By Mark Bennett
Eight months ago VfL Bochum 1848 were flying. The club had just secured European football after a dramatic end to the season, leaving Ruhr Valley rivals BV Borussia Dortmund and FC Schalke 04 trailing in their wake.
After a 3-1 win against Hannover 96 in May last year, players and fans alike chanted "Ruhr Valley's No1" as they celebrated qualifying for the UEFA Cup for only the second time in Bochum's history. "We want to establish ourselves in the top half of the table and stay well away from the drop zone in future," insisted coach Peter Neururer.
However, things have not gone to plan for Bochum. Following a summer which saw Vahid Hashemian joining FC Bayern München, Frank Fahrenhorst signing for Werder Bremen and Paul Freier moving to Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Neururer's side are battling against relegation and have already been dumped out of the UEFA Cup.
Iranian striker Hashemian, who scored 16 goals for Bochum last season and had formed a great partnership with 13-goal Peter Madsen, was a particularly profound loss. And at the moment, his replacement, 28-year-old Vratislav Lokvenc from 1. FC Kaiserslautern, has not filled his boots.
The Czech international has scored five goals - a reasonable return in a struggling team - but the chemistry between him and Danish international Madsen is just not there at the moment. No surprise, then, that Madsen has scored just twice all season.
Veteran Slovenian international Aleksandr Knavs, brought in to replace Fahrenhorst, has had a similarly hard time playing alongside Raymond Kalla in defence. Tellingly, Bochum have conceded 35 goalls in 17 Bundesliga games this season. Last season, they conceded just 39 in the whole league campaign.
Freier leaves gap
Midfield player Freier has proved every bit as hard to replace as Hashemian and Fahrenhorst. Christoph Preuss, Zvjezdan Misimovic and Tommy Bechmann were all signed in the summer to bolster Bochum's midfield, but to date, none have managed to replicate Freier's presence.
However, perhaps the biggest blow of all to Neururer's side was defeat in the UEFA Cup. After a goalless draw in Belgium in the first leg of their tie against R. Standard de Liège, Bochum seemed to have every chance of winning a place in the inaugural UEFA Cup group stage.
Marcel Maltritz gave them the lead deep into first-half added time in the return leg at the Ruhrstadion and the crowd were waiting for the whistle to blow in the dying stages of the second half when disaster struck as Jorge Winston cashed in on an Edu blunder and equalised, knocking Bochum out of the competition on away goals.
So far Bochum have not recovered from that disappointment, although Neururer is sure they will rally. "
We will improve after the winter break and we won't be relegated," he promised. Their season resumes with a home game against Hertha BSC Berlin. As a dogfight to the death awaits in the spring, they can forget about qualifying for Europe this season.
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