Augsburg and Hoffenheim are like chalk and cheese but the clubs have a fight for survival in common as the Bundesliga season draws to a close.
At the winter break, the teams looked doomed to visiting the likes of Ingolstadt and Erzgebirge Aue in the second division next season: Hoffenheim had a mere 12 points from 17 matches, Augsburg 9.
But in their own ways, they have scraped together enough points to have a fighting chance of avoiding the dreaded drop.
The Bavarians of Augsburg, currently 16th, are the archetypal hard-up strugglers. The club nearly went bust a decade ago and only returned to professional football in 2006, yet played in the top flight for the first time last season.
Money is tight and 12 goals from their first 17 games told a tale of struggling journeymen, misplaced passes and backs-to-the-wall defending. Augsburg’s nickname, The Fuggers, is not an insult, but a reference to an industrial family that long controlled the city.
Think Wigan Athletic, without the charm.
But plucky Augsburg have been magnificent in 2013 –only four Bundesliga teams have won more points.
Meanwhile, one place behind are Hoffenheim. Bankrolled by billionaire software mogul Dietmar Hopp, they are Germany’s nouveaux riches. As one of only two Bundesliga clubs not owned by the fans (the other, Bayer Leverkusen can be forgiven because of their historic links with the club’s owners), Hoff are largely unloved by German fans.
While Hoffenheim, and fellow strugglers Greuther Furth and Wolfsburg chopped and changed coaches, Augsburg’s decision to stay loyal to 38-year-old Markus Weinzierl proved a masterstroke.
Weinzierl, who took over from Jos Luhukay last summer, got his tactics spot on in Sunday’s 2-0 win against Champions League chasing Eintracht Frankfurt.
Playing an attack-minded 4-1-4-1 formation, Augsburg dominated from first whistle to last.
Ji Dong-Won, on loan from Sunderland, scored two terrific goals, and had a third inexplicably ruled out in between. The South Korean has been astute signing, starting all 12 games in 2013. Now armed with ‘‘Ji- force,’’ Augsburg are starting to believe in a survival miracle. Paolo di Canio take note.
Elsewhere, former Arsenal keeper Alex Manninger, who has been through more clubs than Adam Scott, looked a reliable shotstopper, while Tobias Werner and rejuvenated Czech Jan Moravek were outstanding in midfield.
Every survival bid needs a talisman and Augsburg’s comes in the form of top scorer Sascha Mölders, one of those players who makes up in commitment what he lacks in talent.
Playing his 50th match for Augsburg, Mölders showed all his qualities against Frankfurt: tireless work rate, brave heading and a sitter missed in embarrassing style. After a career in the lower leagues, Mölders is relishing his moment in the spotlight.
Having badly smashed his nose in a vital win against Hoffenheim, a reporter asked Mölders if he had considered coming off.
‘‘No, I’ve got four kids, why should I care about my looks?’’ was the reply.
Augsburg fans certainly appreciate the burly forward: dozens wore plasters over their noses for the team’s next match.
Jokes aside, Mölders needs to recapture his goalscoring form: after five strikes in the first six matches of 2013, he has gone more than 500 minutes without finding the net.
Still, Mölders and Augsburg are used to Houdini acts. Last season they had just 15 points at Christmas, before amassing 23 in the second to survive. This term, they only have six wins under their belts, but four have come in the last seven games.
That’s the kind of experience missing at moneybags Hoffenheim, who began this season as they did last, targeting European qualification.
While Augsburg decided to hang on to one coach, Hoff dumped three.
Former Bayern Munich and Liverpool star Markus Babbel was shown the door in December, after less than a year in charge. Caretaker Frank Kramer was replaced by Marco Kurz, who was then sacked in favour of the little-known Markus Gisdol.
Early signs are promising for the former Schalke assistant coach. He started with a 3-0 victory against Fortuna Dusseldorf and was only denied a second win on Saturday by a late Wolfsburg equalizer.
After two wins and two draws in five matches, Hoffenheim’s expensively assembled squad is sensing survival. But one look at the club’s fortunes with goalkeepers gives the impression that fate is conspiring against them.
Babbel brought in former international Tim Wiese. Dubbed the ‘’Scandal Keeper’’ by the German press, 25 goals conceded in 10 Hoffenheim games now seem the least of his problems. Dropped and despondent, Wiese was fined by the club for what police called ‘‘rude’’ behaviour in a men’s toilet at a party while he was dressed as a prisoner.
This week Wiese, who has not played since January despite being the club’s best paid player, missed training after waking up with half a tooth missing. What of his replacement? Heurelho Gomes, loaned from Tottenham, started well, but broke a hand in the Dusseldorf win and is out for the season.
Ahead of this weekend’s fixtures, Augsburg are in the playoff spot on 27 points, with Hoffenheim three points back.
If Gisdol’s men get anything from a visit to third-placed Bayer Leverkusen, they will be full of confidence ahead of winnable home matches against Nuremberg and Hamburg.
Augsburg also have three away games left, starting with a visit to Borussia Monchengladbach on Friday. Trips to Freiburg and Bayern Munich look daunting, so Weinzierl will need maximum points from home matches against cup finalists Stuttgart and rock bottom Furth.
Above those two, 15th placed Fortuna Dusseldorf are now suddenly in real trouble and will be hoping Augsburg and Hoffenheim quickly return to their losing ways.
Eurosport2 has live Bundesliga action on Friday with Bochum v St Pauli (18:00) in the second division, before Monchengladbach v Augsburg (20:30). Then on Saturday don’t miss Dortmund v Mainz (15:30) and Bremen v Wolfsburg (18:30). On Sunday there’s Stuttgart v Freiburg and Nurenberg v Furth. Coverage in north and east Europe only.