CHANDLER, NÜRNBERG EKE BY AUGSBURG
Timothy Chandler and the Nürnberg defense put on a fine display to bail out a misfiring attack, holding Bavarian rivals FC Augsburg scoreless in a tight one-goal victory on Saturday.
After registering an opening-day win against promoted Hertha, Nürnberg had fallen off considerably, dropping their next two against last season's fourth-place team Hannover and defending champions Dortmund.
Their Saturday-afternoon opponents Augsburg had fared equally as bad if not worse, registering only a pair of draw in their first two games before falling with little resistance one week before to Fabian Johnson and Hoffenheim.
While hardly a classic regional rivalry, Saturday's visit of freshly-promoted Augsburg to their northern neighbors did represent something of a revenge match for the away team.
Nürnberg's all-time series advantage of 15 wins as compared to five draws and a pair of losses to Augsburg reflects a rather one-sided picture. Augsburg had, in fact, not beaten their hosts in more than 35 years, however the two most recent losses were by far the most painful and long-lasting.
Prior to their automatic promotion from the 2. Bundesliga last season, Augsburg had come excruciatingly close one year before, finishing third in the division and reaching the two-legged playoff, only to be beaten over both legs by Nürnberg.
While history would clearly point towards yet another win by Nürnberg on Saturday, "The Club" hardly made matters easy for themselves, and were fortunate to come away with a late victory thanks to a moment of skillful opportunism by summer arrivals Tomas Pekhart and Alexander Esswein.
Both teams as well as the crowd of more than 43,000 caught a break in the hours prior to the game when a severe heatwave that had gripped southern Germany for the previous weeks finally ended and a cover of clouds rolled in, although the intermittent showers both before and during the game and the resulting slippery field conditions did play a negative role in the overall crispness of play.
The teams traded shots from distance within the first ten minutes with neither grabbing firm control in the early going, before Pekhart picked up a wholly unnecessary yellow card in the 12th minute for a sloppy sliding lunge that upended Jonas de Roeck as the defender tried to kick the ball out of his own half of the field.
Three minutes later, the hosts had a near-miss when a corner from the right side taken by Chandler was headed down by Philipp Wollscheid at close range, but went straight into a crowd of players and was blocked to safety.
Addressing his role of taking corners after the game, Chandler indicated that this was only a temporary measure. "That was just something which I was doing in this game since [Robert] Mak was missing from the lineup, so we needed somebody else to to take the corners and I did it."
Nürnberg were even closer in the 18th minute as Julian Weißmeier, a last-second addition to the staring eleven in place of Markus Feulner, whipped in a free kick from the left side which Jens Hegeler leaned forward to drive to the far post, however Augsburg's veteran keeper Simon Jentzsch made a clutch diving save to deny the midfielder.
The flow of the game became increasingly dictated with the hosts, with Nürnberg creating mostly one-way traffic in the Augsburg end of the field.
The visitors did on occasion make forays into the other side of the field on quick counter-attacks, one of these ending with a collision between Nürnberg's rookie keeper Patrick Rakovsky and Augsburg's Sascha Mölders barely outside the area in the 22nd minute.
Rakovsky received a yellow for his part, and the resulting free kick from approximately 20 yards out was hit well by Axel Bellinghausen into a crowd of players in front of goal, but was cleared before any wearing an Augsburg jersey could get a foot on it.
Four minutes afterwards, Nürnberg were excruciatingly close to grabbing the lead when a hard shot by chandler from outside the area struck the arm of an Augsburg player. While the referee correctly allowed play to carry on and not punish Augsburg for the fully unintentional contact, the ball still popped into the area to to Christian Eigler. He quickly found Hegeler with a short pass behind the defense with only the keeper in his way, however the resulting shot was just barely wide of the left post.
Three minutes past the half-hour, Chandler hit Weißmeier with a ball from the right, which the midfielder tried to one-time into goal, however the shot was little trouble for Jentzsch to scoop up.
Five minutes before the halftime break, Pekhart made a dangerous run into the area with de Roeck trailing directly behind. The Czech striker went down in a tangle of legs in what many felt was deserving of a penalty, however the referee felt otherwise and waved for play to continue.
