In last place for much of last season, Freiburg could well be playing in European competition next year. Their 1-0 win over Düsseldorf on Sunday wasn't a thing of beauty. But it was typical of a very tough team.
Freiburg fans may be treated to Europa League football in 2013-14. The small southern German club, who looked like inevitable relegation candidates only 12 months ago, are currently lording it over the likes of Hamburg, Schalke, Bremen and Stuttgart.
A razor-thin 1-0 victory over Fortuna Düsseldorf was enough to send coach Christian Streich’s men up to fifth in the table. Freiburg have the Bundesliga’s second-best defense, but in this encounter it was Fortuna parking the bus - mostly successfully.
Aside from one clear goal-scoring opportunity squandered by Cedrick Makiadi in the first half, the hosts struggled to break down Düsseldorf’s defense. They dominated possession but had nothing to show for it, and as the match wore on, the visitors could have gone ahead on any one of three counter-attacking opportunities.
But in minute 8, just when both sides looked ready to settle for a scoreless draw, Max Kruse fired a corner into the area. Düsseldorf keeper Fabian Giefer, who was otherwise excellent, went for the ball and missed, allowing Pavel Krmas to head in the match’s lone goal.
"It could have ended nil-nil, but we deserved to win in the end because of the enormous energy we invested in the match," Streich told reporters afterward.
Freiburg could have added to their goal tally, but Giefer made a couple of fine saves in the dying minutes. The 1-0 result gave Freiburg 31 points in total, the same as Mainz and Hamburg, but the southern Germans have the better goal difference and moved up to fifth.
The salt-of-the-earth Streich didn’t react well to the subsequent questions about Freiburg’s European ambitions.
"That topic doesn’t interest me in the slightest," Streich growled. “If we’d lost today, what would we have been, 11th or 12th? What nonsense.”
But Streich may well have to get used to this line of inquiry. Freiburg look far too solid a team to suffer a dramatic loss of form, so they could be in the hunt for fifth and sixth place for many weeks to come.
What Mainz have been
Mainz could well be joining Freiburg in the Europa League next year. A 1-1 draw in Augsburg in Sunday’s early match ultimately left them sixth in the standings - although Mainz needed to work hard for the result after young striker Shawn Parker was sent off.
The match began evenly, and Mainz thought they had taken the lead after 20 minutes, when Parker found the net. But the goal was incorrectly ruled offside.
After that the two teams largely cancelled one another out - until minute 43. Junior Diaz lofted a cross that evaded a host of defenders in Augsburg’s area. The ball landed at the feet of Hungarian goal machine Adam Szalai, and he did the honors.
Mainz should have doubled their advantage with their next foray forward, but Andreas Ivanschitz got the yips and pulled his shot wide from a promising position.
Parker was the next Mainz player left shaking his head. He earned a straight red card for getting his studs up to high. Mainz were down to 10 men - Mainz coach Thomas Tuchel was enraged at losing a man with only seconds to go in the first half.
That sending-off completely changed the dynamic of the match, with Augsburg dominating possession in the second half. And the hosts rewarded themselves in minute 57, when bullish forward Sascha Mölders headed in a long cross for the equalizer.
Augsburg clearly felt that that was their best recipe for success and kept firing in crosses for the lanky striker. But Mainz plugged the hole at the back and defended resolutely to earn a hard-won point.
After the match, Tuchel fumed about both the disallowed goal and the red card.
"The offside was a clear officiating mistake," Tuchel told reporters. "In the end we'll take the point, but we won't forget how it came about for a while."
Tuchel's disappointment was nothing compared to that of Augsburg, who stay in second-to-last place and face an uphill struggle to avoid relegation.