After somewhat of a false dawn for the reborn Regionalliga Nordost last year, a season in which RB Leipzig cantered away with the title, the second edition has delivered more of an even playing field for those hoping for promotion to the relative riches of the 3. Liga. Given the illustrious names whiling away their time at Germany’s fourth tier, including European Cup Winners’ Cup winners FC Magdeburg and multiple East German champions Carl Zeiss Jena, you’d be forgiven for not recognising this season’s true pacesetters. Here’s a look at business end of the season so far.
Entering the winter break with a lead almost akin to Keegan’s Newcastle, TSG Neustrelitz are undoubtedly the surprise of the season. Neustrelitz may have been everyone’s dark horses for promotion at the start of the 2013/14 season, especially after taking SC Freiburg to extra time in the first round of the DFL Pokal in August, but the job that former German international Thomas Brdarić has done in the picturesque Mecklenburg town is no less impressive. Seven points ahead at the time of writing, TSG president Hauke Runge has already announced that Neustrelitz will be applying for promotion to the 3. Liga next season, a quite astonishing development considering Neustrelitz were nothing more than a mid-table 5th division side in the relatively recent past.
Even with its weekly highlights show just before the main Bundesliga highlights and ailing former Bundesliga clubs trying to tread water (including, in the past, Bielefeld, Karlsruhe, Rostock, etc.), promotion from the 3. Liga is not the great reward everyone may imagine it to be. Indeed, no less than four teams in the Regionalliga Bayern didn’t even bother to apply for promotion last season. The standards, both financially and in terms of infrastructure, are high – including a 10,000-seater stadium and floodlights that are suitable for TV.
Neustrelitz’s unrelenting form saw them quickly rise to the top of the table in place of early-season pacesetters Berliner AK. An unbelievable run of straight victories stretched from the piercing heat of mid-August to the knee-shattering, half-frozen turf of December. Thirteen victories in succession have given the Mecklenburg club a serious shot at making the step up to the third tier. Perhaps north-eastern Germany, with train stations from Usedom to Wismar daubed in unmistakable blue and red Hansa Rostock graffiti, may get a second representative in professional German football.
Hot on Neustrelitz’s heels are FC Magdeburg – a club that (*favourite stat klaxon*) have never been relegated for sporting reasons in their entire history. Magdeburg have been stuck at this level ever since failing to qualify for the newly created 3. Liga by a margin of just four goals in 2008. The team that took their place? Eintracht Braunschweig – football can be tough sometimes. With a relatively new stadium and one of the region’s largest supports, everything seems to be in place for the club from the Saxony-Anhalt capital – only sporting success and, importantly, money have been missing.
One aspect of FC Magdeburg that certainly isn’t missing is goals. The league’s second-top scorers have well and truly left behind the days of arrow-based humiliation at the hands of their own supporters and with Christian Beck, signed from league rivals Germania Halberstadt in January 2013, they have a striker who can seem to get his head on anything and more often than not pop up with a crucial goal. Under manager Andreas Petersen, Magdeburg looked to have settled down after seasons of mediocrity – a playoff spot could certainly be a possibility. Magdeburg travel to Jena and then to Neustrelitz’s Parkstadion in consecutive away matches in March, and this could prove decisive for the promotion race.
Perhaps the only other promotion contender, bar any miracle runs from mid-placed sides, in this season’s Regionalliga Nordost is Carl Zeiss Jena. The Jenenser were the only side to put up anything resembling a fight to RB Leipzig last season, and after going from perennial 3. Liga promotion hopefuls to relegation to the Regionalliga in just one nightmare season a couple of years ago, they will be looking to make a return sooner rather than later.
That being said, things are all change behind the scenes at the Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld. Belgian millionaire Roland Duchâtelet, whose other investments include Belgian clubs Standard Liège and Sint-Truiden as well as Charlton Athletic and one-time Real Madrid-slayers Alcorcon, has purchased 49% of Carl Zeiss for a one-off payment of €2 million. A further €4 million has been pledged over the next four years. Duchâtelet’s plan is for Jena to make a return to the 2. Bundesliga within five to seven years. It’s an ambitious target, but with Jena city council recently approving the construction of a new stadium to replace the ageing, and often sodden, Ernst-Abbe-Sportfeld, things could start falling into place for the Zeisser.
Then again, financial deliverance from a single individual can often end in tears, forced relegations and balance sheets redder than Vincent Tan’s fucked-up dreamworld. Given their money troubles of the past, Zeiss fans are all too aware of this. Jena president Rainer Zipfel called Duchâtelet’s an “opportunity the club would never have again”, but one of the leading ultra groups – Horda Azzuro – have announced they will no longer be actively organising any support in protest at the move. Could Carl Zeiss Jena, the former works club of the optical systems giant based in the city, become the next Hoffenheim?
