Darmstadt Hinrunde Review: Die Lilien breezing through life as a 2.Bundesliga club

Die Lilien look up rather than down.

Die Lilien look up rather than down.

The year was 1993 and after forty-six games of the 1992-93 season seven teams were relegated to the Oberliga. Among that list of relegated sides were Fortuna Düsseldorf, Eintracht Braunschweig and SpVgg Unterhaching, however the focus of this review is the side that finished bottom of the table, Darmstadt.

Now at the start of 2015 Darmstadt are in their winter break and have just finished their first hinrunde back in the 2.Bundesliga after relegation in 1993. The ride hasn’t been easy for Darmstadt, they’ve had plenty of financial troubles in the past, however they are a team on the up. Under the leadership of Dirk Schuster the club have enjoyed a very impressive two years, despite not saving the club from relegation after taking charge halfway through the 2012-13 season, Schuster has invested well after the club stayed in the league due to Kickers Offenbach failing to get a 3.Liga license. After a thrilling 2013-14 campaign and a highly entertaining play-off victory over Arminia Bielefeld, Darmstadt have continued to thrill their fans and impress many onlookers.

Over the summer the club brought in nine players, which later turned into eight. First choice keeper Jan Zimmermann joined fellow promoted side Heidenheim, so for his replacement Darmstadt brought in experienced keeper Christian Wetklo from Mainz, however Schalke came calling just over a month later and he was off. Darmstadt needed keepers and they’ve done a fine job in getting some, 22-year-old Marius Sauss came in from Wolfsburg, experienced Patrick Platins brought his six season stay at Arminia Bielefeld to an end and Christian Mathenia was signed from Mainz. Mathenia has proved to be very good replacement for Zimmermann and has completed every minute so far this season and has certainly been a bargain with his free transfer.

Darmstadt’s signings have made a huge difference and along with Mathenia, Florian Jungwirth, Tobias Kempe and Romain Brégerie have all played big parts in the campaign so far. Jungwirth joined from Bochum, playing fifteen times and getting one assist, Kempe joined from relegated Dynamo Dresden and has contributed with two goals and four assists in sixteen appearances, Brégerie also joined from Dresden and has been at the heart of the defence making nineteen appearances, getting three goals and one assist in the process. Fabian Holland and Maurice Exslager have both proved to be useful loan signings from Hertha BSC and Köln respectively. Ronny König joined from Erzgebirge Aue and Leon-Aderemi Balogun joined as a free agent after leaving Fortuna Düsseldorf, while Janik Bachmann and Timon Fröhlich were brought in from the U19’s, however both have yet to make their senior debuts. Darmstadt were able to keep most of their squad together, something that has helped them in the first half of the season, as previously mentioned Zimmermann left and Wetklo left after a month and the other departures saw Markus Ziereis return to his parent club FSV Frankfurt, Josip Landeka joined Sonnenhof Großaspach and play-off hero Elton da Costa now plays for amateur club 1. FCA Darmstadt.

Darmstadt started the season in the perfect way with a win and in front of their own fans. It was an exciting day for all involved as they stepped out onto the pitch for the first time since the 92-93 season and in the thirty-sixth minute they got their first goal of the season and it turned out to be the winner. Dominik Stroh-Engel had an outstanding first season at Darmstadt last season, scoring twenty-seven times and finishing as the 3.Liga top scorer, so it was no surprise when he stepped up to convert a spot kick and get his goal tally started at the earliest point. Current league leaders Ingolstadt was the first away trip for Darmstadt and they were moments away from picking up another three points, Brégerie gave Darmstadt the lead after sixteen minutes, six minutes later the score was level again and then with fifteen minutes remaining Stroh-Engel got the second for Darmstadt, unfortunately for Die Lilien their hosts scored in the ninety-third minute to snatch a draw. The next game saw Darmstadt hosting Bundesliga side Wolfsburg in the DFB Pokal and despite holding them to a goalless draw they couldn’t get past the last hurdle as they went out after losing the penalty shoot-out. The next three games saw them win both home games 2-0 as they defeated Aalen and Erzgebirge Aue, in-between those two wins they drew 1-1 with 1860 München.

Pohjanpalo gave Düsseldorf a convincing win in Darmstadt's only league loss at home.

Pohjanpalo gave Düsseldorf a convincing win in Darmstadt’s only league loss at home.

The first league loss of the season came against Eintracht Braunschweig as Darmstadt struggled to cancel out Håvard Nielsen’s goal after the half hour mark and then Dennis Kruppke doubled the hosts lead in injury time. Was Darmstadt’s fairytale about to come to an end? their next game was important and they needed to bounce back and they did so impressively, FSV Frankfurt came to the Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor and were dismantled as their poor form continued, Darmstadt’s goals came from Brégerie, Jérôme Gondorf and a Aytac Sulu double, the perfect response to their first defeat. Union Berlin were next and once again they failed to get all three points away from home, despite this they’ve been very hard to break down and they were able to come away with a 1-1 draw. Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor has been a fortress for Darmstadt and with four wins on the bounce at home inform Fortuna Düsseldorf came to town. Unfortunately for the hosts they weren’t able to extend their winning home streak and they instead were on the end of a Joel Pohjanpalo master class, the young Finnish striker managed to bag himself a hattrick, Charlison Benschop was the other scorer as Düsseldorf came away with a brilliant 4-1 victory, Kempe scored the only goal for Darmstadt.

