Hosts Hertha, by contrast, marked their return to the top flight with a sparkling first-half campaign that left them sixth in the table and occupying a UEFA Europa League berth going into the recess. A 1-0 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt made for an anti-climactic start to 2014, however, and the home loss to unfancied Nürnberg only served to compound it.
Two second-half goals from Josip Drmic, including a penalty deep in added time, ultimately sealed the outcome, but one of the key battles in an intense and at times scrappy contest pitted Japan national team colleagues Hajime Hosogai and Hiroshi Kiyotake head-to-head in the middle of the park.
“As I expected, Hajime was man-marking me and making my life really difficult,” Nürnberg playmaker Kiyotake said after the match. “I knew he'd try to stop me getting the ball in the first place so when I did get it, I was just looking to move it along as quickly as possible.”
'Wasn't just about me and Kiyo'
Hosogai, who has started all 19 league games for Hertha this season, usually in a holding role between a four-man defence and midfield, confirmed he had been tasked with keeping a close eye on his compatriot. He also acknowledged the assignment didn't go totally to plan, as “he was always very smart in the way he got to the ball”. That said, “it wasn't just about me and Kiyo. The fact that the team lost is what hurts most”.
Staying afloat is the standard pre-season target for any newly-promoted club and so it remains for Hertha as well, but their 2013 summer signing from FC Augsburg - where he first worked under current coach Jos Luhukay - did admit that “doing so well over the first half of the campaign makes the current situation is all the more disappointing”.
Nürnberg on the rise
Be that as it may, the men from Berlin hardly have grounds for unease quite yet, given that they are still only two points shy of a European place and with the next opportunity to turn things around coming at a Hamburger SV side now second-bottom of the table, Hosogai is convinced that his team are capable of more than just staying in the Bundesliga. “We need to keep working away towards something better,” he surmised.
The same could be said of Nürnberg, whose success in the capital hauled them out of the bottom three for starters. Kiyotake, for one, is certainly not getting carried away on the back of a win achieved, he said with a measure of good fortune: “We didn't play good football in the first half and it didn't get much better after the break.”
On the upside - over and above the obvious benefits accruing from actually winning at last - the Franconians' injury list is starting to clear: “Drmic and (Timothy) Chandler are 100 per cent fit again and I'm really glad we've got those two back.”
Kiyotake was equally circumspect as to whether the general mood within the camp has altered greatly in the wake of two straight successes to the aggregate tune of 7-1. “I don't know about that,” he reflected, “the only difference is that we're scoring now, which we weren't doing before. This year we're just getting the rub of the green.”
And they will doubtless be hoping that belated turnaround in fortunes continues on Saturday, when their old south Bavarian rivals come calling - current league leaders and German, European and world champions FC Bayern München.