Domestic and European glory could be determined by four meetings in 19 days between Bundlesliga rivals Hamburg and Werder Bremen.
Nick Bidwell in Munich
There’s no keeping north country foes Hamburg and Werder Bremen apart this spring. To the delight of fans who love the blood and thunder, not to mention the opportunities for tribal one-upmanship on derby day, this as is as good as it gets, with no fewer than four head-to-heads to savour in the space of 19 days.
The opening instalment of the battle of the neighbours was a German Cup semi-final held In Hamburg’s Nordbank Arena – no neutral venues at this stage of the competition – and first blood went to Bremen, prevailing 3-1 on penalties after 120 minutes of regulation play failed to separate the sides (1-1).
Hero of the night was Werder keeper Tim Wiese, a larger than life, provocative character, who managed the feat of three saves in the shoot-out. A good bet to make the German squad for the next World Cup, Wiese loves to pontificate. Hence his fierce reaction to claims from veteran Stuttgart goalie Jens Lehmann that he remained a candidate for a place in the Nationalmannschaft. “Lehmann is totally overrated and out of touch with reality.“
In the Cup Final in Berlin on May 30 Bremen will face Leverkusen, who, in the other semi, required extra-time to eventually run out 4-1 victors of spirited second division promotion hopefuls Mainz.
Now for the rest of what promises to be a enthralling northern mini-series: a two-legged clash for an access all areas pass to the UEFA Cup Final and a Bundesliga date in Bremen in early May, the outcome of which could influence Hamburg’s bid for a Champions League qualifying slot or even the league title itself.
These days the UEFA Cup does not generate much in the way of overheated emotions, especially where Premier League teams are concerrned. But this all-Deutschland affair certainly has the blood coursing in the veins of these participants. The stakes could not be higher. Hamburg have their eyes on the prize of their first continental trophy since overcoming Juventus in the 1983 Champions Cup Final. For Bremen, the tie means a shot at redemption, the chance to gloss over their recent domestic fall from grace; technicolour runners-up a year ago, a mid-table grey this.
Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf definitely could use some silverware. After a largely successful decade in charge – League and Cup double in 2003-04 plus regular Champions League action – his team have begun to spring leaks front and back in the Bundesliga and he needs to show he still has the authority and freshness to put his message across to the dressing room.
German clubs coming face to face more than twice in a season is no unique event. Back in 1972-73, Borussia Monchengladbach and Koln played each other five times: the usual league encounters plus home and away in the third round of the UEFA Cup and the German Cup Final. Each team won in the Bundesliga, while Gladbach swept the cup honours.
For taking his team so far in three tough competitions, Hamburg boss Martin Jol deserves a medal. Triumph over adversity does not begin to describe the Dutchman’s feat. In addition to the sale of three of his most important players last summer – playmaker Rafael van der Vaart went to Real Madrid, while midfielders Nigel de Jong and Vincent Kompany were exchanged for Manchester City desert dubloons – injuries have been a constant bugbear and at one point his entire first-choice back-four was holed up in the infirmary.
It says everything about Jol’s powers of tactical improvisation, calmness under pressure, and communicative good humour that he has managed to forge a winning team, one which Bundestrainer Joachim Low rightly praised to the heavens for its solidity, spirit and desire.
On the face of it, Hamburg should not be Bundesliga contenders at all. What with their fragile muscles and bones and their meagre goal-haul of just 42 goals from their first 28 games. Jol admits it himself. But when it comes to battling through rough patches and finding a way to win by the narrowest of margins, they are very much made of the right stuff.
Interesting that Hoffenheim’s title challenge has been sunk in the New Year by key players dropping like flies, while despite their many call-offs, Hamburg have ploughed on relentlessly. “We fight like lions, “ says Jol. He never said a truer word.