Eintracht Frankfurt have saved their best days in 2022 for the UEFA Europa League, writes Chris Mayer-Lodge, who covers German football for the official Bundesliga website…
It has not been the most consistent of seasons for Eintracht Frankfurt, but they have shown that - on their day - they can beat anyone.
Barcelona and Bayern Munich are the club’s biggest scalps under Oliver Glasner, the Austrian coach who last term steered a watertight Wolfsburg team into the UEFA Champions League group stages at the expense of his current employers.
Frankfurt fell a point short of a top-four finish in 2020/21, while 28-goal top scorer André Silva departed for Bundesliga rivals RB Leipzig in the close season. The club retained the services of coveted talisman Filip Kostić, but a seven-match winless start to the Glasner era, beginning with a shock DFB Cup first-round loss to third-tier Waldhof Mannheim, only dampened expectation.
“We should have won a fair amount of matches – not just in the Bundesliga but ideally in the Europa League too,” Glasner told the Frankfurt club website when asked what would constitute a successful debut season at the helm. “For me, the way we play is very important, the type of football we play and whether you see that individual players and we as a team are progressing in a positive direction. If we see that, coupled with as many points as possible, I’ll be very content and will look back on a very good season.”
Frankfurt broke the cycle away to Belgium’s Royal Antwerp on Matchday Two in UEFA Europa League Group D, courtesy of Gonçalo Paciência’s injury-time penalty. A smash-and-grab 2-1 triumph at Bayern followed in their next Bundesliga fixture and, despite some hot-and-cold performances, Eintracht went in at the winter break only a point outside the Champions League places. They also advanced to the Europa League knockouts as unbeaten group winners.
Frankfurt have slipped to mid-table in the Bundesliga since the turn of the calendar year, but have reached the Europa League semi-finals without losing. They needed extra time to see off Real Betis in the last 16, before dumping out Xavi’s Barcelona to the tune of 4-3 on aggregate at the quarter-final stage.
Over the two legs against Barça, Glasner’s team averaged 30 percent possession. They survived defender Tuta’s 78th-minute sending off in the 1-1 home draw and, roared on by some 30,000 gatecrashers inside Camp Nou, a late onslaught in the Catalan capital. Barcelona scored twice in added time, but the damage had already been done.
“Nobody expected this, if you are honest,” admitted goalkeeper Kevin Trapp after the game. “Everyone expected us to suffer, that they would have lots of possession. We needed to take our chances and today we were very efficient.”
Understatement of the year. Frankfurt scored three times from seven shots on goal in the second leg, with Kostić hitting a brace and assisting a stunning 25-yard strike from Rafael Santos Borré. The Serbian left-winger is the Europa League’s top provider this term, Eintracht’s top dog for total goal involvement across all competitions and absolutely key to the success of Glasner’s aggressive counter-pressing 3-4-2-1 formation.
“I absolutely love him,” commented former Barcelona striker Hristov Stoichkov on one of the best left-footed players in the modern business. “He’s a magnificent player, who makes the left-hand flank his own. He has a strong personality and winning mentality. He’s dynamic, technically adept and works incredibly hard.”
Frankfurt would arguably be on another level if they had a right-sided player to match Kostić’s art, consistency, guile and execution. They don't, but there is still ample talent within the ranks. Fleet-footed Borussia Dortmund loanee Ansgar Knauff - cherry-picked by Jürgen Klopp as a youngster, and scorer of a stunning half volley in the first leg against Barcelona - is showing himself to be the answer to Glasner’s problem position. Daichi Kamada marries industry with creativity in the playmaker role, while Borré - though not exactly prolific - is a workhorse of a central striker in the Carlos Tevez mould.
Defensively, Djibril Sow and Kristijan Jakić typically act as the no-frills midfield pivot in front of a back three marshalled by Martin Hinteregger, who enjoys cult-hero status among the Frankfurt faithful. Such is his popularity within the club, the Austria international was coaxed back out of the away dressing room with chants of “Hinti, Hinti, Hinti!”, long after the final whistle in Barcelona. "I’m used to it in Frankfurt, but it’s crazy that it’s happening at the Camp Nou. It was like a home game,” he said.
Hinteregger is an imposing physical presence and natural leader, much like seasoned goalkeeper Trapp. The Germany international boasts the cat-like reactions to match his command of the 18-yard area, and is second only to Leipzig counterpart Péter Gulácsi in the shots-to-saves department among the Europa League’s four remaining teams. Along with the likes of Hinteregger, Kostić and Kamada, Trapp is also one of eleven surviving members of the Frankfurt squad that reached the 2018/19 Europa League semi-finals, only losing to eventual winners Chelsea on penalties.
Three years on, the Frankfurt Flying Circus have genuine designs on walking the tightrope all the way to the big top, the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, in Seville.