Last week, Wolfsburg secured their place in the quarter-finals of this year’s Champions League with a win over surprise package Gent.
Despite suffering a scare in the first leg in Gent, where Wolfsburg almost threw away a 0-3 lead and held on to win 2-3, the second leg back in Wolfsburg saw a relaxed and professional performance from the Germans. Whilst the 1-0 scoreline, thanks to a goal from Andre Schürrle, may make the game seem close, in reality, Wolfsburg could not have been more comfortable.
Gent did little to trouble their more illustrious opponents, and seemed to lack a plan B. Early attacks down the wings were dealt with relatively comfortably by Wolfsburg’s defence, and Gent never seemed to try and alter their game plan, giving off the impression that they were short of ideas.
Despite Gent’s impressive group stage and their almost-comeback in the first leg, Wolfsburg did not have to be close to their best to see off the challenge of the Belgian upstarts. It was clear that Wolfsburg was operating on a higher level than Gent, whose inexperience in Europe’s elite competition was brought into sharp relief.
Having seen off one of the weakest sides left in the Champions League, and in doing so having secured their passage to the quarterfinals of the competition for the first time in their history, Wolfsburg now finds themselves in uncharted territory.
Because of this, and the fact that Wolfsburg are now themselves one of the weaker teams left in the competition, many pundits have predicted that this is as far as they will go.
However, this might not be a fair judgement of a team who last season finished second only to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, won the German Cup, and reached the quarterfinals of the Europa League.
They have also brought in some strong players to offset the loss of talismanic winger Kevin De Bruyne to Manchester City. With the money they made from De Bruyne’s sale, Wolfsburg brought in Andre Schürrle, Julian Draxler and Dante, all players with experience of top level football in cup and league competitions (indeed, Schürrle and Draxler are both World Cup winners, having been in the Germany team that lifted the trophy in 2014). All three players took to the field against Gent, and all looked solid and assured. Indeed, the only goal of the game came from magnificent build up play from Draxler, allowing Schürrle to tap into an almost empty net.
Clearly, they are a side with talented players who are more than capable of holding their own against quality opposition – although they have struggled this year in the Bundesliga, currently finding themselves in eighth place. It remains to be seen whether or not Wolfsburg will choose to focus on improving their Bundesliga form over their Champions League hopes, as they currently sit outside the European qualification spots and risk missing out on European football next season altogether if things stay as they are.
They also have experience of competing at the business end of knock-out cup competitions, both domestically and in Europe, after the success of last year. Of course, whether they are equipped to tackle the elite of European football is another matter.
It seems likely at first glance that Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, and potentially even PSG and Atlético Madrid, would possess enough to dump Wolfsburg out of the competition. Die Wölfe should instead hope to draw Manchester City or Benfica, both teams that are not quite up there with the elites, and who may offer a more even contest. City continues to have issues scoring goals and in keeping their key players fit and in form, whereas Benfica looked unconvincing in knocking out Zenit St. Petersburg in the round of 16, so the best bet of progression for Wolfsburg seems to be against one of these two teams.
That said, with the possible exception of Barcelona, most of the ‘elite’ teams do appear to have some weaknesses – although whether Die Wölfe are capable of exploiting them is another matter. Real, Bayern and PSG all showed at times during their last-16 ties that they are vulnerable and prone to making defensive errors. Bayern was within seconds of being dumped out by a Juventus side that were ridiculously underrated by many pundits, and on another day, Real could have conceded a number of goals at home to Roma. PSG did just about enough to see off Chelsea, but did not put in a performance of such class as to send fear running through the teams left in the competition. Given the nature of cup football, and with the rub of the green, Wolfsburg should have no fear of playing these teams, and their chances of progression might well be much higher than the average pundit would have you believe.
So long as Wolfsburg avoid drawing Barcelona, and play with a bit more adventure than they did in their victory over Gent, then the potential for the German side to make even further progress in Europe’s premier competition is high. Of course, much also rests on whether Wolfsburg chose to battle hard in Europe, or whether they switch their attention to dragging themselves back up the Bundesliga table. Either way, it should be interesting finding out.