Hamburg - Hamburger SV would have been cautiously optimistic as they prepared for the start of last season. They lifted the Peace Cup, an invitational friendly tournament in South Korea, and were brave in defeat in friendlies against such illustrious opposition as FC Barcelona (1-2), Borussia Dortmund (0-1) and FC Bayern Munich (0-1).
The first round of the DFB Cup soon did away with that, however. HSV, the only club embarking on its 50th season in the Bundesliga's 50th year, suffered a humiliating to third-division Karlsruher SC.
The dismal form continued into the Bundesliga season with three defeats in a row against 1. FC Nuremberg, Werder Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt. Not since the 1972/73 season had the Red Shorts begun a league campaign so poorly.
In spite of the gloom, however, the club kept their cool and, with the arrival of Rafael van der Vaart, the sky soon began to clear. The 'saviour' was back in town and Borussia Dortmund were first to fall foul of his magic. A 3-2 win over the defending champions hinted that the swoop for the “little angel” had struck a chord.
Yet it was not just the Dutchman who ensured Hamburg lifted themselves away from the foot of the table. The imperious form of goalkeeper Rene Adler deservedly earned the 28-year-old a return to the Germany national team. With the number one in such fine form, Hamburg remained in touch with the top six, while strikers Heung-Min Son and Artjoms Rudnevs struck up an excellent understanding, each of them scoring with regularity.
The expectations inevitably rose once again, but HSV struggled to match them, especially in front of their own fans. They won just eight of 17 games at the Imtech Arena, and scored only 18 goals, the second-lowest tally in the league behind bottom club Greuther Fürth.
The Red Shorts other main problem was consistency. They romped to a 4-1 win at defending champions Borussia Dortmund, but the suffering spectators will struggle to forget a 9-2 hammering at the hands of FC Bayern Munich. It was their inability to string a run of good results together that ultimately cost them a place in Europe. With the UEFA Europa League and even, for an instant, the UEFA Champions League beckoning, HSV choked.
With just four points from their final four games, Hamburg ended May in seventh, a finish that would have been celebrated as a triumph back in the autumn, but was ultimately a disappointing conclusion. Coach Thorsten Fink now needs to strengthen the side if the Northerners are to take that decisive step and finish among the top six next seasons. The potential is there in any case for one of Germany's biggest and best-established