In 2001, a clock was installed at Hamburger SV’s Volksparkstadion to mark, to the second, the amount of time the club has spent in the Bundesliga, commemorating their status as the only founding member to have never been relegated since its inception in 1963.
On Saturday, it will stand on 54 years, 8 months and 18 days. And that is where it may be frozen, forever. Hamburg are two points adrift of VfL Wolfsburg in the relegation zone ahead of their final game against Borussia Mönchengladbach.
They need to win, and hope Wolfsburg lose, even if just to earn a place in the relegation play-off. If they fail in their mission, time will stop ticking. Gladbach too, though, have their own requirements.
Having has to go right for Titz’s men – and Hecking’s too
After Christian Titz’s side threatened pulling off another great escape – with three wins in four games, including against both SC Freiburg and Wolfsburg – their 3-0 defeat last weekend to Eintracht Frankfurt proved immensely damaging, leaving them with their fate out of their own hands.
To avoid been relegated from the Bundesliga on Saturday, Hamburg simply have to beat Gladbach, and even then they need already-relegated 1. FC Köln to beat Wolfsburg. That would then put them a point ahead of the Wolves, and book a relegation play-off with Holstein Kiel, the first leg of which will be played next Thursday. Kiel confirmed their third-place finish in the 2. Bundesliga last weekend.
If Hamburg won and Wolfsburg drew, that wouldn’t be enough, unless the Red Shorts somehow beat the Foals by the 10-0 score line that would be needed to overcome their goal difference disadvantage, which is a highly-fanciful scenario. Any other eventuality would see Hamburg relegated.
Wolfsburg themselves could still escape the bottom three, although they trail Freiburg in 15th by three points. Their goal difference is better, so a win against Hamburg and a defeat for Freiburg against FC Augsburg would be enough to escape relegation altogether and force Freiburg into the play-off with Kiel. Freiburg are out of Hamburg’s reach though.
As for Gladbach, they could still snatch a UEFA Europa League place, but like Hamburg they need other results to go their way. They could get as high as sixth – something that looked unlikely a few weeks ago – if all of RB Leipzig, Eintracht Frankfurt and VfB Stuttgart lose, whilst they would need to make up on goal difference with Leipzig. Seventh is possible as well, if two of those other sides lose, but they would need Frankfurt to finish sixth or Bayern Munich to win the DFB-Pokal final against the Eagles to claim the wildcard league spot for themselves.
Hamburg: The Bundesliga’s great escapologists
Coming back to Hamburg, they have of course been here before, far more often than they would like. Although even in 2015, when they were also in the bottom two going into the final day, they were not in quite so much peril as this time.
None of the relegation spaces had been settled that season, with six teams in danger of the drop. A 2-0 victory against Schalke 04 was enough to spare them a relegation play-off, with SC Paderborn 07 staying bottom and Freiburg getting dragged down into second-bottom as both succumbed to defeat to relegation-rivals VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96 respectively.
Having edged past SpVgg Greuther Fürth on away goals the season before in the play-off, this time they faced Karlsruher SC. After drawing 1-1 in the first leg at home, Reinhold Yabo’s goal in the second leg almost sent Hamburg down, until a last-gasp free-kick equaliser from Marcelo Díaz and then, in extra time, Nicolai Müller scored the goal to keep them up.
Just last season, they went into their final game against Wolfsburg needing a win to avoid a third play-off in four years and condemn the Wolves to that fate instead. Again they did it the hard way, with Robin Knoche opening the scoring. Filip Kostic equalised nine minutes later, but it took until the 88th minute until Luca Waldschmidt headed in the winner to keep them up, again.
Fast forward a year though, and on Saturday one of Hamburg or Wolfsburg will have to be relegated. Wolfsburg, of course, are now led by the man who masterminded Hamburg’s escape in 2015 – Bruno Labbadia.
Both managers keen to avoid distractions from elsewhere
“If somebody had told us seven weeks ago that we would be only two points off safety going into the last matchday,” reflected Titz before the game, “we would all have taken that.” He admitted that they had been looking “to win one more match” before they could “reasonably bow out” of the Bundesliga, but now there are “positive thoughts” as they face their chance to secure survival.
He said that he didn’t think it would be a good idea for them to keep an eye on what was happening elsewhere, before adding “should the score be a positive one for us … then I wouldn’t rule it out.” Of course the mood in the stadium will tell them everything they need to know as the day progresses, although Titz feels “it will not hinder us if the stadium reacts when a team scores somewhere else.”
Gladbach also need results from three other games to potentially go their way, and Dieter Hecking believes his team “should completely forget about the other games,” at least until “the final few minutes at the earliest.” He is keen to make sure his side “deal with the task in front of us first and foremost” as they look to earn a top-seven finish.
Possible changes for both sides
Aaron Hunt and Tatsuya Ito had been doubts going into the game having not taken a full part in training this week, however both were named in Hamburg’s 18-man squad for the match. The only absentee will be Jann-Fiete Arp, who has been ill, however he had not been named in the squad for the last two matches in any case.
Nicolai Müller, who made his return from the bench last week after infamously rupturing his cruciate ligament in celebrating his goal in the first match of the season versus Augsburg, and Titz had played up the possibility of him starting this crucial match. “We need to weigh up whether we will have him of from the start,” he said, admitting that would “of course be tricky after such a long time out.” It would be a surprise if he was to appear from the off.
Gladbach will be without injured skipper Lars Stindl, as well as László Bénes, Mamadou Doucouré and Julio Villalba, whilst Hecking revealed that Raúl Bobadilla would not travel with the squad, despite recovering from a muscle strain. A reenergised Josip Drmic, who’s scored three times in his last five appearances, will likely continue up front against the club he struggled on loan at two seasons ago.
Jannik Vestergaard, Denis Zakaria and Christoph Kramer are all available after missing the Freiburg game through suspension, however Hecking was adamant they wouldn’t just walk back into the starting line-up. He said they “need to give it their all in training this week if they are to convince me that they would be a better selection for Saturday” than the men who replaced them – Tony Jantschke, Tobias Strobl and Michaël Cuisance. Nevertheless, they are all expected to start.
Hamburger SV: (4-1-4-1) Pollersbeck; Sakai, Papadopoulos, Jung, Santos; Steinmann; Kostic, Holtby, Hunt, Ito; Wood.
Borussia Mönchengladbach: (4-4-2) Sommer; Elvedi, Ginter, Vestergaard, Wendt; Hofmann, Kramer, Zakaria, Hazard; Drmic, Raffael.
Quotes via Hamburger SV and Borussia Mönchengladbach.