It’s been tight all season at the bottom of the Bundesliga. Even teams theoretically in the mid-table positions have been in danger of the drop until recent weeks, and it’s taken some good runs of form for a few teams who made clever gambles for the larger relegation pack to be whittled down to a trio of teams who look likely to make up the bottom three; Hamburger SV, Eintracht Braunschweig, and, a club in the news heavily this week, 1.FC Nürnberg. With two points separating the three, three games left to play, and only one spot – realistically speaking, with Stuttgart’s recent up-turn in form under Huub Stevens – providing a shot at survival in the relegation playoff, it’s going to be an enthralling three final matchdays.
Why have Nürnberg been in the news, though? Earlier in the week it broke that the Franconian outfit released manager Gertjan Verbeek, who himself had only replaced the outgoing Michael Wiesinger in November, after the manager’s strenuous training techniques had causes outrage among senior players. It also helped the cause in sacking Verbeek a lot that Nürnberg’s form has been terrible in recent times – losing eight of their last nine, leaving der Club struggling in down in seventeenth place, after a relatively positive run of results after Christmas. Nürnberg’s sporting director, Martin Bader, said “Until now he was the right coach, but the team needs all the help it can get. The decision wasn’t easy for us; Gertjan always worked meticulously – but staying in the Bundesliga is of the utmost priority for us”.
With three games to go, such a measure presents a reasonable risk, and might be slightly surprising, if you look at the decision in the same way as many saw Norwich’s decision to sack Chris Hughton a few weeks ago – with more games to go, too – but Nürnberg will hope that points from their final games, against Mainz, Hannover and Schalke – are slightly more attainable than in Norwich’s Premier League run-in.
The man tasked with saving Nürnberg has, like in Norwich’s case, also been promoted from within on a caretaker basis. Roger Prinzen has managed teams outright before – largely in Liechtenstein – but the ex-Darmstadt midfielder has in recent years managed Nürnberg II, filling in as the first team coach once this season already between Wiesinger and Verbeek’s spells as manager in a 1-1 draw with Frankfurt.
Despite his lack of top level pedigree, Prinzen could still be the man to turn things around. A lot depends on how his rivals perform – Braunschweig and Hamburg could both win nine points, even if it would upset the form book to quite a ridiculous level – but if his new squad gives it all they have to impress their manager and any potential incoming manager next season, playing the third placed 2. Bundesliga team is a realistic expectation, and would give der Club a good chance of survival.
A lot will hinge on the form of der Club’s key men. Much has been written about Josip Drmic this season, and for good reason. The 21 year old Swiss forward has played out of his skin this season despite a slight dip in form in recent weeks, netting 16 Bundesliga goals. To put it into perspective, Nürnberg have only scored 36 this season. As well as fighting relegation for his current club, Drmic also has the carrot of a World Cup place for Switzerland up for grabs, and so should be up for the final few games, even if his recent performances have been sub-par.
Playmaker Hiroshi Kiyotake, goalkeeper Raphael Schäfer and midfielder Jose Campana will all be important for Nürnberg in their battle for survival too. Schäfer is a respected Bundesliga goalkeeper in the twilight of his career, but has had an excellent season as custodian of the Nürnberg despite his club’s relatively poor goal difference. Kiyotake hasn’t yet hit the personal heights of last season, but remains a player who on his day can unlock any defence and Nürnberg’s form and potency going forward under Prinzen will surely hinge on how many chances Kiyotake can fashion for his teammates. Campana joined Nürnberg on loan from Crystal Palace in January and has quickly become part of the heart of FCN’s midfield, tidily leading the play forward, creating a number of chances and gaining an assist and a goal from his ten games in a Nürnberg shirt.
Whatever happens to Nürnberg between now and mid-May – relegation or survival – Prinzen should remain pretty much blameless, the damage having been done under the ultra-conservative Wiesinger and the reckless, scrappy, disjointed performances under Verbeek. But the next few weeks will offer Nürnberg players a chance to go down in der Club’s long and proud folklore – stretching back to all those German titles in the 1920s – and with that in mind, they really have to give it all they have.