HOFFE FALL ON ROAD TO STUTTGART
Danny Williams returned from international duty to earn a second straight start in Hoffenheim's defensive midfield, however a pair of untimely defensive miscues saw their winless streak reach three games.
After missing the last month due to a back injury, Hoffenheim midfielder Fabian Johnson was listed by the team as available to play, however was a late scratch from the lineup and did not suit up.
While Hoffenheim's scoreless draw against FC Bayern immediately prior to the international break did show their defensive corps at their best, the attack had proven far less than impressive as of late, with a 185-minute goal drought stretching back to mid-September giving ample reason for concern.
Facing a stingy Stuttgart defense that had allowed a paltry total of six goals through their first eight games, their troubles in front of goal continued, and an afternoon to forget from Ghanian central defender Isaac Vorsah was enough to send them home empty-handed.
As was the case two weeks before, Williams lined up as one of two holding midfielders in the team's usual 4-2-3-1 formation, with the quartet of Ryan Babel, Gylfi Thor Sigursson, Chinedu Obase and Roberto Firmino leading the charge up top.
Four minutes after the opening whistle, the crowd of more than 55,000 erupted in cheers when a blocked shot from Arthur Boka fell to the foot of Cacau in the left side of the area for a shot which flew inside the far post, however referee Babak Rafati ruled that the Brazilian-born German World Cup veteran was offside on the original attempt, negating the score.
This was the first of many instances which left the audience increasingly irritated at the calls - or lack thereof - on the field throughout the half.
Eight minutes later, a Babel giveaway near midfield gave rise to a Stuttgart fast break, which ended when Pavel Pogrebnyak cut inwards from the right wing into the penalty area and struck a low, dangerous cross through the six-yard box, which was cleared at the last second by Vorsah.
Tamas Hajnal created Stuttgart's next chance in the 18th minute, striking a 25-yard shot to the center of goal which Hoffenheim keeper Tom Starke could only knock down to the right side of the area, but fortunately for the visitors, no other attackers were in the immediate vicinity and able to capitalize.
Moments later, Pogrebnyak managed to slip behind Vorsah as a long-ball from the midfield sailed into his path, and was tripped up in tangle of legs, stopping him short of a potentially lethal one-on-one with Starke in what would often be ruled a red card for the defender. Rafati however kept his whistle silent, once again boiling the blood of the red-clad audience, and setting up a highly disputed remainder of the half for him and his crew.
What was perhaps Hoffenheim's best chance of the game came on the heel of the contentious non-call, when Babel cut into the top of the area, quick worked his way to the right and wove free of his marking defenders before unleashing a powerful shot to the upper part of the goal, which was expertly deflected out for a corner by Stuttgart keeper Sven Ulreich.
The Dutch international was again key at the half-hour, stealing the ball from Serdar Tasci on the right side and quickly slipping it to Sigursson, whose shot from the corner of the six-yard box was just a couple yards wide left.
Four minutes later, Stuttgart benefited from the leniency of the referee, as Harnik was only shown yellow when he errantly struck Marvin Compper directly in the face with an elbow as the two went up for a challenge.
The favor was returned shortly thereafter, as Obasi recklessly jumped in to challenge Hajnal for the ball in the 38th minute, striking him in the face with an outstretched forearm that was likely deserving of a yellow card, but went unpunished by the referee.
The physical play continued, with Williams completely upending Shinji Okazaki in the right flank to stop an attack one minute later, however Rafati was merciful and only awarded a free kick rather than warn the American for a possible tactical foul.
With tempers threatening to boil over on the field, Obasi was finally penalized two minutes before the break, receiving yellow for a mid-air cleats-first challenge that left Tasci on the turf for a short time, and Rafati cleverly put an end to the half without any added time to quickly send the players to their respective locker rooms to cool off.
In contrast to the action-heavy but ultimately goalless first 45 minutes, the second half proved to be quite the opposite, with a largely lackluster run of play interrupted by the two deciding goals.
The first came three minutes after the teams returned to the field, as Stuttgart were awarded a free kick near the midfield. Hajnal adeptly and immediately noticed Okazaki slipping unnoticed behind Vorsah and took the kick before the defense had settled. The strike was hit directly into the Japanese international's path just inside the box, who took one touch to move the ball into space on the right, then struck it on the turn, sending out of Starke's reach inside the lower left corner for the lead.
Seeing his attack consistently misfiring and unable to create the opportunity to equalize, Hoffenheim coach Holger Stanislawski pulled the translantic traveler Williams in the 62nd minute in favor of former US college player Vedad Ibisevic, in hopes that an extra striker on the field would make the difference.
This had little immediate effect, leading the longtime St. Pauli coach to drop some knowledge on the game in the form of Zimbabwian forward Knowledge Musona, who entered as a fresh pair of legs up front for the faltering Obasi eight minutes later.
Hoffenheim did pick up the pace slightly with Babel setting up Dominik Kaiser in the 72nd minute for a 22-yard crack which was their best chance of the half despite being several yards wide, however they received the sucker-punch four minutes afterwards, with Vorsah once again the offending party.
A run by Pogrebnyak into the left side of the penalty area was clumsily halted by Vorsah when he made a mess of his attempt to kick the ball from the Russian international's feet, instead clearly clipping the ankles. Rafti made no delay in pointing to the spot, thus redeeming himself to the crowd for his earlier perceived transgressions.
Pogrebnyak bravely elected to take the shot himself, sending an unreachable shot barely inside the right post which was well clear of Starke's reach, and securing the win for the hosts in the 76th minute.
Austrian international Martin Harnik nearly made it three for the hosts with ten minutes remaining as he and Cacau took advantage of a high line and broke behind he defense to get his foot on a high lob from Hajnal, but Starke did a fine job to block the ball out for a corner.
Hoffenheim were continually stifled throughout the half, but had a trio of near misses with the clock ticking down.
First, with four minutes in regulation, late substitute Sven Schipplock was sent through by Sigursson to the left side of the box just behind his marking defender, but his wasted shot was well high of the target.
Five minutes later during the first minute of injury time, Schipplock's shot from the left edge of the area to the near post forced Ulreich into a lunging block. Then moments later, central defender Compper stormed forward to connect with a Schipplock pass from near the endline, sending it directly into Ulreich's hands in what would prove to be their final push of the game.
With the loss, Hoffe will finish the weekend's round of games at ninth place in the Bundesliga standings. They have a tough road immediately ahead, first hosting surprise second-place team Borussia M÷nchengladbach on Saturday, then returning to action three days later in a midweek German Cup game against FC Cologne, then rounding out a busy week of play with a trip to sixth-place Schalke the following Saturday.