CHANDLER, NÜRNBERG HASSLED BY THE HOFFE
Timothy Chandler was back in Nürnberg's starting lineup on Saturday afternoon, playing the full 90 minutes as they saw their Europa League hopes end with a highly disappointing loss at home to Hoffenheim.
Chandler and his teammates knew that it would take a near-perfect turn of events for the team to reach their goal of the Europa League, as a five point deficit combined with a insurmountably inferior goal differential essentially meant that The Club would need Mainz to lose both of their last two games while taking all six points from their final two.
Being the final home game of the season for Nürnberg, the sold-out crowd of more than 48,000 was hanging on every kick of the ball, with the afternoon taking on an emotional air as the game was immediately preceded by a ceremony marking the departure of several players, most notably longtime club legend Marek Mintal.
History was on the side of the visitors before the opening whistle; in the four previous meetings between the teams, The Club had failed to win a single time, drawing twice and losing another two times.
The hosts were first to come close to a breakthrough in the tenth minute, after Christian Eigler blew past Hoffenheim defender Isaac Vorsah on the left side to have a clear line on goal, and looped a shot towards the far post which was just a touch too high and bounced off the crossbar.
After a relatively quiet beginning to his game, Chandler first showed his best strength four minutes later, speeding toward the endline on the right side and firing a cross in the direction of Julian Schieber inside the six-yard box which was headed clear by Vorsah.
Chandler stayed on the offensive, and ultimately set up the game's opening goal one minute later. Receiving the ball on the right side from a long diagonal pass, he immediately attempted a cross goalwards which was initially blocked by Edson Braafheid.
The two players struggled to gain control of the ball, with the Hoffenheim defender eventually committing a foul on Chandler setting up a dangerously-positioned free kick barely one yard to the right of the edge of the penalty area.
Mehmet Ekici stepped up to take the set piece, and instead of whipping a cross in front of goal, he adeptly dropped a tricky short pass back to Philipp Wollscheid at the back of the area, whose shot first took a deflection off of Marvin Compper before flying into the net for the 16th-minute lead.
The goal immediately put all the momentum on the side of the hosts, with the Hoffenheim players looking unsettled and prone to errors, however they can count themselves very lucky to survived the following minutes without conceding a second.
They did manage to regain their composure, and had their best chance so far of the game two minutes past the half-hour mark, when a shot from the edge of the area by Roberto Firmino was blocked by Nürnberg keeper Raphael Schäfer, then the follow-up by David Alaba was just barely wide of the right post.
Schieber remained a thorn in the Hoffe's side, nearly taking matters into his own hands in the 37th minute, when he escaped Hoffenheim captain Andreas beck on the left side and launched an acute-angled rocket towards the far corner which was just barely high of the mark.
Speedy Dutch forward Ryan Babel and Chandler were regular sparring partners throughout the game, notably in the 39th minute as the Dutchman made a nifty move to round the American near the left edge of the 18-yard box, but lost the ball just seconds later as the right back quickly recovered and showed a good bit of defending skill to steal the ball right back.
Babel would have the upper hand, however, after he was fouled by Chandler five yards beyond the upper left corner of Nürnberg's area, setting up an angled free kick for Hoffenheim. Iceland international Gylfi Thor Sigurdsson hit a good ball to the edge of the six-yard box, which Roberto Firmino lunged in low to head in for the 40th-minute equalizer.
The teams went into the intermission with the deadlocked score, however Nürnberg would receive an extra onus to retake the advantage shortly after the restart.
In the 49th minute, the scoreboard flashed notice that Schalke had taken a 1-0 lead over Mainz in Gelsenkirchen, opening the door to the now-less improbable series of events necessary for Nürnberg's Europa League hopes.
The sold-out home crowd quickly took note, with the volume from the stands immediately multiplying, and the coordinated chants which filled the stadium intensifying every time Nürnberg took possession of the ball.
They were nearly silenced in the 53rd minute as Babel mustered a blazing shot from out of nowhere which gave Schäfer problems at the left post, however the keeper was fortunately able to block it out of danger.
Sadly, Nürnberg lacked the sharpness in the final third to answer the crowd's chanted request to "shoot a goal for us," albeit in the poetic German tongue, eventually prompting coach Dieter Hecking to bring in some fresh legs three minutes past the hour.
Defensive midfielder Almog Cohen and right winger Ekici were replaced by Jens Hegeler and Slovakian veteran Mintal, the latter coming as little surprise to anybody in the stadium as it would be the anticipated final opportunity for the talismanic attacker to show some of the magic which he's had on display at The Club since his arrival in 2003.
A corner from Mintal four minutes after he took the field was headed just wide lower left corner by Wollscheid, with Eigler being taken by surprise and missing his chance to one-time the ball back towards the net as it flew past him.
The Nürnberg hero seemed to bring the fire which had been lacking by his teammates, and looked determined to singularly will his team to victory as a last farewell, forcing a diving save by Hoffenheim keeper Tom Starke in the 69th minute with a blazing shot from the upper edge of the box that had all in the stadium on their feet.
Eigler then tested Starke one minute later with a long shot from 25 yards out; the keeper blocked the ball before it did any damage, but directly into the path of Hegeler, whose follow-up fell safely into Starke's hands.
Another corner from Mintal with eight minutes remaining was headed well by Andreas Wolf, however directly at Starke.
Unfortunately for the hosts, their push for a dramatic late win was squashed with four minutes left, as Wollscheid completely whiffed an easy clearance at the edge of Nürnberg's penalty area, allowing the ball - and Sigurdsson - to pass directly by him, with only his keeper standing in the way.
The Icelandic midfielder had enough time to settle the ball and tee up his shot from the left side, which was hit low and out of the reach of Schäffer into Nürnberg's goal for the 2-1 Hoffenheim lead.
This effectively took the wind out of Nürnberg's sails, with Mintal having one last half-chance with one minute left in regulation as the ball was at his feet in a crowd in front of goal, but he didn't have time to get a shot off, allowing the Hoffenheim defense to clear it to safety.
"In the first half we did well to get forward, in the second half Hoffenheim was pushing a lot more," Chandler evaluated following the game of the difference between the two halves. "We had to defend more and I thought we did a good job, but we lost anyways."
"Definitely it's been a good season for Nürnberg," he reflected, although he made no attempts to hide the letdown from the afternoon's result. "We're disappointed today because we wanted to win the game, not just for the crowd but also for Marek [Mintal], but it didn't happen and it's a shame."
"We've got one more game left next weekend against Hannover, and we're going to give it our all to win it for Marek."
The loss leaves Nürnberg in sixth place, now eight points behind Mainz, who were 3-1 winners at Schalke, putting an end to the team's shot at making next season's Europa League.
With both Hamburg and Freiburg sitting three points behind in the standings and having vastly inferior goal differentials, Nürnberg is by all practical purposes guaranteed to finish the season in sixth no matter what the outcome of their visit to Steve Cherundolo's Hannover next Saturday.