A year ago, Wolfsburg were a goal away from eliminating Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals. Today, the reality is very different as they face Braunschweig in the relegation playoff first leg.Wolfsburg’s relatively sustained period of recent success in the Bundesliga has evaporated over the course of this season. The 2008-09 Bundesliga champions – a regular fixture towards the top of the table in recent years and the German Cup winners in 2015 – now face a two-leg tie to save their Bundesliga skins.
Volkswagen was the driving force behind the club’s achievements. After all, the automaker’s financial backing made it possible for the team to sign strikers of the quality of Edin Dzeko and Grafite, who bagged more than 25 goals each during the title-winning season.
The emissions scandal may have had an effect and they have sold some top players. But Wolfsburg remain one of the Bundesliga’s most valuable clubs, despite a strong squad not delivering on the pitch. Wolfsburg’s market value of over 154 million euros ($172 million) leaves clubs like RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim in the dust. Yet both those clubs will play Champions League next season.
Keeping friends close and enemies closer
The city of Braunschweig, located less than 40 kilometers away from Wolfsburg, is home to Wolfsburg’s opponents during the relegation playoff – Eintracht Braunschweig.
“Playing against Braunschweig is just an exceptional situation,” said Wolfsburg’s Chairman of the Board of Directors, Francisco Javier Garcia Sanz, who is also a member of Volkswagen‘s Board of Management.
The Volkswagen Group sponsors Eintracht Braunschweig too. But unlike Wolfsburg, the team’s jerseys sport Seat logos, a Spanish subsidiary of the German manufacturer.
That revenue accounts for 25 percent of Braunschweig’s budget – no small sum but far less than is the case for Wolfsburg.
While Eintracht Braunschweig were one of the founding members of the Bundesliga and this year celebrate 50 years since their sole Bundesliga title, the team has had rather less success in the modern era.
They have largely languished in the second and even third division for the last 30 years, except for the 2013-14 campaign in the top flight. They finished bottom and were relegated, but the points tally was close and their fate only sealed on the final day.
Braunschweig can only be the underdogs over the two legs on Thursday and Monday. The club suffered a 6-0 loss in the penultimate match of the second division season – but their form against local rivals Wolfsburg is encouraging and the second leg is at home.
Braunschweig’s last two Bundesliga games against Wolfsburg were a 2-0 away win and a 1-1 draw at home. But Wolfsburg striker Mario Gomez is certain his team can get the result they need.
“We are not getting relegated,” said Gomez. “We cannot just wait and see what happens, we need to be focused from start to finish.”
Gomez has done an awful lot of the heavy lifting under coach Andries Joncker. With 16 goals, Gomez is Wolfsburg’s top goalscorer and is the league’s fifth best marksman.
Braunschweig, meanwhile, know the magnitude of the task they face.
“It almost appears impossible when comparing [the teams’] strength,” Eintracht Braunschweig coach Torsten Lieberknecht conceded. “You just have to look at both squads and their budgets.”
However, the coach added that this high-stakes local derby was starting to feel like a cup match in the dressing room – and hinted that Braunschweig could hold the edge in areas that are harder to assess on paper.
“Our team spirit is not lying dormant, it’s far more highly developed,” Lieberknecht said.