Ask any Berliner if they saw the drastic rise of Hertha BSC coming and most will admit the change from Bundesliga strugglers to Champions League side in waiting is the stuff of dreams. This time last season, Die Blau Weißen were flirting with relegation back to the 2. Bundesliga and only secured their top-flight safety in the dying embers of the season. However, Pal Dardai's impressive side welcome FC Ingolstadt to the Olympiastadion on Saturday as they look to secure their grip on third spot and have a city dreaming of big-time football.
Whilst they may lack in any huge footballing names, African Cup of Nations winner Soloman Kalou the exception, the key to Hertha's success this season has been the organisation and togetherness installed by Dardai following his appointment last May. Well organised at the back, tireless in midfield and with wonderful quality in the aforementioned Ivorian in attack, what Hertha lack in stars they more than make up for. In last weekend's hugely impressive win over Champions League mainstays FC Schalke 04, the Berliners' workrate shone through with the finishing line and the European pot of gold finally within reach.
Their opponents, a fine footballing story themselves, having spent many years stuck in the regional leagues and 3. Bundesliga, look to have secured top-flight football next season for only the second time in their short history. FC Ingolstadt have spent the season punching above their weight, not unlike Hertha, and are unbeaten since February the 13th, drawing with Stuttgart in last weekend's thriller.
Leadership key for Ingolstadt whilst Hertha can rely on midfield workmen
Well organised by long term coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, the Bavarians have been able to rely on a number of key players throughout the season, including captain Marvin Matip, who helped guide the club through the 2. Bundesliga to where they are today.
In their previous meeting of the season back in October, the Berliners produced a performance reliant more on their character and resoluteness than on the quick feet of Kalou, or the skill of Valentin Stocker, instead players such as Genki Haraguchi and Vladimir Darida came to the fore, their work rate and graft pivotal to Hertha's season as a whole, not soley their 1-0 win on the day.
It is perhaps a sign of the changing face of Hertha that players such as the incredibly talented Stocker find themselves stuck on the bench as Darida, Haraguchi and most notably Per Ciljan Skelbred remain consistent performers. Skelbred captained the side last weekend in the continued abscence of Fabian Lustenberger, and the fact that Hertha's success hasn't stalled without their influential leader is a testament to the mindset of Dardai's team.
With both squads in almost full health, the managers may face selection headaches
With the Hungarian able to call upon a fully fit squad, baring central defender Sebastian Langkamp and striker Sami Allugi, it is likely Hertha will go with the same starting line-up which so boldy held of the charge of FC Schalke.
FC Ingolstadt themselves are only missing out on American midfielder Alfredo Morales, who hasn't played since their aforementioned last defeat to Wolfsburg.