have Thielert blowing his whistle for the apparent foul by the Ingolstadt attacker.
Ingolstadt's inability or simple unwillingness to push their undermanned visitors to the limit clearly frustrated head coach Benny Möhlmann, who could be seen bellowing orders from the sideline with such an intensity which surely had several cardiologists in the crowd passing their cards to the team staff.
His impatience was clear when the teams returned from the halftime break, with holding midfielder Manuel Hartmann pulled in favor of Buddle, allowing Leitl to drop back behind the American and strike partner Moritz Hartmann in a more attack-minded diamond.
"With us being a man up he especially wanted to go a little more offensive," Buddle analyzed of Möhlmann's change in approach heading into the second half. "Also with us already clinching to stay in the second league he wanted to try out a different look and that's why we came out the way we did [for the second half]."
The tactical switch had little effect in pushing Ingolstadt forward in the subsequent minutes, with little happening near Aue's goal for the next 20-plus minutes.
Caiuby showed a bit of skill in the 51st minute in battling for a ball at the left edge of the penalty area, falling down while attempting a spin move, the somehow recovering his balance to emerge on the other side of the defender with the ball near his feet, however couldn't maintain his balance as he continued to move towards goal allowing the defense to clear any danger.
Aue had the best chance so far of the game moments before the hour mark when a line-drive set piece was sent into the Ingolstadt box from the right side, with Klingbeil's header careening off the crossbar, just inches from putting his team into the lead.
Aue attacking midfielder Jan Hochscheidt threatened just afterwards when he made a dangerous cut from the left side towards the middle to put himself in a clear line for a shot, but was roughly knocked over by Metzelder who received a card for his efforts.
All the action was in Ingolstadt's end of the field with Aue clearly on the offensive, but an increasingly chippy nature only served to frustrate the guests.
Aue coach Rico Schmitt was infuriated at the referee's lack of a card in the 63rd minute when Caiuby harshly fouled substitute Robert Strauß, and was sent to the stands for the last half-hour due to remonstrating too much for Thielert's taste.
Alban Ramaj forced Ingolstadt keeper Sacha Kirchstein into a lunging save in the 65th minute to keep the pressure on, then forced Moise Bambara into a tactical foul and yellow card one minute later as he stormed up the right side of the field to the edge of the penalty area.
The increased intensity from their guests finally pulled the Schanzer from their lull, and they proceeded to go on the offensive, almost immediately turning the tide to pour on the pressure over the final 25 minutes.
Leitl could have been the hero in the 67th minute when he slipped free into the left side of the box and centered the ball across the six-yard box where it slowly rolled begging for an easy tap in, but none of his teammates were nearby, leaving the perfect chance to go wanting.
Klingbeil again hit Ingolstadt's woodwork in the 73rd minute shortly after Buddle was just a touch too slow to reach a ball from Andreas Görlitz right at the near post on the opposite side of the field for his first menacing involvement in the hosts' attack.
Sensing the opportunity to break his six-game goalless streak, the American remained a constant threat for the remainder, with a trio of chances over the final minutes.
In the 78th minute, Görlitz chipped a short pass into the six-yard box from the top right corner of the area in perfect position for Buddle to meet with a smart diagonal run, however his header was barely wide right.
Then five minutes later the two linked up again when Görlitz hit a long cross from the right side towards the far post, with Buddle's towering header flying left of the upright.
A short melee ensued with four minutes on the clock as a hard foul by Biliskov on Marc Hensel in front of the Aue bench enraged the opposition with even uninvolved substitute players jumping in his face, but a yellow card to the Croatian central defender placated the visitors before it got out of hand.
Buddle didn't find the contemptuous nature of the second half too out of the ordinary, chalking it up to the more intense nature of the German game. "I thought it was normal German [soccer], guys are just physical here."
The final chance of the game fell again to Buddle in the 90th minute, as Fabian Gerber passed the ball to the American from the right side towards the far post. Unable to get a one-timed shot off, Buddle maintained possession and rounded the nearest defender to put himself in position for an attempt, but he hit it too softly, allowing Männel to reach out and grab the ball before it crossed the line.
The draw extended Ingolstadt's streak to nine since they last tasted defeat, and the American feels the remarkable turnaround from their dismal first half can be attributed to several factors.
"The team is fitter so we can play how we want to and it shows on the field which is why we've had so much success," he evaluated. "I don't have a sense that we've gotten lucky, we've just played well and deserved to win."
He readily admits that the threat of relegation, while unfamiliar to him from his previous years in MLS has also played a huge role in motivating the team.
"I think that's what what it's been, just the team pushing," he responded to the notion that the possibility of a drop to the 3. Liga has also been another catalyst.
"It's something I'm learning and I saw the happiness and joy of the team and everyone when we clinched yesterday. It's something I didn't fully understand until yesterday."
While the game was his seventh straight without finding his way onto the scoring sheet, Buddle remains positive that this is merely a part of the game, and it is only a matter of time - and inches - before he sets off on a streak.
"The good thing is that I'm still healthy and am always positive and happy that I'm getting chances to score which is very important."
"The team is winning so I really can't complain too much. If I wasn't getting the chances I'd worry, but I know they will eventually start going in again.
"It's natural for a forward to miss by a little bit, then sometimes you get hot and score and it all looks a lot better."
Having taken the point for their ninth straight game without a loss, Ingolstadt will come out of the weekend in 13th place, now eight points ahead of the relegation zone with two games left on the schedule.
They will make the short drive south to Munich's Allianz Arena for what is sure to be a lively derby with local rivals 1860 Munich on Sunday, then close out the season one week later back in front of the home crowd at the Audi-Sportpark against relegation-threatened VfL Osnabrück.