Borussia Mönchengladbach vs 1. FSV Mainz 05

German Football Trip – Part OnePart Two – Part Three

The last leg of our west German Bundesliga tour began in the same fashion as the previous day, by loading up on the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast at our Holiday Inn. We had another evening game ahead of us, 6pm local time, so there was no rush in the morning as we slowly got ourselves respectable, before walking into the city centre of Düsseldorf once again.

By midday we were strolling along the banks of the Rhine to see Düsseldorf’s famous Rheinturm, a 240-metre high communications tower that dominates the skyline. A little ice cream van was nearby the tower’s base so we each enjoyed a couple of stracciatella scoops, and then admired the riverside views on a lazy Sunday.

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Before departing Düsseldorf we stopped into a couple of bars to enjoy a few more of the local Altbiers. It was such a nice day that it would have been a shame not to, and I developed quite a taste for them by this stage.

The agenda for the day was a trip to nearby Mönchengladbach, just a short train ride west of Düsseldorf and home to Borussia Mönchengladbach, five time Bundesliga champions. “Die Fohlen” (“The Foals”) are still globally recognised thanks largely to their achievements in the seventies, when their celebrated young team played fast, attacking football. They enjoyed a great deal of success on the European stage and are still one of the largest and most supported clubs in Germany. They played host to 1. FSV Mainz 05 (or Mainz as I will simply refer to them from now), and it was probably the game of trip I was most looking forward to seeing.

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We finished our drinks in the bar and hopped on a tram to Düsseldorf station, before catching the train to Mönchengladbach, equipped with train beers for the journey (of course). Upon arrival we immediately found shuttle buses parked outside the station, full of local fans clad in the white, black and green of the Gladbach faithful. The shade of green the club use in their iconography is my favourite colour and even though I’m too old to have such a thing as a favourite colour, nevertheless I do. As a result, Borussia earn huge points with me aesthetically. In fact, ahead of the trip I had researched all the teams we were set to see, to check if any of the clubs had particularly nice kits that I would consider purchasing, and Mönchengladbach emerged victorious. Their Puma designed shirts this season are sublime and I had set my sights on buying one during our trip.

The shuttle bus weaved through the streets of Mönchengladbach before dropping us at the door of Borussia-Park, their 54,010 capacity home, opened in 2004. We had arrived with a couple of hours to spare and I couldn’t contain my excitement for buying some gear any longer, so we headed straight to the club shop.

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Once inside I knew immediately what my primary purchase was going to be: this season’s Mönchengladbach away shirt, an attractive black strip with a green marled effect spreading upwards to the shoulders and collar. It wasn’t cheap, setting me back almost €90, but I fell for it immediately and the heart wants what the heart wants. Matt had already purchased his Gladbach shirt the previous day in Düsseldorf but he couldn’t resist the black, white and green bar scarves that we’d seen so many fans wearing around the ground. Naturally I had to get one too, and it’s stylish enough that I can wear it away from the football. At least that’s how I explained the purchase to myself (and my wife).

With the sun still shining we set up camp in the fanpark to enjoy a beer and catch some of the early afternoon kickoff between Hertha Berlin and SC Freiburg on the park’s big screen. Just like our trip to Schalke the previous day, every fan I saw was draped in the club’s colours and the whole look really adds to the appeal of the Bundesliga. The only Gladbach player I had serious knowledge of before our trip was their former captain Granit Xhaka, and despite his transfer to my beloved Arsenal over two years ago, I still saw a great deal of Xhaka shirts dotted around the outskirts of the stadium. It seems the Swiss midfielder is still regarded fondly by the majority of Mönchengladbach supporters. Die Fohlen actually have a history of recruiting Swiss players and currently have five key contributors in their first team squad: Michael Lang, Denis Zakaria, Josep Drmić, Nico Elvedi, and their shot-stopper extraordinaire with the best barnet in the Bundesliga, Yann Sommer.

