Promotion hopefuls Hamburg have had plenty to celebrate already this season. - © IMAGO/Oliver Ruhnke/IMAGO/Oliver Ruhnke
Promotion hopefuls Hamburg have had plenty to celebrate already this season. - © IMAGO/Oliver Ruhnke/IMAGO/Oliver Ruhnke
2. Bundesliga

Hungry Hamburg fixing sights on return to the Bundesliga big time

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After nearly five seasons fighting it out for promotion to the Bundesliga, Hamburg are hoping the feel-good factor, backed up by some impressive numbers, will finally see Tim Walter's team back in the big time come May.

Since losing their top-flight status back in 2017/18, the Red Shorts have been consistently knocking on the door to a return to the Bundesliga. After three consecutive fourth-places finishes in division two, Der Dino came mightily close to achieving their dream last time out.

Ending last season's campaign in third brought a play-off against Hertha Berlin and although the northern giants pulled off a 1-0 first-leg win in the capital, they would eventually lose the corresponding fixture 2-0. This time around, Die Rothosen - currently second in the mid-season standings - are aiming for direct promotion.

Watch: Hamburg's Top 5 goals of the season so far 

After 17 games, HSV have collected 11 wins, more than any other side in the league. They trail leaders Darmstadt by just two points and boast an away record second to none thus far in the promotion race. "In the end, we are where we want to be but there are definitely still things that we can do better," goalkeeper Daniel Heuer Fernandes concluded after a first half of the season in which he complained his side, "Certainly had a few defeats too many."

Heuer Fernandes finished the opening 17 games having saved 43 per cent of the big chances he faced (a division best). It is the numbers up front that have helped Hamburg push on this season as compared to last, however, with Die Rothosen five points and four wins better off compared to last year. Striker Robert Glatzel leads the scoring charts with 11 goals while Laszlo Benes has the joint-second highest amount of assists with six.

HSV keeper Daniel Heuer Fernandes boasts Bundesliga 2's best big-chance save rate. - Cathrin Mueller/Getty Images

Glatzel, now in his second season at Hamburg, is the team's overall top scorer in the second division with 33 goals, the striker having earlier taken over that particular baton from Sonny Kittel. The latter has been keen to keep his teammate in sight with 33 shots on goal, the third highest in Bundesliga 2 this season. Ultimately, however, that is a race that Glatzel also leads with 88 efforts at the target.

Another incentive for the 6'4" Bavarian forward to continue where he left off in terms of his goalscoring once the season resumes, is that no Hamburg player has ever finished a season as the second division's leading marksman.

All told, it's been a very busy opening to the campaign for Hamburg, who head to Los Angeles for some team bonding once the curtain came down for the mid-season interval. "The trip brought us even closer together; that's exactly what we needed," coach Walter said. "It was an extremely wild year with a huge number of lessons. Now is the time to build up energy again."

A word to the wise: coach Tim Walter (l.) chats with Ludovit Reis. - Joern Pollex/Getty Images

"The [first half of the season] was very intense," the 47-year-old continued. "We always kept at it because we're convinced of what we're doing. I'm very, very proud of my team. Even if they sometimes drive me crazy, I love them all."

The coach's solid blend of players includes, for example, Ransford Königsdörffer, the five-goal forward and Hamburg's fastest player who clocks in at 21.9 mph. Exciting new signing Jean-Luc Dompe has hit 51 crosses from the left, bringing him into the league's top five list of cross providers. Ever-present midfielder Ludovit Reis, meanwhile, has been tireless in terms of covering ground, with the 22-year-old clocking up over 13 miles in intensive runs alone, a league-wide high.

Another factor of Walter's side has been their ability to fight their way back into games. HSV have conceded early goals on seven occasions this season - and at one point did so in four games in a row. As they work towards the second half of the season, avoiding early concessions and the expenditure of energy that goes with chasing games will no doubt be among the "things that we can do better," mentioned by goalkeeper Heuer Fernandes.

Yet buoyed on by record crowds at the Volksparkstadion - HSV had an average attendance of over 50,000 fans per home game in the first half of the season - and an impressive ability to pick up results on the road, Hamburg may finally be primed for a return to the Bundesliga after five years away.