Augsburg went more on the offensive after the intermission, and had their first opportunity in the 53rd when an unforced Nürnberg turnover left Mölders with the ball and charging towards goal, although his hurried shot from the right side was blocked by Rakovsky.
Two minutes later, Chandler and his marking defender chased down a ball on the right side of the field. While the defender did reach it first, his attempted clearance was hit poorly, taking a bounce off of Chandler and falling favorably for the American to control.
His resulting low cross towards the middle of the six-yard box was headed towards Pekhart, however was cleared over the line by the defense before it could reach him.
Nearing the hour mark, the home crowd was clearly becoming impatient with their team's increasing sloppiness on the attacking end in the second half, and a growing number of whistles began to sound with every misplaced pass.
They were temporarily silenced in the 58th minute when Weißmeier fired a free kick from near the right edge of the field into the six-yard box, where Wollscheid leaped in to head it downwards, barely right of the target.
Nürnberg still failed to effectively capitalize on their chances, notably in the 64th minute when Timm Klose headed a cross by Chandler wide right despite having a clear line on goal, then six minutes later when a shot by substitute Alexander Esswein was hit weakly from the right side to the near post, giving Jentzsch an easy job to grab it safely.
Augsburg nearly stole a lead in the 71st minute as Bellinghausen managed to round Chandler on a run in the Nürnberg half of the field, and having no attackers in the area, tried to loop a shot to the near upper corner, which Rakovsky had to leap high to push over the bar.
With 14 minutes left in regulation, Nürnberg finally nabbed the deciding goal. Mölders errantly turned the ball over to Pekhart in the midfield, who immediately flipped it to his onrushing teammate Esswein.
The longtime German youth international advanced forward to the left side of the box, cut back them quickly forward to lose marking defender Gibril Sankoh, then hit a low shot to the middle of goal which Jentzsch couldn't reach.
The goal broke the backs of the Augsburg players, who felt they had done enough work for a point, and they had little in the way of creativity or chances against a resolute Nürnberg defense that gave them absolutely no space in which to operate.
Perhaps their best chance to equalize was far from dangerous, as substitute Edmond Kapllani recovered the ball 35 yards from goal and tried a shot from distance, which was 3 yards over the crossbar in the 87th minute.
In the final moments of regulation and the two minutes of added time, the Nürnberg defense made sure that there would be absolutely no last-minute dramatics by their visitors, tenaciously shutting down any of Augsburg's attempts to advance the ball and earning a well-deserved celebration at the referee's final whistle.
Following the game, Chandler credited the team's tenacity and head coach Dieter Hecking's advice for them to patiently stick to their gameplan as the factors which eventually helped them surge to victory.
"The Augsburg players gave us a good challenge but at the end we rewarded ourselves for our hard struggle," he assessed. "Coach Hecking told us to stay patient and that's exactly what we did. We stayed patient in our play and in the end we got the goal we needed."
He also admitted that while their resolute performance in the back is indicative of the team's biggest strength, an improvement on the attack is needed to push them further during the season.
"The defensive side has always been our strength, we always hold up really well in the back, we just have to create more pressure in the front and will have better overall performances."
Much of the pressure for the attack will rest on the shoulders of the two players combining on their lone goal, Esswein and Pekhart, however he feels that the pair is up to the task.
"Pekhart is a really tall player and is very talented at holding the ball up front, and when Esswein comes on with him he's a really quick difficult player to defend, so they make a great combination," he compliments.
Having been called up by Jürgen Klinsmann for national team duty in the days immediately prior to the game, Saturday's win is an important factor for Chandler as he departs for the US, as it will allow him to more closely focus on the work to be done under the new coach.
"Of course, this is going to make it really easy because I know when I come back [to Nürnberg] I know we'll be in a good position to be successful," he admits of the ability to quickly switch gears.
With the victory, Nürnberg's second through four games, they climb to tenth place, however could rise even higher by the end of the end of this round of games depending on outcomes elsewhere in the league.
They will next take the field after the weeklong international break with a trip to Cologne, who exploded for four goals in their afternoon game with fellow bottom-trawlers Hamburger SV.