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As the warmth from the setting sun began to diminish, I pulled my scarf around me and followed the masses through the turnstiles and into the stadium. My first impression of Borussia-Park was it’s incredibly close atmosphere, which surprised me for a stadium that surpassed 50,000. We had seats at the very back of the southern top tier, opposite Mönchengladbach’s impressive Nordkurve, and despite being at the back we had a perfect view thanks to the unobstructed sight-lines.

To our right were the Mainz supporters in the corner, who sadly didn’t travel in great numbers. The chosen few who had made the journey were vocal enough, and even brought a drum to lift their team, but there were large pockets of empty seats surrounding their main group.

We were very fortunate to have picked such an opportune time to visit Borussia Mönchengladbach, who had only recently beaten the mighty Bayern Munich away from home, 3-0. With the team and their fans still flying high from that result, we settled in to watch them battle it out with Mainz.

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It was the visitors who had the first real chance of note, when a stray pass from centre back Nico Elvedi fell right into the lap of Mainz striker Jean-Philippe Mateta, whose low shot troubled Sommer in the Gladbach goal but fell harmlessly wide of the post. In England we would call the effort a “daisy cutter.”

Before long the hosts increased the pressure and made it count, when they took the lead with just over 20 minutes played. Some well worked build-up play found Gladbach’s Belgian playmaker Thorgan Hazard in acres of space, with the Mainz backline at his mercy. Hazard expertly slipped a through ball into the path of Jonas Hofmann that completely took the defence out of play, and the German’s perfectly placed first-time shot clipped in off the post. As he wheeled away in celebration, a combination of the crowd and the PA system deafened us, and the old fella seated next to me rose in applause. It turned out to be Hofmann’s first goal in open play for Mönchengladbach and there was still more yet to come.

Mainz continued to hustle in midfield, endlessly pressing their opposition, but their efforts were not rewarded and their attacks often broke down in the final third. In the early stages of the second half, Mönchengladbach shifted into a higher gear and proceeded to put the result beyond doubt.

It began with another fluid move by the Gladbach midfielders. When the ball reached striker Lars Stindl on the edge of Mainz’s penalty box, many would have presumed the captain would maneuver to unleash a shot, but instead he played an incisive pass behind the Mainz defence, into the path of the rapid Hazard, bursting in from the right wing. Hazard produced a low, teasing cross right in front of the outstretched goalkeeper Florian Müller and Hofmann was available at the far post to tap the ball in, completely unmarked, to give the home side a 2-0 lead.

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Five minutes later, Mainz were caught out again. Die Fohlen burst forward at great pace and released their French forward Alassane Plea clear down the left flank. Before the defence closed in on Plea he crossed to Hazard, who had gotten the best of the scrambling Mainz left back, and found himself totally in the clear. Hazard shot without hesitation, and the ball looped over a stranded Müller in goal to make it 3-0 with just under an hour on the clock.

Sat to our left were a group of young German lads, who were ecstatic watching their side ruthlessly pick apart what had previously been a resolute Mainz team. These guys couldn’t have been much older than 15 or 16, and not one of them had ever shaved, but they regularly returned from the bar with multiple pints. They were a source of much amusement to Matt and I, as they discussed and dissected the game in German, before choosing to switch to English for moments when they were especially enthusiastic about their team. It was great fun hearing the lads nod in agreement that Gladbach were “very nice,” and it made the occasion especially memorable.

Despite having a three goal lead the hosts were not finished yet, as the small matter of Herr Hofmann’s hat trick had yet to be settled. The 26 year-old was likely content with his brace but made the day extra special when he collected his third goal to complete a dominant 10-minute period for Borussia Mönchengladbach.

With the Mainz defence completely at sea and devoid of all organisation, Hofmann made a run over the halfway line, beating the haphazard offside trap. Müller came rushing out of his goal in a panic, but Hofmann rounded him with ease, his first touch taking the ball clear of the goalkeeper and into space. The midfielder composed himself before coolly finishing into the unguarded net. Hofmann jogged over to celebrate with his teammates with his hands on his head, displaying disbelief that he could enjoy such a day, his first career hat trick. He deservedly collected the match ball at the final whistle, which will be undoubtedly be displayed in his trophy cabinet at home with immense pride. Both Matt and I were overjoyed to have witnessed Hofmann’s historic moment.

