Minnows Saarbruecken pray for another German Cup miracle
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Having last played a competitive match three months ago, fourth-tier minnows Saarbruecken are praying for another German Cup miracle against high-flying Bayer Leverkusen in Tuesday's semi-final.
It is the first time a team from such a low division has reached this stage of the cup.
Saarbruecken beat top-flight clubs Cologne and Fortuna Duesseldorf on their surprise charge to the last four -- vice-president Dieter Ferner described March's quarter-final victory over Duesseldorf as the "greatest sensation since the birth of Christ".
Saarbruecken are the home side against Bayer but the match will be played behind closed doors at the team's tiny ground in southwestern Germany, which usually holds around 7,000 spectators.
Their 38-year-old head coach Lukas Kwasniok dusted off another biblical reference when he said victory over Leverkusen and a place in the final at Berlin's Olympic Stadium on July 4 would be tantamount to the "rebirth of Jesus".
But while Duesseldorf are battling relegation and Cologne are mid-table, Bayer are chasing a Champions League spot.
"Leverkusen are certainly a different calibre than our previous cup opponents," added Kwasniok.
"But it's not that Leverkusen is our biggest opponent - it's fear. If we can get rid of that, I'm confident that we can achieve the next sensation."
Saarbruecken will be desperately short of match fitness having last played four days after their sensational quarter-final triumph in March. Football in Germany and across Europe was halted in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Leverkusen have been back playing since the Bundesliga resumed in mid-May, the season has been abandoned in the regional lower leagues.
Saarbruecken, who lost their three previous German Cup semi-finals, have not played a competitive game since March 7. At that point they led the fourth-tier Regionalliga Southwest by seven points and have been automatically promoted.
"If you're honest, we don't stand a chance," said veteran midfielder Tobias Jaenicke.
"But even if the chance is minimal, we want to take it."
Jaenicke, 31, gave the hosts the lead against Duesseldorf before the home quarter-final in March finished 1-1 after extra time and the hosts held their nerve to win 7-6 in a penalty shoot-out.
- 'Throw of the dice' -
"It's still unbelievable," said Jaenicke.
"You've come so far, now you want one really big throw of the dice."
Unlike Leverkusen, who have already tasted the sterile atmosphere of matches without crowds, Saarbruecken must adjust to playing behind closed doors at their ground.
"In the first 15 minutes, we will have to get used to the feeling of just playing at all," said Kwasniok.
"So we hope we can get through the first 15, 20 minutes without any damage and then gradually get into this game," he added optimistically.
At the weekend, Leverkusen led Bayern Munich, who play Eintracht Frankfurt in Wednesday's other semi-final, before succumbing to a 4-2 home defeat.
Peter Bosz's team will be without Germany forward Kai Havertz, the youngster who is attracting the attention of Europe's biggest clubs. He is out with a leg injury.
To meet the strict hygiene measures set by the German Football Association (DFB), the Saarbruecken team has been in a week-long quarantine in a hotel.
They were only able to return to training in small groups at the start of May -- a month later than Leverkusen -- but the home semi-final will be a season highlight.
"Everyone is looking forward to the game," said Kwasniok.
"It's been casting its shadow here for a long time. For weeks now we've only had this one highlight."
© 2020 AFP