Relegation playoff, first leg: Mission accomplished for Frank Schmidt's Heidenheim

Werder Bremen 0 – 0 Heidenheim Wohninvest Weserstadion

The third-placed team in the second division always goes into the relegation playoff against the third-worst team in the Bundesliga as the overwhelming underdogs – even if they are often quite familiar clubs, that only a year or two earlier had been in the top tier. After all, since the playoff was reintroduced in 2008-2009, a second division club has won promotion via this route on just two occasions. The odds seem even more lopsided when you look at a team like Heidenheim.

For Heidenheim are one of those teams that until last weekend was largely unknown to the average Bundesliga fan – in fact more than a few people have had to consult their mapping apps to find out exactly where it is. And like every other time a team of unknowns makes it into the late rounds of the German Cup or into the relegation playoff, a couple of figures rise to national prominence – at least temporarily. 

Since Heidenheim stumbled into the playoff despite a 3-0 defeat to Bielefeld on the last day of the Bundesliga 2 season, German football fans have been learning a lot about two of that club’s leading figures – coach Frank Schmidt and veteran captain Marc Schnatterer.

For Schmidt, currently the longest-serving coach in German professional football, Thursday night’s first leg of this year’s relegation playoff had to be his biggest in his 13th year at the club. The man who took over Heidenheim as an interim solution while they were still in the fifth tier approached the first game with the attitude of trying to make the impossible, possible. 

“We need a result in Bremen that will allow us to continue to believe in a sensation in the second leg,” Schmidt said in the prematch press conference. Werder will be pushing to ensure that the playoff is decided in Bremen. We will do everything we can to ensure that it is decided in Heidenheim.”

Mission accomplished

It was by no means pretty, but Schmidt got the result he was looking for. Following a scrappy scoreless draw in which Werder dominated possession (67 percent) but created precious little in the way of scoring chances, this relegation playoff will indeed be decided in Heidenheim on Monday – one way or the other. 

“I congratulated my players for a very disciplined performance from the first until the very last second and I think in the end we even created a few more chances than Werder Bremen today,” Schmidt told streaming service DAZN following the match. 

Late flurry

In fact Heidenheim’s best chance came two minutes into injury time. The 34-year-old captain, Schnatterer, a set pieces specialist, delivered a beautiful corner into the box, finding Timo Beermann. Unfortunately for the visitors though, it was no fairy-tale finish for Schnatterer, as Beermann’s header sailed just wide of the left post of the Bremen goal. 

The best chance of the match for Werder, who looked slightly brighter in the second half, had come just a couple of minutes earlier, when goalkeeper Kevin Müller let the wet ball slip out of his hands, handing a golden opportunity to  Leonardo Bittencourt, but defender Marnon Busch was there to block it on the line. 

Fußball Bundesliga Relegation | Werder Bremen vs. 1. FC Heidenheim (Getty Images/Bongarts/M. Rose)

The first leg of the playoff was hard fought, with emotions occasionally threatening to get the better of some

The performance represented a big bounce back for Heidenheim after that embarrassing defeat in Bielefeld; now they’ve earned the right to hope for a “sensation” back home in Baden-Württemberg on Monday.

“We’ve been unbeaten at home for the last few games,” Schmidt said. “We need to find the right game plan (in the second leg) and we’ll see what happens.”

An opportunity wasted?

What a different story it is for his Bremen counterpart, Florian Kohfeldt, though. Coming off their 6-1 win over Cologne on Matchday 34 that gave them the opportunity to save what has been a disastrous season for a team that entered the campaign with European ambitions, you had to think they would have been able to create more up front.

Postmatch, Kohfeldt conceded that his team had failed to implement his game plan and as all could see, failed to create much of anything in terms of offense. 

“It was a very bad match by us,” Kohfeldt told DAZN. “The only advantage that we have is that it is halftime, there are two matches. Heidenheim didn’t score an away goal and we just have to see to it that we score on in Heidenheim. Then things will look completely different.”

However, Bremen will have to do without their captain, Niklas Moisander in Heidenheim. He added to Kohlfeldt’s worries late in the second half, meaning he will not be available on Monday. 

And while you can be sure Bremen will do everything they can to seize this final opportunity to save their season – Heidenheim will be going after the kind of chance you may only get once in a lifetime. If they take it, Frank Schmidt and his team will remain on the national stage – for no less than 34 matchdays next season.


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