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After the disappointment of seeing Schalke go goalless at home the day before, it was such a relief to see Borussia Mönchengladbach turn on the style for us, routing Mainz 4-0. It had been the game I was most excited to see before we flew out to Germany and thankfully Die Fohlen rewarded us with a flawless performance.

As we filed out of our row and made for the exit, I could see the victorious players congregated in front of the Nordkurve, linked arm-in-arm, bouncing up and down in front of their raucous and jubilant supporters.

It was the perfect end to the trip, and the songs from the Gladbach fans were still ringing in my ears on the shuttle, the train, and even the plane home.

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FC Schalke 04 vs SV Werder Bremen

German Football Trip – Part One – Part Two – Part Three

Our first day in Germany involved some last minute heroics to salvage the start of our trip, and it ended in a fascinating and competitive game at the home of FC Viktoria Köln.

Our second day, Saturday, began in a more relaxed style. Matt and I had tickets booked for FC Schalke 04 versus Werder Bremen later that night, so we were in no rush at all. With Gelsenkirchen, home to Schalke, roughly 30 minutes away by train, we had the majority of the day to explore our base of Düsseldorf. Matt knew the city very well from previous visits but I was keen to explore what the old town had to offer.

We filled up on the all-you-can eat breakfast at the hotel before strolling into the city. Naturally we stumbled across a huge sports store just minutes down the road, and couldn’t resist exploring the contents within. I’m a sucker for sports shops and thankfully I was in good company. Matt found a Borussia Mönchengladbach home shirt in the sale, the lovely Kappa edition from last season, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get it, especially since we had a Gladbach visit on our schedule for Sunday. I was tempted by many items as well but managed to hold onto my willpower, saving my cash for later.

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We continued on, stopping to see the Königsallee canal and some of the views from the shores of the Rhine. Chelsea versus Man United was the day’s early game, so Matt and I found a bar to watch that and enjoy a couple of Altbiers, Düsseldorf’s famously historic dark beverage of choice.

Lunch was also in order before we departed for Gelsenkirchen and Matt, knowing my love of pizza, knew of a nearby place that he’d proclaimed to be one of the best in the city, if not Europe. I have to admit, Matt delivered on his promise, it was a truly excellent pie and exactly what I needed to soak up those Altbiers.

Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof was our next stop, via a store in the station for a couple of cold train bevs to enjoy on our journey. It doesn’t matter if you’re in England or Germany, drinking cans of lager on the way to the football is exactly the same in every language, and looked down upon by those not participating in exactly the same way too. Especially when you’re an idiot like me and drop a third of your can onto the seat next to you. In my defence, the train did move suddenly. I blame the driver.

Our train pulled into Gelsenkirchen soon enough and we began to see floods of fans converging in our direction, decked out in the blue and white of Schalke. I was also pleased to see a great deal of green as well, as the Bremen fans appeared to have travelled in good numbers, and more importantly, in good spirits.

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A short tram ride from the station dropped us at the doorstep of the enormous Veltins-Arena, Schalke’s 62,271 capacity home, opened in 2001. Matt and I took a quick lap of the modern ground before settling on a couple of beers and some match day gear. As is my custom with new teams and new stadiums, I picked up a pin badge for my collection, and quickly donned it onto my jacket. I also grabbed a scarf, basic with blue and white stripes, that Matt keenly observed I could also wear to Tranmere games. His comment cemented my decision, and I gladly handed over the €15, safe in the knowledge that the scarf would see repeat service.

One aspect of the German football experience I was most excited to see was the fan’s commitment to the club colours. Nearly every person in attendance was wearing at least some item of clothing to show their support, be it a scarf, hat or shirt. Many fans even go the extra mile and have their shirt printed with their favourite player’s name, which is something I really love to see at every game I attend. I can happily spend hours scanning the crowds before kickoff to see all the different kits from years past, as well as the famous (and not-so-famous) names that adorn them. This vibrant sea of colour the fans create is something the Americans do really well, as do Germany, but there are large groups of fans in England and Europe that don’t really go for it, which is a shame as I think it enriches the experience, aesthetically at least.

