HOFFE JINX CONTINUES FOR NÜRNBERG
Hoffenheim's Fabian Johnson set up a pair of goals for former St. Louis University striker Vedad Ibiević on Saturday afternoon, as Nürnberg's rough run continued in yet another loss to Hoffenheim.
Further compounding their misery, Nürnberg's Timothy Chandler was shown a straight red card late in the first half to reduce the hosts to ten men, giving them little chance to avoid running their all-time winless streak against Hoffenheim to six games.
Johnson made his first start at left back for Hoffenheim and played the full 90 minutes, while fellow American teammate Daniel Williams entered the game in the 66th minute in place of injured midfielder Sebastian Rudy.
Just seven minutes into the game, the home crowd was already visibly irritated after referee Dr. Jochen Drees appeared to let a hard foul by Ryan Babel on Chandler go unpunished as he let play continue after the infraction, however they saw justice done shortly thereafter as the Dutchman was eventually shown yellow after play had come to a halt.
The opening minutes were marked by a tight defensive posture by both teams, with the defense doing well to clear nearly all action out of their respective penalty areas and keeping a tight mark on opposing attacking players.
The first close scoring opportunity came after 19 minutes off the foot of Ibiević, who sprang into the right side of the area and tried to angle a shot towards the far post, which only missed by a couple of yards.
Moments later, the Bosnian international was even closer, getting his head on a cross from the right side off the foot of Rudy, and sending his attempt just inches wide of the right upright.
Four minutes afterwards, Nürnberg striker Tomas Pekhart was close to breaking his six-game scoring drought, heading a corner by Marvin Plattenhardt over the crossbar.
In the 35th minute, the home crowd was on their feet after a Plattenhardt corner was initially cleared from Hoffenheim's penalty area, but looped to Daniel Didavi approximately 25 yards out for a hard blast which forced Hoffenheim keeper Tom Starke into an outstretched diving save.
Instead, they were forced to watch their visitors jump ahead in the 39th minute, thanks to a heads up play originating from the Hoffenheim midfield.
After Ibisevic beat Wollscheid for the ball on a challenge just inside the Nürnberg half, Roberto Firmino slipped a quick pass to the left side. Sejad Salihovic recognized his offside position when the pass was released in his direction and immediately stopped his run, however Johnson was speeding up the flank and was able to reach the ball ahead of the defender before it rolled over the endline.
The American launched a left-footed cross towards the near side of the six-yard box, where Ibiević streaked in and made an athletic leaping header that flew past the helpless Nürnberg keeper Raphael Schäfer and into the center of goal.
The score came with heavy protests from both the Nürnberg players and fans, as Ibiević had inadvertently struck Wollscheid in the throat with his arm during the challenge, and the Nürnberg defender was laying on the turf in pain throughout the entire buildup and goal.
"I think it was a foul on Philipp," Chandler opined after the game. "Several of the other Hoffenheim players were also standing still after that and we thought they would play the ball out, however they kept on playing and the defensive cover came too late."
From Ibiević's perspective, while he did admit that there was contact between himself and Wollscheid, he felt that it was nothing more than the usual combat between a forward and defender, and that he had no choice as an attacker but to continue playing until signaled otherwise by the referee.
"In this situation I can say that it was only a normal duel between a defender and forward, and for me as a forward I just kept going and didn't see what happened to him," he evaluated, adding, "It's normal in the Bundesliga that there is contact between the players."
Four minutes the contentious score, Nürnberg saw their hopes to come back dashed by another questionable call by the referee.
Chandler slid in to try to clear the ball from the foot of Salihovic, and while he would have had little reason to complain about a booking resulting from the slightly late challenge, the red card immediately came out, sending the American to the locker room and leaving the hosts a man short for the remainder of the game.
"I knew it was a foul and that it was probably going to be a yellow card, not a red," Chandler spoke of the play after the game. "However the referee made his decision, I understood it, and there is nothing we could do to change it."
Johnson concurred that it was not a clear-cut call by the referee, but also agreed that ultimately it was out of the players' hands. "I can't really say whether he deserved he red card, but that's the decision the referee made and he's the one in charge,"
Four minutes after the break, Hoffenheim were close to adding a second goal when Isaac Vorsah's header from a Salihovic cross was just over the crossbar, however they did succeed to find the net again in the 55th minute.
Rudy slipped a pass left to Johnson making a slightly inwards run, and the US international quickly poked it forward into the 18-yard box where Ibiević hit a side-footed shot that took a slight deflection off of Schäfer's outstretched hand on its way into goal.
He nearly completed a hat-trick four minutes later, chasing down a pass just inside the area which had forced Schäfer off his line. The ball popped up high behind the keeper and Ibiević needed just to reach it in time put it into the open net, but Plattenhardt made a last-second clearance to prevent any more damage.
Rudy went down with an apparent ankle injury three minutes past the hour in a challenge against Didavi and eventually had to leave the field with the help of the trainers, with Williams entering the field shortly thereafter in his place.
With just over 20 minutes left, Nürnberg were again tantalizingly close as Pekhart ran into a through-ball from Markus Feulner in the left side of the area, rounded the keeper and put his shot into goal, however he was in a clear offside position at the time of the pass, and the goal was correctly waved off.
Shortly after Feulner made a mess of a somewhat promising shot in the 79th minute and confusion in the Nürnberg midfield on a free kick allowed unnecessary time to roll off the clock, the crowd's ire fully shifted from its earlier focus on the referee and opposing players to their own failing team.
Perhaps hearing the frustration of their fans, the hosts generated their most dangerous chance of the half shortly thereafter, as Plattenhardt streaked up the left side and whipped a low, dangerous cross into a heavily crowded box, however Starke was able to pull it safely from the foot of the Nürnberg attackers.
With four minutes left, Johnson nearly netted his first goal of the campaign, when Boris Vukcevic's shot was blocked directly to the American who leapt high to put a header on-target, but it was safely blocked by the defense.
The final minutes before the game's close were highlighted by a lone fan invading the field and running towards the Nürnberg fan curve before failing on his attempt to artfully slide face-first across the grass, then the sending off of Hoffenheim defender Marvin Compper just before the whistle for clumsily tripping up Pekhart as he broke through free towards goal.
"Recently we've given away the points like a gift in the last minutes of games, so we wanted to pick up the three points and it worked this time around," Johnson summed up.
His teammate and the beneficiary of both of his assists agreed that the win was an important step prior to the winter break after a down period for the team, and made no effort to hold back words of praise for the recently-debuted American international.
"It's obviously very important because we needed the points," Ibiević affirmed. "We didn't get any points in the last few games, which is why the win today is going to be very important for us in the next few games."
"I just think he's a great player," he continued on the subject of Johnson's strong outing. "Even on the left side he comes through and brings the ball just as well as he does from the right. I think he's one of our better players on the wings, and today it worked well for us."
As to whether he expects to continue playing on the left side of the defense after a good showing in his first game for Hoffenheim at the position, Johnson still sees himself of most use to the team in his preferred attacking role.
"I think when all of our players are available and healthy, I won't be playing left back so much, but in the midfield. I prefer to play more offensively."
Nürnberg drop into the relegation playoff spot after the loss, now trailing Kaiserslautern by goal differential.
Chandler will be suspended when they will close their 2011 schedule next Saturday with a trip to Leverkusen, however will be available three days later for their German Cup derby matchup at home against Fürth.
Hoffenheim climb to ninth place with the win, and return home next week to face off against Hertha Berlin in their final league game of 2011, before hosting Bavarian team Augsburg three days later in their midweek German Cup game.