Hamburg - They closed out the regular 2013/14 season with a fifth straight loss, 3-2 at 1. FSV Mainz 05 this time, but Hamburger SV were the big bottom-end winners for all that on Matchday 34.
Fighting talk in Hamburg
Simultaneous defeats for 1. FC Nürnberg (4-1 at FC Schalke 04) and Eintracht Braunschweig (3-1 at 1899 Hoffenheim) ensured that both would remain below the Red Shorts in the final table, booking an unwanted direct ticket back to Bundesliga 2. Hamburg, the only club never to have missed a season in the top flight, thus have one last chance to maintain that status, by way of the promotion/relegation play-off.
The side seeking to deprive them of it and, more germanely, bounce back into the top flight themselves at the first attempt, are SpVgg Greuther Fürth. The Franconians finished the campaign on 60 points, two behind second-place SC Paderborn 07 but ultimately six clear of 1. FC Kaiserslautern, the only side who could have mathematically overhauled them in the play-off berth on the final matchday. They travel to Hamburg for the first leg on Thursday, 15 May (kick-off 20:30 CEST), with the return at the Trolli Arena on Sunday, 18 May (17:00 CEST).
“We've got our two finals coming up now,” Hamburg skipper Rafael van der Vaart said after the defeat at Mainz and, having been let off the hook by their rivals' slip-ups, this really is the last throw of the dice for the northern heavyweights. “The team are resolutely determined to seize this opportunity to stay up. I'm convinced that with the incomparable backing of our fans, we'll do the job,” vowed Mirko Slomka, who succeeded Bert van Marwijk to become HSV's third coach of the season in mid-February. So what are the chances of the former Hannover 96 supremo avoiding the unenviable fate of being the first man in charge of a relegated Hamburg side?
This will be the 16th relegation/promotion head-to-head all told and the sixth since the play-offs were reintroduced, following an 18-year hiatus, in 2009. In ten of the previous duels the Bundesliga survivalist came out on top, with the second-flight pretender prevailing on the other five occasions – a two-to-one ratio which rather gives the lie to the theory that the team battling the drop is likely to be disadvantaged both psychologically, ostensibly having more to lose, and in terms of their current form.
The outcome of the five 'modern era' contests to date is more evenly-balanced, however, with the culmination of 1899 Hoffenheim's escape act last season against Kaiserslautern edging the Bundesliga faction into a 3-2 lead. Borussia Mönchengladbach, in 2011, and Nürnberg the year before likewise managed to retain their place at the top table, with der Club having successfully reemerged from Bundesliga 2 by the same route in 2009 and Fortuna Düsseldorf following suit, at Hertha Berlin's expense, in 2012.
The contestants' relative recent form thus seems to have had little historical bearing on the final outcome, which will doubtless come as a relief to Hamburg. Set starkly against the Red Shorts' own current five-game losing streak, Fürth have only been beaten once in 14 league outings. Their 64-goal tally is the best in Bundesliga 2, while HSV, with 75 against, have the worst defensive record in the top flight. Slomka's charges are at home for the first leg but how much of an advantage they will accrue from that is up for debate on the back of a club record nine Bundesliga defeats in their own back yard this season. Fürth, incidentally, are unbeaten on the road since early February.
Fürth happy in underdog role
In terms of tradition and pulling power, this is an undoubted study in contrasts. While not even the mighty Bayern München can match Hamburg's 51 uninterrupted years in the Bundesliga, last season's brief sojourn was the first and to date only taste of life in the top flight for Fürth. And while their compact 15,000-capacity Trolli Arena will doubtless be packed to bursting on Sunday, the Franconians' total home attendance figure of 98,500 for 2014 is lower than Hamburg's for their last two games alone at the Imtech Arena (113,300).
When push comes to shove, of course, all the statistics and speculation will count for naught. “Obviously we're the underdogs, but that's a role that suits us just fine. All the rest will be decided on Thursday and Sunday,” noted Fürth coach Frank Kramer and his players have echoed that simple message. “Not many people reckoned we'd still be playing for automatic promotion on the final matchday, so we're certainly happy to be going into extra time now,” said goalkeeper and skipper Wolfgang Hesl; “Sending Hamburg down for the first time would make a little bit of history as well. We want to take this opportunity.”