By Mark Bennett
With all three of Germany's UEFA Cup challengers eliminated in the Round of 32 last night, the country's most popular newspaper, Bild, was today reflecting on 'a dark day for German football'.
FC Schalke 04, VfB Stuttgart and TSV Alemannia Aachen all entered their second-leg ties hopeful of progressing only to respectively suffer elimination by FC Shakhtar Donetsk, Parma FC and AZ Alkmaar. Level at the top of the Bundesliga with FC Bayern München and in the ascendancy following a 1-1 draw in Ukraine, the 1-0 defeat by Shakhtar in Gelsenkirchen was particularly difficult for Schalke to swallow.
Coach Ralf Rangnick was left "extremely disappointed", adding: "We weren't in the game in the first 20 minutes and we allowed them too many chances. Our passing lacked accuracy but we improved slightly after 30 minutes and my players really tried their best after the break." Striker Ebbe Sand called on his team-mates to "put this match behind us quickly" and "concentrate on the Bundesliga".
In Stuttgart, coach Matthias Sammer also had to search for reasons why his side failed to overcome Parma, a side fighting relegation in Serie A. "I am not happy with our display and to make it worse we couldn't beat a side down to ten men, although they created the better chances from open play," he said. "I am disappointed because we wanted to go a long way in the UEFA Cup." Bayer 04 Leverkusen away on Sunday will be equally tough.
Aachen coach Dieter Hecking remained upbeat, however, taking pride from the second division side's performances in the competition. No one thought the German Cup runners-up would negotiate the group stage, yet they did so and were within ten minutes of eliminating Eredivisie high-flyers Alkmaar. "It is a pity seeing that we delivered a fantastic performance," said Hecking. "We not only fought really hard, but played very good football. The UEFA Cup was a great experience."
All three German sides could find themselves in familiar company when the return legs of the UEFA Champions League last-16 ties are played in a fortnight. Werder Bremen look down and out after losing 3-0 at home to Olympique Lyonnais, while Leverkusen face a difficult but not impossible task of overturning a 3-1 deficit when Liverpool FC visit the BayArena.
Of the German challengers in Europe, only Bayern were victorious, 3-1 against Arsenal FC. Yet even that success was tainted as the English side struck in the 88th minute to salvage some hope for the return in London. "It was a stupid goal to concede," said coach Felix Magath. "If we had beaten them 3-0 we would almost certainly been through to the next round." Should they live to regret Kolo Touré's goal, German football will too.
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