By Kevin Hatchard.
After last season’s great escape, it looks like the German football institution is out of luck as HSV are on the brink of ending their 50-year top-flight history.
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Deja vu can be an unsettling feeling for football supporters, especially when they’re seeing a relegation nightmare unfold for the second season running. Last term, Hamburg avoided their first ever demotion from the Bundesliga by the narrowest possible margin after defeating second-division side Greuther Furth on away goals in a promotion/relegation play-off. This season, one of German football’s most iconic clubs may well have pushed its luck too far.
It seemed as if lessons had been learned, as HSV made sensible acquisitions in the summer to cover the departure of talisman Hakan Calhanoglu. Burly striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s 13 Bundesliga goals had kept the Red Shorts up during a successful loan spell, and an agreement was reached with Hertha Berlin to make that move permanent. This was a seen as a coup, as Hamburg beat several clubs including Newcastle United to Lasogga’s signature.
Clever forward Nicolai Muller arrived from Mainz, midfield destroyer Valon Behrami was acquired from Napoli, and the defensive options were padded out by the signings of Brazilian centre-back Cleber and Augsburg’s attacking left-back Matthias Ostrzolek. The final piece of the puzzle appeared to be the loan signing of Spurs schemer Lewis Holtby, who had enjoyed successful spells in the Bundesliga with Mainz and Schalke.
It was supposed to be a fresh start, with coach Mirko Slomka kept on after rescuing the club from the drop. A penalty shootout win at lower-division Energie Cottbus in the German Cup was followed by a goalless draw at Cologne in the Bundesliga opener. Steady, but nothing spectacular.
Then the roof fell in. Hamburg were humiliated on home soil by newly-promoted Paderborn, losing 3-0. Slomka then had a miserable reunion with his former club Hannover, and a 2-0 reverse cost him his job after just three league games.
We’ll never know if Hamburg’s fortunes would have improved if Slomka had stayed at the helm, but the decision to remove an experienced coach with no clear succession plan in place smacked of panic. Under-23 coach Joe Zinnbauer was promoted to the top job; tasked with sparking an attack that had failed to score a single goal, and given the job of making HSV tougher to beat.
Zinnbauer has had success running a company outside football, and it appears he’s better suited to the boardroom than the bootroom. Under his guidance Hamburg picked up just six wins in 23 matches, failing to score 12 times. An abject 1-0 home defeat to Hertha Berlin was the final straw, and Zinnbauer was jettisoned.
Hamburg made their 11th coaching change in five years – and this was truly the most bizarre one of all. Sporting director Peter Knabel, who had one spell as a coach with Swiss club Winterthur 15 years ago, was handed the reins. I suspect the cleaner and the tea lady were also on the shortlist.
Knabel has lost both games in charge, a 4-0 thumping at Leverkusen and a 2-0 home defeat to Wolfsburg. The team is utterly bereft of confidence, with no imagination in attack. Hamburg have scored a pitiful 16 goals in 28 games, the worst Bundesliga goal tally since Tasmania Berlin in 1966.
Almost all of the summer signings have turned in disastrous seasons, and for the second campaign running, playmaker Rafa Van der Vaart has failed to produce. The Dutchman has let the club down when they needed him most.
HSV are bottom of the table, and must get a result from the weekend’s derby at bitter northern rivals Werder Bremen. They have realised they made a big mistake putting Knabel in charge, so in another desperate move they have hired former Hamburg player and manager Bruno Labbadia. It’s worth remembering he lasted less than a year in his first spell in charge.
There is a clock at the Imtech Arena which shows how long Hamburg have been in the Bundesliga without suffering relegation, but time is running out.
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