Wolfsburg is on the rise again in the Bundesliga
BERLIN (AP) — From champions to relegation survivors, Wolfsburg’s recent woes on the field have coincided with those of Volkswagen, the German club’s main backer.
However, the car manufacturer is on the rise again after its emissions scandal, and so is the soccer team after back-to-back seasons in the relegation playoffs.
Wolfsburg opened its Bundesliga campaign with wins over highly rated Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen. The 2009 champions, now under coach Bruno Labbadia, are well-organized and playing with a commitment and hunger that had been lacking since 2015.
That was the year Wolfsburg finished second behind Bayern Munich and won the German Cup before the breaking of the Volkswagen scandal. Results, coincidentally, suffered thereafter.
The win over Leverkusen was unexpected, and the first time in 13 tries that Labbadia won against his former side.
“We drew a lot of strength from the relegation playoff (against second-division club Holstein Kiel) and on top of that the team worked really hard in pre-season,” Labbadia said Saturday after his team’s sixth consecutive win across seasons and including the German Cup.
Wolfsburg even had to come from behind after Leon Bailey put Leverkusen ahead. The players didn’t panic, but combined well and fought for the equalizer, which came through an own-goal by goalkeeper Ramazan Ozcan. New signing Wout Weghorst then got his first Bundesliga goal and Renato Steffen sealed it with another.
“It was really pleasing to see how much of a unit we were and how the team got the deserved reward for the performance,” Labbadia said. “We hurt them with our shape. It was a good day for us.”
Wolfsburg also needed a bit of luck to defeat Schalke, with Daniel Ginczek getting the winner in injury time.
The signing of Weghorst has added some much-needed bite to the team’s attack. The 25-year-old Dutchman scored 27 goals across all competitions for AZ Alkmaar last season.
Wolfsburg also appointed Joerg Schmadtke as sporting director in the offseason. The 54-year-old Schmadtke, a former goalkeeper, enjoyed notable success as sporting director with Cologne, Hannover and Alemannia Aachen.
Wolfsburg fans chanted “league leaders, league leaders” after the win propelled it to the top for the afternoon, but Schmadtke said he wasn’t interested in the standings “but the fact we stayed stable after conceding a goal is comforting.”
Wolfsburg was without injured captain Josuha Guilavogui, and goalkeeper Koen Casteels was missing to attend the birth of his daughter.
Casteels is the sixth Wolfsburg player to become a father in a little over a month after Marvin Stefaniak, Yunus Malli, Paul-Georges Ntep, Weghorst and Steffen.
“That can give you a push,” Steffen said. “But I can’t get a child every week now.”
Compared to previous years, Bayern Munich kept transfer activity to a minimum in the offseason, with just Serge Gnabry and Renato Sanches returning from loan spells, while Leon Goretzka’s free transfer from Schalke was already announced in January.
Spanish defender Juan Bernat departed for Paris Saint-Germain but it looked at one stage as though there would be more business between the sides. PSG made a reported offer for Germany defender Jerome Boateng and was also interested in taking Sanches.
Neither deal came to fruition, and Bayern has hit out at the French club for not following through.
Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic had already criticized PSG’s “strange tactics,” and now president Uli Hoeness has said the side should fire its sporting director, Antero Henrique.
“I would advise Paris Saint-Germain to change its sporting director,” Hoeness told Monday’s Kicker magazine. “This man is not a figurehead for the club. If PSG wants to be a world club, it can’t put up with such a sports director.”
Borussia Dortmund has developed a reputation for bringing in young players thanks to success with the likes of Christian Pulisic, Jadon Sancho and Mario Goetze, while Aleksander Isak and Dan-Axel Zagadou are waiting to follow suit.
The next prospect could be 13-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko, a Cameroon-born forward who has been scoring at leisure since he joined Dortmund’s youth setup from St. Pauli in 2016.
Strong and direct with a clear eye for goal, Moukoko was the leading scorer for Dortmund’s under-15 team - while still 12 - to help the side win the Regionalliga West title and earn a call-up for Germany’s under-16 team last year. He scored the decisive goal at Bayern Munich in the final, finishing the season with 40 goals in 28 games.
This season, with the under-17s, has begun as the last continued. Moukoko already has six goals from four games.
“We’re going to give him all the time in the world for his development,” Dortmund youth coordinator Lars Ricken told Kicker. “He can’t play with the professionals until he’s 17. So nobody needs to start gasping because of him.”