VfL Wolfsburg were flying high after the first half of the season but the tragic loss of Junior Malanda has left a cloud over the club as they prepare to resume their campaign.
Article top media content
VfL Wolfsburg are having to dig deep to get into the right frame of mind to resume their challenge in the Bundesliga and UEFA Europa League at the end of a winter break overshadowed by the tragic loss of midfielder Junior Malanda. The tough balancing act begins with one of the hardest fixtures of all on Friday, against league leaders FC Bayern München.
First a quick recap on Wolfsburg's campaign so far. On the pitch they have gone from strength to strength, establishing themselves as the second-best team in the Bundesliga. The 'best of the rest' has no negative connotations here: Wolfsburg finished fifth last term and were expected to do so again, yet find themselves above three of Germany's four UEFA Champions League hopefuls. Bayern remain a different class, flexing their muscles unremittingly.
It's no fluke Wolfsburg are second, either. Coach Dieter Hecking, two years in charge, has made good use of the depth of his squad to complement Bundesliga performances with UEFA Europa League progress. February's round of 32 pits them against Sporting Clube de Portugal, a high-calibre tie that will demand their best.
That is the sporting perspective, a vista full of promise and hope. But, for the past two and a half weeks, nobody at the club has cared much about that. The tragic death of Junior Malanda, the 20-year-old Belgian Under-21 international, has dominated hearts and minds. How, why and where do you go from losing your friend like that? He had been on his way to the airport to join the squad on a flight to South Africa when he was killed in a car crash.
"It was tough going for all of us," club CEO Klaus Allofs said after Malanda's funeral, attended by over two thousand people in Brussels. "To say goodbye to Junior hurt tremendously. It was important, though, and we all had a huge desire to pay our last respects." Malanda will be missed by many and the walk down the tunnel for the Bayern home game will be different, fraught with emotion.
Wolfsburg have done all they can to support their players, enlisting Dr Andreas Marlovitz, the renowned psychologist who helped Hannover 96 come to terms with the death of goalkeeper Robert Enke five years ago. Marlovitz was on hand for the squad during their training camp in Cape Town, Malanda's destination on that fateful day. A lot of weight now rests on the shoulders of Hecking to get the mindset correct for the next four months.
"I know I can't get everything right," the 50-year-old told Kicker magazine. "It helped me that I did not hold any tears back ... We can't afford to hold back for two or three more weeks [on the pitch] either. I have a lot of faith in my players. The character of the team is strong; we have lots of quality and will hopefully show this in the second half of the season."