When it’s all about the show, it’s easy to overdramatise results, moments, little victories, setbacks. In a season in which VfB Stuttgart have lost all the momentum from their excellent finish to last season, struggled for goals, for form and fired coach Tayfun Korkut as fears of a second relegation in three seasons have grown, they have been part of this sort of dialogue as much as any other club.
After a gutsy second-half display against Hertha Berlin, Stuttgart had battled to a second straight win at home, and a third in their last five Bundesligagames, which gave them a degree of extra comfort in 15th, having started the day two points above the foot of the table. After a rousing second-half comeback, the majority of the 47,680 gathered in a freezing Mercedes-Benz Arena exhaled a collective sigh of relief.
But this was a night, tragically, in which it was all put into some sort of perspective. Shortly after the captain Christian Gentner completed the flash interviews for television, which are carried out almost immediately after the final whistle, he discovered his father, Herbert, had collapsed at the stadium. Efforts to revive him were in vain, and he died.
As the club downplayed news of the victory over Hertha on their website, replacing it with a short statement relaying the news and offering sympathy to the Gentners, it was swiftly made clear how deeply this was felt. The family is considered part of the club.
Gentner grew up in Nürtingen, a small town half-an-hour to the south of the city, and joined the club’s academy at 14. He’s been through everything at the club since then, winning the title with the youth team in 2003 and then improbably repeating the feat with the seniors in 2007, before being part of the squad that suffered relegation in 2016 after he returned from a three-year spell at Wolfsburg.
Through good times and bad, and especially in a second spell that already encompasses over 300 games, Gentner has been a mainstay for Stuttgart on and off the pitch, putting body and soul on the line. In a game against Wolfsburg last September, he suffered extensive facial injuries in a horrific, accidental clash with Wolfsburg goalkeeper Koen Casteels, fracturing his eye socket, nose and jaw. He returned just two months later, wearing a protective mask for months and ploughing on as Stuttgart battled to re-establish themselves in the top flight.
After a timid team performance in Saturday’s first half, in which Hertha had almost 75% of possession and ran rings around their meek hosts, substitute Anastasios Donis energised Stuttgart’s attack after the break but Gentner pulled the team up by its bootstraps – tackling, organising, cajoling and demanding character. Few elements of life at Stuttgart have been smooth this season, with stutters on the pitch and murmurs of discontent off it, with one ultras group distributing leaflets protesting president Wolfgang Dietrich’s running of the club before kick-off. Gentner has been stoic throughout.
Now, for once, it’s the club’s turn to look after the captain. With the Englische Woche on the horizon, Stuttgart will leave it up to Gentner to see if he feels up to travelling north to Lower Saxony for Tuesday’s meeting with his former club Wolfsburg, with whom he was part of another unlikely Bundesliga title win in 2009. Stuttgart have cancelled all media appointments on this side of the game, allowing Gentner and his family time and space.
His teammates, a number of whom offered their condolences on Saturday night, will be determined to give everything for their skipper, whether he travels with them or not. Social media isn’t always the space to find the right words, but few put the feeling better on Saturday night than midfielder Daniel Didavi, on his Instagram account. “Sometimes you think that footballis everything,” he wrote. “But then you realise that football means nothing.”
If it could provide the smallest of comforts this weekend, then it at least did that. Mario Gómez’s brace in the second half against Hertha showed exactly how much this mattered to Stuttgart, and how well Gentner led them. If their careers varied in the years that they were away from Swabia, Gómez’s and Gentner’s respective two spells broadly mirror each other, firstly with the 2007 title triumph and now, leading thethe club to stability in the Bundesligaonce again.
After last week’s unfortunate loss at Gladbach, in which Gómez struggled, the club’s director of football, Michael Reschke, said the centre-forward “will get back to scoring important goals for us before Christmas, I’m certain”. Gómez quickly proved him right. After 734 barren minutes, stretching back to the defeat at Hannover in early October, Gómez got goals 165 and 166 of his Bundesliga career on Saturday, both strikes of considerable class which made his previous dry spell even harder to believe.
As only the second time this season that Stuttgart have come back from a deficit to get something, after September’s 3-3 draw at Freiburg – and that hardly felt like much of an exploit, after conceding a late equaliser to Gian-Luca Waldschmidt – it felt as if coach Markus Weinzierl, an agitated presence on the touchline who must feel like he’s been through a lot in two short months of trying to get the team on track, was finally hitting the right notes. As Saturday evening set in the travails of Weinzierl, and Stuttgart, were put into context.
• Borussia Dortmund stretched their unbeaten run to 15 and their lead at the top to nine points with a 2-1 home win over Werder Bremen, confirming them as Herbstmeister, or autumn champions. The attitude at Westfalen is changing, though, from ‘pleased to be here’ bonhomie to the resolve of serious competitors, with winning goalscorer Marco Reus saying the unofficial title “doesn’t mean much if you don’t win at the end of the season.” Elsewhere Nuri Sahin received a huge reception on an emotional return with the away side.
• Bayern Munich breezed to a 4-0 win at now-bottom Hannover, their third in a row. It could have been many more, with a slew of chances missed between Joshua Kimmich – who was restored to right-back – getting the opener and David Alaba thrashing in a sublime second. “The door is still open,” said Kimmich. “It’s at more than nine points that it becomes a bit unrealistic.” Kimmich also set up the fourth for Robert Lewandowski and only Jadon Sancho has more Bundesliga assists this term.
• Borussia Mönchengladbach dropped a couple of points in a how-did-it-stay-goalless draw at Hoffenheim, but more concerning for Dieter Hecking were injuries to frontmen Lars Stindl and Raffael, with both out of the midweeker with Nürnberg and probably Friday’s showdown at Dortmund too.
• “Really?” After scoring Wolfsburg’s opener at Nürnberg, Daniel Ginczek was shocked to learn from a TV reporter that it paved the way for their first Friday night win since 2011, which takes them into the top eight before Stuttgart arrive.