Hertha Berlin have 90 minutes left to retain their Bundesliga status in a mouth-watering play-off tie against Hamburg. The Old Lady have the experience of Kevin-Prince Boateng to call upon, but also the fresh face of Marcel Lotka in goal.
Games this season: 18
It is not down to stats with Boateng, but his experience and influence. The Berlin-born Ghana international has seen it all across spells in Germany, England, Italy, Spain and Turkey. He has played in the UEFA Champions League and cup finals, but also got a taste of a play-off last season in Italy.
Boateng was brought back to boyhood club Hertha at the start of this campaign to take on the role of a senior player, a link between the coach and the team, accepting the fact he wouldn’t play every game. That was certainly the case before the arrival of Felix Magath, with 59 minutes the most he had got in a match – all the way back on the opening weekend.
Watch: Return of the Prince
Although he did not feature in Magath’s first three fixtures, Boateng suddenly returned to the starting XI for four games that looked like they had saved Hertha from the drama of the play-off, winning at Augsburg and VfB Stuttgart, as well as drawing at Arminia Bielefeld.
“Prince is the decisive factor in the important games. His skills are now in demand. He has to lead us to stay up,” Magath recently told BZ Berlin. “From day one I wanted Prince to be on the pitch in the finals. That's why I initially left him on the bench against teams with strong play. The risk of injury was too great.”
It explains why Boateng was back on the bench for the last day at Borussia Dortmund. As Magath claims he expected to have to contest the play-off, he wanted to have his main man fresh and ready.
Games this season: 10
Clean sheets/saves: 2/32
When you talk of unexpected heroes, a 20-year-old fifth-choice goalkeeper definitely falls into that category. Lotka was not even the number one for Hertha’s reserves in the first half of the season, only finding himself among the senior squad in February with Rune Jarstein, Oliver Christensen and Nils Körber all sidelined.
It was hardly a promising debut on paper with a 3-0 defeat, but he played alright. It was also needs must at Hertha as Lotka played the next three games. Schwolow would return on Matchday 27, but had to go off injured the following week at Bayer Leverkusen. Lotka has held the number one spot ever since. Even the odd mistake you’d associate with a young goalkeeper hasn’t cast doubt into Magath’s mind, who has insisted he won’t change in goal unless he has to.
A knock to the head in the Dortmund game saw him miss the first leg and his possible return for the second leg could be crucial to Hertha’s chances. He proved mostly solid and showed real improvement, from conceding 15 times and saving just 57 per cent of shots in his first five games (all defeats) to conceding only five, keeping two clean sheets and saving 71 per cent of shots in his next five, with two wins and a draw.
Inexperience could be a factor in this high-pressure play-off, but Lotka at least has Bundesliga minutes under his belt in the relegation battle. Christensen, who kept goal in the first leg, was actually making his first-team debut in that pressure cooker, and it would be a big ask for him to shoulder the responsibility in such a decisive match, which is why Lotka's fitness will be one of the focal points of this fixture.
Games this season: 22
Plattenhardt is a European U17 champion and Confederations Cup winner with Germany, so knows the pressure of what is essentially a knockout tie in the relegation play-off. The left-back has not always been first pick at Hertha this season, but has suddenly come good under Magath.
The 30-year-old has played in six out of the nine games under the new coach, with only injury keeping him out of the remaining three. And he’s been crucial to the Berliners’ survival push with all three assists this season coming in the final matches to earn wins over Hoffenheim and Stuttgart, and the draw with Bielefeld.
Watch: Plattenhardt was involved in all three goals against Hoffenheim
All three were crosses, ranking him in the 91st percentile among full-backs for assists per 90 minutes this season, while he’s in the 93rd for actions leading to shots. He’s also in the top 15 in the Bundesliga for the average amount of chances he created per 90 minutes (2.05).
It is an impetus that had been lacking all season for Hertha, who are the third-lowest scorers in the division, behind already relegated duo Bielefeld and Greuther Fürth. But it looks to have finally emerged at the right time for Hertha, who gained 10 points from the five regular season games under Magath with him in the side. It’s three losses from as many games without him.
Play-offs are traditionally tight affairs, so his deliveries could make all the difference – as shown in the 3-0 win over Hoffenheim, where all three goals were the result of his free-kicks.
Games this season: 19
As mentioned, scoring goals has been an issue for Hertha all season. Jovetic tops their chart with just seven, but his progress has been constantly hampered by injury. He returned from a muscle strain that kept him out for four games at the very end of the match in Dortmund, giving him that brief feeling of a return ahead of two vital games, especially with Davie Selke injured again as well.
Although this may be the first relegation play-off of his career, the Montenegrin holds a proud record of having scored and assisted in the top divisions of Germany, England, Spain, France, Italy and Serbia, so he knows the ropes.
The fact he averages over three shots per game this season shows he knows how to get into positions to get onto chances, which themselves have been at a premium for Hertha. All it takes is one in the play-offs, and Hertha need that on Monday.
Games this season: 31
Battling it out at the bottom was probably not what Tousart had in mind when he swapped Lyon for Berlin in 2020. But the three-time France international has got stuck into the dogfight. After falling out of favour at the back end of 2021, he’s emerged as a central figure for the Old Lady, playing every minute of the final 13 matchdays.
He was one of the scorers as the Magath era got off to a positive start against Hoffenheim. And he was again on target to head in a Plattenhardt delivery to take the lead against Bielefeld on Matchday 32.
The Frenchman has been a consistent performer in the middle of the park for the inconsistent Berliners. He’s averaged over 12km (7.5 miles) per game in each of the last two seasons and will be key to keeping the energetic Hamburg game at bay over an energy-sapping two games in four days.
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