Stuttgart showed resilience against a battling Freiburg side in their German Cup semi, winning 2-1. The Swabians face Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich in the final - and will have European competition next season.
There was more at stake than a place in the final against Bayern for the two contenders at the Mercedes Benz Arena on Wednesday evening. As well as that, the winner was sure of a place in the Europa League next season, the Bavarians having bigger fish to fry.
Skeptics may doubt the eagerness of clubs to participate in Europe's second-level cup competition. But even the biggest cynic would have to concede that both southern sides looked ready to accept the privilege.
There was early dominance for Stuttgart. Three minutes in, the hosts appeared set to overwhelm the Freiburg defense with attackers pouring into the area, Austrian Martin Harnik launching the ball high and wide.
Minutes later, Harnik bore down on the keepr looking certain to score, but this time tamely rolled it low for it to be scuffled away from him. Running in from the right, moments later, he squandered a third good chance.
Stuttgart set the challenge
It was fourth time lucky on nine minutes for home side, the attack this time coming as the ball was squared in from the left with a cross from Ibrahima Traore. The ball met Ivorian Arthur Boka, who rolled it in with his weaker right foot.
Freiburg took up the gauntlet thrown to them with vigor, equalizing only three minutes later. Midfielder Max Kruse set Jan Rosenthal free to bustle his way down the right and dispatch ruthlessly past Stuttgart keeper Sven Ulreich.
Both teams wrestled the initiative from each other for spells, Freiburg having their best moments courtesy of Kruse, Rosenthal and Daniel Caligiuri.
But it was Stuttgart who went in as leaders at half time, Harnik having finally put the ball away with a header off the crossbar on 29 minutes. It appeared to have gone in, but Georg Niedermeir controversially made sure - apparently with his hand.
Chances came thick and fast as the second half got underway, Ibisevic and Christian Gentner fluffing their opportunities in the first ten minutes. Pavel Krmas for a moment looked as though he might equalize for Freiburg, but Ulreich was up to the task of keeping it out. Such thrills and spills were not typical in a half that was by far less interesting than the first.
Freiburg held back for a while but, needing the goal, couldn’t do so for too long, unleashing attacks through Matthias Ginter, Kruse und Caligiuri.
However, the visitors weren’t able to unlock a tight Stuttgart defense. Indeed, chances for both teams came fewer and farther between as balls went awry left, right and center, the match ending 2-1.
"These are moments you do the job for," said Stuttgart coach Bruno Labbadia. "My team fought until the last whistle, it's unbelievable. This team has given its all for the last two-and-a-half years, it makes me really happy that they have their reward."
Stuttgart play Bayern, who will be looking for their 16th cup win, in the final on June 1 at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.