Stuttgart v Union Berlin
Thursday 23 May, 19:30
Live on BT Sport 2 and Betfair Live Video
Willig has given Stuttgart vital momentum
When clubs implode on a regular basis, the causes aren't usually that difficult to find. Since Bruno Labbadia parted company with Stuttgart back in 2013, the club has made ten coaching changes, and no-one has lasted two years in the role. That instability has been particularly pronounced this term. Tayfun Korkut started the campaign as coach after leading VfB to seventh last season, but was dismissed in October. He had disagreed with sporting director Michael Reschke on which playing style was best to adopt – Korkut wanted to build on the solid platform he had built in the previous campaign, but Reschke wanted something more aesthetically pleasing.
Reschke then hired former Augsburg and Schalke boss Markus Weinzierl, but he was dismissed in April after a 6-0 hammering at his old club Augsburg. It wasn't Reschke who did the sacking – he had himself been fired in February and replaced with Thomas Hitzlsperger, a member of the title-winning team of 2007.
For the last four matches of the regular season, Stuttgart youth coach Nico WIllig has been in charge of first-team affairs, and there has been an improvement. Home wins over Borussia Monchengladbach and Wolfsburg saw the club avoid automatic relegation, and a run of one defeat in four matches has built confidence. Perhaps the most important improvement under Willig has been the team's defending – they have kept three clean sheets in four matches, a big step forward for a side that had one of the worst defensive records in the Bundesliga this term.
Ozan Kabak and Marc-Oliver Kempf are expected to return to central defence after they were rested for the goalless draw at Schalke. Daniel Didavi was withdrawn at half-time in Gelsenkirchen, which suggests to me that he will start, especially when you consider he is by far VfB's most creative player.
Union must recover after Bochum heartbreak
The Bundesliga 2 does a remarkable line in drama, and the final matchday was no exception. Second-placed Paderborn contrived to lose their last game at Dynamo Dresden, which meant that Union Berlin could have gone up with a win at Bochum. Union recovered from 2-0 down in a storming late comeback, but couldn't grab that third goal they needed. Paderborn celebrated an extraordinary return to the top flight, while Union had to make do with a playoff.
Union have the hand of recent history pushing against them. Opta tell us that no second-tier team has won this playoff since 2012, when Fortuna Dusseldorf overcame Hertha Berlin in 2012. Also, Union have never been promoted to the top flight in Germany. They have been knocking on the door for a while, having finished in the top half of the second tier in each of the last eight seasons.
Union had the best defensive record in the league, with just 33 goals conceded in 34 games, and in attack strikers Sebastian Polter and Sebastian Andersson netted 21 goals between them. Felix Kroos and Manuel Schmiedebach provide the Bundesliga experience in midfield, and left-back Ken Reichel is always a good attacking outlet.
The biggest concern for Union fans is that the capital club's form over the past couple of months has been pretty uninspiring. They have won just two of their last nine league games, and away from home they have won just two of their last 13 matches.
Stuttgart primed to take first-leg lead
Stuttgart have won both of their home games under Willig, and I'd expect the 55,000 Stuttgart fans to give their team raucous support. Stuttgart have only lost one of their last six home games, while Union have been struggling on the road.
Stuttgart are trading at [1.9] to win the first leg, and I believe that's an attractive price.
Don't expect a goalfest
Union will want to stay in the hunt and keep things tight until they can take Stuttgart back to the capital, and they are a pretty solid side that doesn't give much away. Stuttgart look a lot more resolute since Willig took charge, but they don't have much firepower.
This will be close, so backing Under 2.5 Goals at [1.81] makes sense.
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