It’s 15 miles in an almost straight line between the Olympic stadium and Stadion An der alten Forsterei, but Hertha BSC and Union Berlin might as well exist in different galaxies at the moment. Following Saturday’s 2-0 away win, their fifth successive derby triumph, Urs Fischer’s side are second in the table, a point behind leaders Bayern Munich. “Old Lady” Hertha are second from bottom, heading for oblivion, also known as Bundesliga 2. Things are so bad in Charlottenburg that Union’s Swiss manager has taken pity on the former local rivals. “I wish them the best of luck in the relegation battle,” the 56-year-old said earnestly. “We’d miss those games.”
On the evidence of their latest and possibly last meeting in the top flight, that won’t be a sentiment shared by all neutrals. Hertha battled well in the slow-paced, sub-zero temperature contest and could have had a penalty when Rani Khedira connected with both the ball and Marc Oliver Kempf’s foot. But it didn’t take more than a semi-decent performance by the typical dogged and well-organised visitors to come away with all three points.
Hertha’s increasingly desperate situation at the bottom of the table has amplified doubts about head coach Sandro Schwarz’s suitability but, instead of appointing the ninth coach in four years, the board took a leaf out of the German FA’s book and fired the sporting director instead. Fredi Bobic, who had been a contender to take over from national team director Oliver Bierhoff not long ago, was let go by chairman Kay Bernstein a couple of hours after the final whistle.
Bernstein, a former ultra, explained the next day that it hadn’t been “an explicit decision against (Fredi) Bobic” but a reflection of changed circumstances. When the Swabian arrived from a very successful stint at Eintracht Frankfurt nearly two years ago, Hertha still harboured the faintest dreams of turning into a super club courtesy of support from investor Lars Windhorst and Bobic’s transfer-market acumen. But Windhorst’s millions were already all but used up and the former Germany international’s big bets on personnel (Tayfun Korkut as manager, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Stevan Jovetic as senior players) only plunged Hertha deeper into trouble.
Bobic was no longer seen as the right man to lead a much leaner, self-sufficient and academy-focused club to a brighter future, with new investors 777 Group poised to take over and, in addition, the club felt his public dalliance with the German FA had revealed a lack of love for Hertha. Former youth development director Benjamin Weber and club icon Andreas “Zecke” Neuendorf will be tasked to inject some “Hertha DNA” and define a “Berlin way” for transforming the team’s fortunes, as Bernstein put it.
The Berlin way? It’s an interesting re-branding effort considering the capital’s well-earned reputation for disorganisation and inertia. Whether the new strategy amounts to anything more than identity politics will become clearer in due course, but Hertha appear to have arrived at a realistic appraisal of their current situation, at least.
The self-styled “Big City Club” is getting ready for the small time.
Union, on the other hand, shouldn’t be content with being the best side in town for much longer. While Fischer continues to talk about avoiding relegation out of sheer habit or superstition, a first participation in the Champions League has become eminently possible. The way things are going in Munich, you can’t even rule out a title challenge in their fourth season in the top flight. Even fictional Earls Park FC of Footballers’ Wives fame couldn’t have embarked on such a fantastical story arc.
And they aren’t just having a great time on the pitch. A spurious rumour linking them with the signing of former Real Madrid maestro Isco has sparked a whole sub-genre of self-deprecating jokes among the players. “This one is for Isco!” captain Christopher Trimmel posted after the win at Hertha, prompting the man himself to answer with the flexed-muscle emoji. The funny thing is, you can almost see it happening. The way things are going, the East Berlin district of Kopenick will soon become the bonafide football location Germany’s re-unified capital has yearned for since 1990.
But what of Munich, dubbed the “secret capital” of West Germany before Iron Curtain was lifted? Bayern are still top of the league after a third consecutive 1-1 draw — goals from Leroy Sane and Frankfurt’s mercurial forward Randal Kolo Muani — but have become unrecognisable to themselves.
“This is a different team than the one we saw before the World Cup,” executive chairman Oliver Kahn said after a worryingly inept encounter with high-flying Eintracht. Kahn’s Qatar reference hinted at problems with confidence but it’s as if they’ve forgotten how to play fast, incisive football altogether.
Unlike August-September’s barren run of four league games without a win, largely the product of poor finishing, the current run has seen them create precious few chances.
According to Thomas Muller, there was no shortage of anger fuelling the Bayern motor, but a lack of direction had them going nowhere. Julian Nagelsmann blamed too much space between the lines, lack of tempo and too much wing play for the malaise, but his team’s curious combination of long balls forward and meaningless possession play reminiscent of Louis van Gaal’s second, curtailed season (2010-2011) raised suspicions that something more fundamental is amiss.
Anything but a win in Wednesday’s DFB Pokal game at Mainz, two weeks before their season-defining encounter with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, will put the manager’s handling of the team under severe scrutiny.
In happier news, Borussia Dortmund are back where they belong, poised to qualify for the Champions League and with a chance to make a belated appearance in the title race. Sunday’s 2-0 at Bayer 04 Leverkusen made them only the second team to win all three league games in this calendar year alongside Union. Karim Adeyemi’s first Bundesliga goal, assisted by a lovely dummy from Sebastien Haller, sent the visitors on their way, and the reliably superb Jude Bellingham forced an Edmond Tapsoba own goal to make sure of all three points in the second half.
More impressively still was Borussia’s defensive performance. A five-man defence with Emre Can at the centre and two hard-working, no-nonsense wingbacks (Julian Ryerson and Marius Wolf) provided the kind of resilience last regularly seen at the start of the previous decade. The win against Xabi Alonso’s much-improved side will help Edin Terzic’s efforts to refashion the side into a much sturdier proposition. “This game needs to set the tone,” Can said. “If you’re strong in the duels and working hard for each other, you can keep many clean sheets.” Fourth-placed BVB are just three points off Bayern now.“Are we ready to take the next step?” Terzic wondered. For their own sake and that of a league that hasn’t felt this competitive in years, it would be nice if the answer was affirmative.
If Dortmund can’t hunt down Bayern, maybe RB Leipzig can. Their 2-1 over VFB Stuttgart (brace from Dominik Szoboszlai) wasn’t quite as thrilling as the 6-1 at Schalke in midweek and also saw Dani Olmo pick up a muscle injury, but Marco Rose’s men will need to be taken seriously this season. The same can be said of SC Freiburg (5th), who bounced back from a relatively poor start to 2023 with a 3-1 home win over FC Augsburg. Stefan Reuter, the visiting club’s sporting director, said Freiburg, contrary to their reputation as the loveliest little club in the league, were “very street-smart and using all means at their disposal”, but also admitted that his side only had themselves to blame after Mergim Berisha had provoked the Europa-Stadion crowd with his goal celebration.
Freiburg’s Nicolas Hofler called the forward a “Drecksspieler (dirtbag or idiot)”, Reuter also claimed. “That’s beyond the pale,” the 1990 World Cup winner said. While it’s true that opposition coaching staff have often privately complained about the kind of language used by their opposite numbers, Freiburg haven’t been punching well above their weight by playing nice-nice. You’ll just have to deal with it.
(Top photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)
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