Once again Darmstadt needed to show they can bounce back from a defeat and although they didn’t manage to do so with a victory, they managed to get a draw out of the league leaders at the time Bochum. They could’ve had more points as well, Bochum scored in the ninety-fifth minute to equalise and deny Brégerie that winning goal, another blow was that Bochum’s goal was set up by keeper Andreas Luthe, who’s header was poked in by Mikael Forssell. Up next were former Bundesliga side Nürnberg and it was a fantastic result for Darmstadt as they made up for their loss in the last home match. Goals from Stroh-Engel, Balogun and Kempe comfortably saw off Nürenberg 3-0.

Following those two good results Darmstadt looked to get the better of fellow promoted sides Heidenheim and RB Leipzig, both also doing very well in the league. Darmstadt managed to grab four points off the 3.Liga champions Heidenheim last season and they extended their good run as Stroh-Engel scored an early goal before it was cancelled out by Smail Morabit to earn both sides the draw. The following game saw another early Darmstadt goal and it was Stroh-Engel once again, however this time it was enough to see off Leipzig, who did the double over Darmstadt last season.

Darmstadt had three very tough opponents at the end of November and at the start of December, Kaiserslautern are always in the promotion mix and last season was no different as they came in fourth, so Darmstadt did very well to earn a goalless draw. Following that draw they managed another goalless draw as they held a Karlsruher side that finished fifth last season and then the final hard test in that time was Greuther Fürth, they narrowly missed out on promotion thanks to Hamburg winning the play-off on away goals, this meeting also ended goalless.

Darmstadt finished the hinrunde in good form, they defeated struggling St. Pauli 1-0 thanks to Holland scoring four minutes from time, which was surprisingly their first away win of the season. The remaining two games saw them come up against Sandhausen and Ingolstadt in the clubs second meeting of the season. Despite dominating large spells of the game against Sandhausen, they were pushed down to the wire. Sandhausen’s Manuel Stiefler scored an own goal to give Darmstadt the lead, Aziz Bouhaddouz then scored after the hour mark to equalise and once again Darmstadt scored four minutes from time, this time Hanno Behrens scored the all important winner, his shot from the edge of the area looped up over Manuel Riemann. The last game of the hinrunde was a top of the table clash with Ingolstadt, which certainly didn’t disappoint. Behrens made it two from two as he opened the scoring in the seventh minute, goals from Pascal Groß and Stefan Lex gave Ingolstadt the lead going into the break and then nine minutes after the break the score was level again, an unmarked Marcel Heller fired past Ramazan Özcan. It was a fascinating and entertaining 2-2 draw and Darmstadt went into the break with the outstanding achievement of third place, which they were only there due to goal difference as they were on level points with Karlsruher in second.

Stroh-Engel leading the way as Darmstadt shine.

Stroh-Engel leading the way as Darmstadt shine.

Darmstadt have plenty to shout about and they’ll be looking forward to returning to action, they finished the hinrunde on a ten game unbeaten run, which involved six draws and four wins. The club are optimistic and president Rüdiger Fritsch has said the club are always planning for the future and have already requested a license for the Bundesliga so it’s done nice and early if they manage to achieve a wonderful back-to-back promotion, “The management plan is we always looking ahead, we need to work on all scenarios, the worst case and the best case.”

On Thursday Die Lilien return from their winter break and start to prepare for the second half of the season. Their training camp is being held in Turkey and during that time they will face Kazakhstan side FC Kairat, they also have friendlies against Bundesliga side Paderborn, 3.Liga side Borussia Dortmund II and fellow 2.Bundesliga side Sandhausen. Darmstadt return to league action on Friday the 6th of February away to Aalen, who find themselves in the relegation play-off spot.

So far the only departure in this transfer window has been 22-year-old Julius Biada, who left for 3.Liga side Fortuna Köln. No one has been brought in to strengthen the squad yet and Schuster isn’t in a hurry, “We have no need for immediate action, but we keep eyes and ears open. If an exceptional player would come on the market that suits us, we would start thinking.” Darmstadt haven’t been linked with many players, the two they have been linked with would happen in the summer should they increase their interest. 1860 München’s Yannick Stark would like to move to Darmstadt, he spent a season on loan at his hometown club a few years ago and his contract expires in the summer. Another player who’s contract expires in the summer is Ingolstadt striker Karl-Heinz Lappe and he’s been linked with Darmstadt as they would like to get a back up for top scorer Stroh-Engel.

Under Schuster Darmstadt’s future is bright and there is no reason why they can’t continue to surprise everyone and perhaps shock everyone further by earning promotion into the Bundesliga. Plenty of work ahead, but Schuster has a great bunch of players available and anything is possible in the Rückrunde. So Darmstadt fans strap yourselves back in when February comes and enjoy the ride.

Article for VAVEL.

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