Wolfsburg play it safe in reaching UCL quarterfinals but can they go further?
For 75 minutes, VfL Wolfsburg stared history in the eyes and tried very hard not to blink first. A curious combination of deliberate risk management and subconscious fear had the hosts doing the bare minimum against a Gent side that didn't do much worthy of concern.
The result of the Lower-Saxons' non-endeavour and the Belgians' inability was a game that couldn't live up to the occasion. For both teams, a first-ever Champions League quarterfinal appearance was at stake but you wouldn't have guessed from watching the largely stale contest. "Historic but devoid of magic," was how Frankfurter Rundschau summed up proceedings.
Gent coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck had given his side a "zero percent chance" of advancing to the next round in the immediate aftermath of their 3-2 defeat at home in the first leg. By the time, the Buffalos set out for the Volkswagen arena, Vanhaezebrouck thought their prospect had improved ever slightly to the point where they needed "a miracle."
You could sense that the remote possibility of such a wondrous comeback was playing on Wolfsburg's minds on Tuesday night. They'd witnessed a mini-miracle a month ago when Gent scored twice in 10 minutes to give the first leg scoreline some respectability. Psychologically, it surely hurt to throw away certain qualification for the next round; on Tuesday night, they had a lot to lose. Getting knocked out by the smallest club left in the competition would have been unforgivable to the clubs's supporters and board.
Wolfsburg played like a team looking for the final whistle from the kick-off, very unlike the side in matchday six that had overcome Manchester United in heroic, thrilling fashion. It was telling that Julian Draxler immediately signalled to the bench to get substituted after setting up the only goal of the night for André Schürrle with 15 minutes to go.
When your best player is trying to get off the pitch -- because of a muscle injury, admittedly -- it's probably not the greatest game. The World Cup winner had taken a pain killer before half-time after getting hurt by Rafinha early on.
"We wanted to win -- which we did -- but not attack them at all cost," Draxler explained later. "In the end, it was a somewhat lacklustre performance but a very cool one and a deserved victory." The goalscorer also felt that Wolfsburg had perfectly executed Hecking's plan. "We knew they had to have a go, so we wanted to defend well and wait for opportunities," said Schürrle.
"A top team -- of the kind that Wolfsburg want to be -- are expected to play with such a cool head," Der Tagesspiegel noted, but the crowd were clearly unhappy that the home side had veered from playing cautiously into outright passivity. Boos were audible midway through the first half.
In Germany, they say that a good horse only jumps as high as it needs to. If that's true -- and works as an analogy in football -- that would suggest that Wolfsburg's performance didn't reflect accurately reflect the extent of their possibilities.
There are undoubtedly games, against opponents from lower leagues or teams that are considered quite a bit weaker, when players and teams feel that they can go succeed with 80 percent, and thus run and focus just a little less. If you can raise your game against top sides, you can probably also lower your game, involuntarily perhaps, against weaker teams.
If that was the case for Wolfsburg, the outlook for the last-eight might not be quite as bleak. "I'm not prepared to bow just yet," vowed Hecking. "We will be huge underdogs but you always get a chance in football and we will try to take it in the quarterfinal."
A kind draw would undoubtedly help. Wolfsburg will be everybody's preferred opponents but for them, it'll be more a case of "choose your poison." On paper, Benfica and Zenit (and possibly PSV, if they progress) are the only teams left that wouldn't be huge favourites to get past the Volkswagen-owned club.
The Germans can take heart from the increasingly good understanding between the much-improved Schürrle, Draxler and striker Max Kruse. But the three of them collectively are yet to lift the team to the same level that Kevin de Bruyne's singular, utter brilliance did last season. Wolfsburg have reverted to being a solid side with Champions League aspirations; they're no longer an automatic top four team. Seventh place in the league tells its own story.
While the unprecedented success in reaching the quarterfinal of Europe's top competition can serve to save their domestic season and perhaps change the way the club are "perceived internationally," as Draxler claimed, one cannot help but worry that reaching that milestone will be less fondly remembered if, for example, Barcelona inflict untold damage in a month's time.
Hecking needs to show that Wolfsburg are tactically cohesive enough to withstand such an onslaught. Playing on the break, as they did in such devastating fashion when they beat Pep Guardiola's Bayern 4-1 in January of 2015, is much harder without De Bruyne's pace. His €40 million replacement, Draxler, is a different, less explosive player; Schürrle, the second World Cup winner in the Wolves starting XI, not nearly as consistent as the Belgian. For a combined outlay of €70 million, the duo's output needs to increase.
Wolfsburg's unexpected progress -- "nobody would have believed in that at the beginning of the season," said general manager Klaus Allofs -- throws up the possibility of a first all-German meeting in the Champions League since 2013. Allofs would prefer a different opponent ("it doesn't have to be them") whereas Hecking and Guardiola have talked about facing each other in the international competition when they last spoke a couple of weeks ago. "He said he wanted to play us, but only in the final in Milan," Hecking said, with a wide grin on his face.
It probably won't come to that but Wolfsburg's performances in the competition could still have pretty far-reaching consequences. Their parent company are reportedly cutting back on sponsoring football clubs. At first, only Schalke and 1860 Munich will lose money, but VfL could eventually be hit. Going that little bit deeper to appear on global TV screens in the next round will strengthen their hand, but only if they don't get embarrassed by one of the big boys.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.