There is an air of optimism about Hamburg this summer, with Rafael van der Vaart setting his sights on a place in Europe next season
There is an air of optimism about Hamburg this summer, with Rafael van der Vaart setting his sights on a place in Europe next season

Defining season beckons for Hamburg

Hamburg - When Thorsten Fink took charge of Hamburger SV in October 2011, he inherited a side which was rock bottom after their worst start on record to a Bundesliga season.

Great expectations

Off the back of a wave of euphoria following his arrival, he was able to steer the Red Shorts to within sight of the top six and a place in Europe, and what seemed impossible when he took over was suddenly looking rather realistic. Probably too realistic. The expectations rose exponentially and a sudden slide ensued, with relegation again becoming an issue towards the end of the campaign.

Hamburg managed beat the drop, but were unable to live up to the surprisingly high expectations. Yet 2012/13 was meant to be a different story. With an entire summer to mould and to get to know his team, Fink was tipped to lead the northern Germany outfit back into Europe.

Three defeats in a row, coming after an embarrassing elimination at the hands of Karlsruher SC in the first round of the DFB Cup, and already the alarm bells were ringing. Rafael van der Vaart arrived and their fortunes improved, but after another rollercoaster ride, they ultimately missed out on Europe once again.

Lessons learnt

2013/14 starts with similarly high expectations to a year ago, but with the experience garnered from the last campaign fresh in their minds, the question has to be asked whether they could make the same mistakes again, or whether they will have learnt their lesson and can finally achieve a place in Europe.

“You’ve always got to try to improve and, for us, that can only mean sixth place and the Europa League,” said Van der Vaart. “HSV’s aim therefore cannot be to play for tenth place. I think we can do it too with the quality we’ve got, and just a bit more consistency than last year. But the competition is harsh. There are certainly ten teams who want to play for a place in the Europa League.”

Ins and outs

Hamburg’s task is to emerge from that group and end a four-year absence from European football, and Fink is slowly starting to put his own stamp on the squad. Jacques Zoua has joined from his ex-club FC Basel while former Hannover 96 defender Johan Djourou should provide more stability at the back alongside Heiko Westermann.

On the flip side, Heung-Min Son has joined league rivals Bayer 04 Leverkusen, and it would seem to be asking a lot for Zoua to fill a pair of boots which scored 12 goals last season. Van der Vaart, however, thinks otherwise. “Everybody has settled in and integrated perfectly,” he said. “Now we hope that they can show that quickly in the league games too.”

Take heed

Off the field, meanwhile, Oliver Kreuzer has replaced Frank Arnesen as sporting director and the club are hoping he can lead them in the right direction after fifth-, seventh- and eighth-placed finishes in the past three seasons.

HSV's new man has been vocal during preseason, reading the riot act after watching his side slump to a 2-0 defeat to minnows Wacker Innsbruck. “That must never be allowed to happen a second time,” he vitrioled. If the Hamburg players took any note, it won't.