Hanover - European nights have become something of staple at the over the past couple of seasons, with Hannover 96 welcoming some of the best the UEFA Europa League has to offer on the back of two impressive top-six finishes in the Bundesliga.

Yet with just five games of the current campaign remaining, the Reds find themselves four points adrift of the continental berths and contemplating the prospect of spending Thursday nights on the couch next term.

Changes afoot


And that's not the only thing they'll have to get used to. Sporting director Jörg Schmadtke's decision to stand down from his position with effect from Saturday marks the arrival of another era at a club which been through it all since the 49-year-old's arrival in 2009.

Following the tragic death of goalkeeper Robert Enke in November of the same year, Hannover spiralled from mid-table to the brink of relegation. One point in 12 matches, with six straight defeats after Mirko Slomka was appointed as head coach, left the club floundering in the bottom two with three games of the 2009/10 season to go.

Lows and highs


A 3-0 victory in a relegation decider with VfL Bochum on the final day ultimately saved them from the drop, but further struggles were to follow. Elimination in the DFB Cup first round at the hands of fourth-division opposition and a string of worrying pre-season results hinted at a continuation of their dismal form, yet a transformation took place which even the most imaginative playwright would have struggled to devise.

Rather than relegation, Hannover were vying with FC Bayern Munich for a place in the UEFA Champions League come the business end of the season. Defeat to VfB Stuttgart on the penultimate day of the 2010/11 campaign ended that chase, but a return to European competition after a 19-year absence was no scant consolation.

Rude awakening?


The draw for the Europa League play-off round could hardly have been more challenging, with two-time UEFA Cup winners FC Sevilla arguably the toughest team in the hat. Yet a 2-1 home victory in front of a sell-out crowd sparked what would be a series of unforgettable nights at the AWD-Arena, with the likes of FC Copenhagen, Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Anji Makhachkala all on show in Lower Saxony.

Hannover may now be about to wake up from that two-year dream. Their woeful away form has left them chasing the European pack heading into the final furlong and with champions FC Bayern the visitors this coming Saturday, the 96ers will be praying their outstanding home record (W8 D4 L2) is enough to keep them in contention.

Ben Gladwell