Two Saturdays ago, most eyes were (rightly) fixed on the Community Shield match between Manchester City and Liverpool, but the best game of the day almost certainly took place in Germany. Some of you may have even watched Bayern Munich’s 5-3 victory over RB Leipzig in the DFL Supercup, a game in which Bayern’s first half domination allowed them to hold on through a more competitive second half–but that’s not the game I’m talking about either.
To catch the best game(s) of the soft opening weekend of European football, you needed to be paying attention to the DFB-Pokal, Germany’s equivalent to the FA Cup. The 64-team tournament includes all 36 teams from the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga, the top 4 from 3. Liga, 21 winners of regional cup competitions open to 3. Liga and amateur teams, plus the highest-ranked amateur teams from the three largest of those regions). The competition starts the weekend before the regular season, and unlike the FA Cup, there no passes for higher ranked teams (in fairness, the FA Cup is a much larger competition, comprising 124 teams, 32 of them amateur). That makes its first round an ideal opportunity for what in England is called the “magic of the cup,” and that magic was surely on show two weekends ago.
Probably the most magical of those games kicked off at the same time as the Community Shield, as Bayer Leverkusen visited SV Elversberg. Having finished 3rd in the Bundesliga last season, Leverkusen were prohibitive favorites against an Elversberg side that, while undefeated in the calendar year, had only just won promotion to the 3. Liga as champions of the Regionalliga Südwest. But it was Elversberg who scored with the opening shot of the game to kick off what would prove to be a remarkable first half of cup football.
Leverkusen’s new signing, Adam Hložek, scored only two minutes later to equalize—but roughly ten minutes after that, Jannik Rochelt (scorer of the opening goal) earned a penalty that allowed his side to draw level again with just over a quarter of an hour played. On the half hour mark, Charles Aránguiz, who had given up the penalty on Rochelt, managed to equalize off a cross in from Sardar Azmoun. Azmoun nearly put Leverkusen ahead not long afterward, hitting the post. It would prove a costly miss, as Elversberg managed to take the lead for a third time shortly before halftime.
Leverkusen brought on Paulinho and Kerem Demirbay at the break, then Karim Bellarabi and Exequiel Palacios midway through the second half. For their part, Elversberg came out with energy and continued to take the game to Leverkusen. Patrik Schick had a goal (correctly) called offside before Elversberg netted a critical insurance goal off a corner with just a quarter of an hour remaining. They would need it, as Schick put in a Moussa Diaby cross at the end of regulation to make for an anxious stoppage time. But goalkeeper Nicolas Kristof did his job, saving a Paulinho header with the last action of the game to secure a remarkable upset and cap off an exhilarating cup tie.
There was a second helping of magic the next day, when Eintracht Braunschweig hosted Hertha Berlin. In 2020, a Braunschweig side that had just been promoted to the 2. Bundesliga (and who would be relegated back to 3. Liga by the end of the season) pulled off a 5-4 win against Hertha Berlin in the opening round of the DFB Pokal, captain Martin Kobylański scoring a hat trick. This time around, Braunchsweig were again newly promoted to the 2. Bundesliga, while Hertha had needed a playoff victory (narrowly overcoming Hamburg) to avoid joining them.
Hertha seemed to have things under control, having taken a two-goal lead in the first half. But just after the hour mark, they gave up a penalty and then a second goal within three minutes, allowing Braunschweig to draw level. Things stayed that way until the opening minute of extra time, when Braunschweig scored their third. Hertha equalized near the end of the first period of extra time, and scored a second at the beginning of the second period to pull ahead. But with only two minutes left in extra time, Bryan Henning became the game’s eighth different scorer, drawing Braunschweig level again and sending the game to penalties. It then fell to Henning, as the seventh penalty-taker, to put Braunschweig through, winning the shoot-out 6-5 and defeating Hertha in the first round of the Pokal for the second time in three years.
It worth noting that Italy Coppa Italia also kicked off last weekend, in advance of today’s season openers, and it too offered some surprising upsets. Hellas Verona were handily beaten at home by SSC Bari, newly promoted to Serie B after having won the Southern Group of Serie C. The same was true of Modena, who won the Central Group of Serie C last year and were hosting local rivals Sassuolo in the Derby della Ghirlandina. They came away with a 3-2 win, having led virtually the whole game, much of it by two goals. All in all, a good start for cup football in the new season.