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To that effect, purchasing a scarf was the very least I could do. Matt was already wearing a Schalke shirt from a previous visit, and I was very tempted to drop money on one too, but I had already decided to save my cash for Sunday’s game at Gladbach, and their stylish Puma kits this season.

With just over half an hour to go before kickoff, we made our way to our seats. Schalke’s home is sublime for viewing angles, and there didn’t appear to be a single bad view in the house. When we initially booked our tickets months before, the game had been very popular and as a result, Matt and I were set to be separated by a couple of rows. Thankfully it only lasted for most of the first half, as a couple of empty seats nearby were left vacant so we took possession of those for the majority of the evening.

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As soon as you settle into the Veltins-Arena, you cannot miss the awesome sight of Schalke’s Nordkurve. Home to approximately 16,000 fans in the dedicated standing section, complete with giant flags, and generating the loudest atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. The roar is deafening and Schalke’s stadium roof helps that wall of noise reverberate around the entire arena. It really was a spectacular scene to witness and the fans kept up the noise for the entire game.

Unfortunately, the game developed into quite a dour affair, with both teams lacking a player with the creative spark to captivate the audience. I was very keen to see Schalke’s emerging American star Weston McKennie, as well as the Moroccan Amine Harit who I watched during the World Cup, but neither man was especially effective on the day. The majority of build-up attacks from both teams would fizzle into nothing, or result in a shot high and far over the goal.

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Eventually, it was the visitors who struck first, and against the run of play. Bremen hadn’t looked much of a threat as the end of the first half neared, when suddenly midfielder Maximillian Eggestein received a pass on the edge of the Schalke box. The talented 21 year-old German controlled the ball in one smooth motion before using his right foot to lash a shot past Alexander Nübel in the Schalke goal to make it 1-0 to Bremen. Nübel was making his first start for Schalke and the 22 year-old keeper was not helped by Eggestein’s shot bouncing into the turf before he dived, making it harder to stop.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Schalke faithful, conceding just before the break, and sadly their team couldn’t muster much of a response after the restart. Austrian striker Guido Burgstaller had the best chance for the hosts, when he beat his defender down the right wing, putting him one-on-one with Jiří Pavlenka guarding the Werder goal. The angle was acute and ultimately Burgstaller’s low shot was saved well by Pavlenka, who used his legs to deflect the ball just wide of the post for a Schalke corner.

Ten minutes later, Eggestein struck again to put the result beyond Schalke. When the youngster received the ball, there appeared to be no imminent threat, but he swiftly shifted the ball onto his left foot, dragging the ball away from Schalke midfielder Nabil Bentaleb and into space. It was all the room Eggestein needed to get a shot away, a low drive into the far corner beyond Nübel’s outstretched palm, and just like that it was 2-0 to Bremen.

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Their remarkable away support, slightly to the right and opposite of where we were sat, exploded in celebration. The 5,200 who travelled were a very lively and active bunch and despite being dwarfed in size by the immense home support, the Werder fans certainly made themselves seen and heard in their glorious emerald green. Sat there in my blue and white scarf, it was hard to begrudge their joy and the Bremen boys had been methodical and precise in their performance, if not spectacular. Green is also my favourite colour, so they win some points there too.

Schalke had a few half-chances in the remaining minutes, but not anything clearcut, and by the final whistle they appeared exhausted from the sheer effort of chasing the game. Sadly, it was not a very memorable performance from either side and not even Eggestein, with his well-taken brace, was particularly dominant or extraordinary over the course of the whole game.

Having said that, it was still an extremely memorable day and the atmosphere created by both sets of fans will stay with me for some time. As we left the Veltins-Arena behind and efficiently boarded our trams and trains back to Düsseldorf, I could still hear the songs and chants from the crowd echoing in my ears.

We spent the rest of the night in the bars of Düsseldorf enjoying a few more Altbiers, plotting the next day’s journey to see Borussia Mönchengladbach, game three on our trip.

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