Kevin De Bruyne leads Wolfsburg to come-from-behind win over tricky Inter
WOLFSBURG, Germany -- Three quick observations from the Europa Round of 16 clash between Wolfsburg and Inter Milan, which finished 3-1 to the in-form German side thanks to goals from Naldo and two from Kevin de Bruyne...
1. Wolfsburg's rise continues with impressive win
With the arrival of former Werder Bremen sporting director Klaus Allofs in late 2012 and the signing of Nurnberg coach Dieter Hecking, Wolfsburg's recovery began after a long drought and several flirts with relegation.
Over the years the pair brought in Luiz Gustavo from Bayern Munich, centre-back Naldo from Bremen, winger Ivan Perisic from Borussia Dortmund, Kevin de Bruyne from Chelsea but also showed vision by signing young left-back Ricardo Rodriguez from Switzerland's first division, plus the inclusion of youngsters like holding midfielder Maximilian Arnold or defender Robin Knoche. All but the injured Arnold took to the field against Inter on Thursday.
In March 2015, they are almost a certain bet for a spot in next year's Champions League, have added Andre Schurrle to their already excellent squad and in target man Bas Dost, 25, have one of the most unlikely target mans in Europe. His hot streak may have ended (he's without a goal in three consecutive games) but he remains a perfect focal point for Wolfsburg's attack.
They're a club that want to win titles, and their big goal as the only remaining Bundesliga club in the Europa League, is to win it as the first German team since the re-branding of the competition. They're on their way after Thursday's win thanks to Kevin De Bruyne, who after the match stood on the Nordkurve and celebrated with the Wolfsburg supporters.
At first the Bundesliga side struggled, conceding a goal after only six minutes. But they recovered. Slowly. First they shut the holes in their back four, The two-centre backs Naldo and Knoche found their rhythm, Rodriguez made more runs down the left, and Atletico Madrid loanee Josuha Guilavogui in holding midfielder closed gaps, won possession and started plays.
Once they got up and running, Rodriguez (who was coveted by Manchester United last summer) made use of the space and Inter's Danilo D'Ambrosio could not stop him. After winning a corner, the Wolves took advantage. They love their set pieces and so Kevin de Bruyne's delivery found the head of the towering Naldo, who hammered it into the back of the net. 1-1.
In the second half, Wolfsburg fine-tuned their formation following the decision to withdraw Schurrle. De Bruyne's passes finally reached their destination, Luiz Gustavo offered more support to Guilavogui and Inter's resistance was broken. De Bruyne scored twice and climbed the fence.
2. Inter, Xherdan Shaqiri start brightly, burn out
Inter maybe faced the most difficult task of them all, playing Wolfsburg in the round of 16. Former Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri knew that the road to Europa League triumph has to go past Die Wolfe, who, especially after their impressive 4-1 victory over Bayern Munich, have been named favourites to win the final in Warsaw.
Inter began the match in front of 25,374 fans at the Volkswagen Arena with a lot of courage. The attacking trio of Shaqiri, Rodrigo Palacio, and Mauro Icardi took command of the early stages of the game. Shaqiri was mostly tied to the right wing at the beginning and then as the game settled, also took a more central role. He watched Icardi pick up Schurrle's sloppy back pass and Palacio score from the through ball only six minutes into the tie. They continued to control the match, with veteran attacker Palacio in particular impressing.
The 33-year-old wore down the makeshift right-back Vierinha throughout the first half. He was left with too many problems to solve caused by Palacio's diverting runs to the left, his passes and his physical presence. Inter exploited the weakness on that side, but slowly they lost control of the match when Wolfsburg began to attack higher. The Nerrazurri waited for the counter and hoped to bypass midfield with long balls. They were lucky to still be alive at half-time.
Aside a few rare counters and some late pressure, they wear unable to be dangerous in Wolfsburg's half after the break and with every passing minute, conceding another goal was the more likely option. And so it happened twice. The second one, a free-kick outside the box, also left question marks over the qualities of Europa League shot-stopper Juan Pablo Carrizo, who vacated his near post and hence was unable to parry De Bruyne's shot.
Next week, Inter have a mountain to climb in their second leg. Wolfsburg have only been beaten once (a 1-0 defeat at Bundesliga surprise package Augsburg last weekend) in their last 17 competitive games.
3. Schurrle's slowing down
The pressure has been on Andre Schurrle ever since his 32 million euros transfer from Chelsea to Wolfsburg on a hectic final day of the transfer window for the Bundesliga club. The World Cup winner, returning to Germany after only 18 months at Stamford Bridge, only needed a few minutes in his first match against Hoffenheim to set up his first goal, and later in the match added another assist.
But in the games that followed Schurrle appeared tired and his impact on the Inter game faded. Six weeks into his time at the Volkswagen Arena, the winger hit rock-bottom when he was taken off for Christian Trasch at half-time. The 45 minutes before his substitution had been a nightmare.
It all started when Schurrle, pressured by an Inter player, was unable to control a back pass in the build-up play. This mistake, after only six minutes, was the starting point for the crucial way goal by Rodrigo Palacio. He never recovered.
Schurrle did not once get into the game, his passes ended up in the Inter defense, his runs with the ball were stopped and he never got into dangerous positions, nor did he create any chances. The Germany international, just like Lukas Podolski (not a member of Inter's Europa League squad) has yet to recover from the World Cup, it seems. A mysterious illness saw him lose his place at Chelsea in the first half of the season, and he will need more time to adapt to his new club and regain fitness.
With his substitution and the subsequent changes to the formation (Trasch now played at right back and Vierinha returned to the wing), the match got a new energy. Palacio abandoned the wing, and it came as no surprise that Vierinha set up De Bruyne for his 63rd minute goal.
Of course, it would be foolish to write Schurrle off yet. Last season, under different circumstance but transferred in the same direction, it took Kevin De Bruyne time to settle in Lower Saxony. This season, the Belgian international has turned into one of the Bundesliga's biggest stars, creating 22 goals in all competitions. He has also scored 13 goals and gave tournament favourites Wolfsburg more than just a lifeline going into the second leg next week with his second half brace. The midfielder could have killed the tie a minute into injury time, but his shot from close range went narrowly wide.
Much like De Bruyne, Schurrle will be allowed all the time he needs to settle at Wolfsburg -- unlike under-pressure Lukas Podolski at Inter. Whether he can capitalise is entirely up to him.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.