The explosion of noise, jubilation and relief from perhaps one of Germany’s largest one-club city could be heard throughout the Bundesrepublik. SG Dynamo Dresden had, by the skin of their teeth, done it. They’d stayed up. Players danced and celebrated in front of a jubilant K block terrace, bearing t-shirts reiterating the club’s pledge to keep their head above water for two seasons before really “giving it a go” in 2013/14.
In truth, Dynamo’s second season after promotion from the third tier ought to have been much more comfortable than it turned out to be. They wandered almost blindly into the relegation mire and were arguably only saved from the ignominy of direct relegation due to the hopelessness of Regensburg and Sandhausen. Away form was an issue and the points that Dynamo had picked up on their travels the season before, leading to a comfortable 9th-place finish, were sorely missed.
So it came to a two-legged tie against perennial playoff participants VfL Osnabrück. Since the playoffs between Germany’s top-three tiers were reintroduced in 2009, the club from the Friedensstadt have been involved on three out of five occasions, both as a 2. Bundesliga club trying to avoid the drop and as a 3. Liga side striving for promotion, contriving to lose every single time. Indeed, Osnabrück were Dynamo’s opponents two years ago when the Dresden club achieved an unlikely promotion back to the second tier after an outstanding end-of-season run-in.
The first leg, on a balmy Friday night at Osnabrück’s chocolate-box Stadion an der Bremer Brücke, went the way of the home side. Both sides looked on equal footing, with Dynamo desperately searching for that oh-so-important away goal. Shortly before half-time, with the match finely poised, Osnabrück attacking fulcrum Gaetano Manno slipped a cross-cum-shot in at Dynamo keeper Benni Kirsten’s near post. Kirsten, son of Dynamo legend Ulf, could certainly have done better, despite the fact that he was unsighted. However, the ‘keeper atoned for his error by saving a vital second-half penalty from Timo Staffelt, awarded after a handball from Dynamo captain Bregerie. Incredibly, it was Kirsten’s 5th penalty save of the season, including two in one match in a vital home win over Paderborn as the regular season drew to a close. Despite the efforts of Idir Ouali and the rather blunt Pavel Fort, Dynamo failed to find the net. Nevertheless, overturning a one-goal deficit was considered doable, but a two-goal defeat away from home without troubling the scoresheet would have been disastrous.
Every Dynamo fan knew what was at stake in the return leg. Relegation to the unpopular German third tier would not simply have had sporting implications, it may have also threatened SG Dynamo Dresden’s very existence. The club had only survived their 2009/10 promotion season after a €2 million cash injection from city authorities, a favour they may think twice about granting again in the future.
The primeval roar that greeted the players onto the pitch was merely a taste of things to come. Fans often refer themselves rather self-assuredly as the “twelfth man”, but in Dresden’s case this is often true – especially on a night like this. The Osnabrück players were visibly affected by the raucous atmosphere and attempted to play it safe, rarely venturing forward in the first half with much intent. On the half-hour mark, just as there appeared to be a tiny glint of nervousness in the Dynamo support, Cristian Fiel picked up the ball on the right after good work from Ouali and proceeded to lash the ball into the top right-hand corner with vengeance. It was a goal of tremendous quality that left ‘keeper Riemann rooted to the spot. What’s more, it was a microcosm of the situation the Osnabrück players found themselves in – almost completely powerless to stop this highly motivated Dresden side, buoyed on by 30,000 frenzied fans.
The second half provided much of the same, although a noticeably less-frantic Dynamo pushed and probed and waited for their opportunity to tip the tie in their favour. The away goals rule meant that even the slightest mistake could have left Dynamo needing two more to win, but any Osnabrück attack was defended resolutely. Perhaps their only clear opportunity came shortly before Dynamo’s first goal, when Kirsten appeared to bring down Zoller in the box. Referee Gagelmann waved play on and Dynamo had just about enough time to remove their hearts from their mouths before Fiel’s spectacular opener.
As in the first leg, Gaetano Manno was a constant threat for the guests with tricky footwork and clever runs. However, on many occasions support was sorely lacking from his teammates. It seemed only a matter of time before Osnabrück’s frail defence crumbled, and sure enough on 71 minutes substitute Tobias Kempe breaking through on the right and crossing. Eventually the ball fell to Idir Ouali, almost an ever-present in the Dynamo side this term, who made no mistake from 6 yards to edge Dresden in front on aggregate. Despite a few customary scares late on, Osnabrück failed to make a breakthrough and Dresden were left to celebrate survival in front of a sold-out Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion.
The bright orange light of the flares pierced the night air and the week- or even month-long tension that had built was released like the cork on a champagne bottle. An attempted pitch invasion and a few isolated bangers were almost immediately prohibited by players, officials and, yes, fellow Dynamo fans and all were left to UFFTA the night away safe in the knowledge that 2. Bundesliga football would be returning to the Florence of the Elbe next season.
Nu Dynamo, nächste Saison aber risch!