Third time lucky? Peter Knäbel (2nd r.) is Hamburger SV's third head coach this season
Third time lucky? Peter Knäbel (2nd r.) is Hamburger SV's third head coach this season

Now or never for Knäbel and Hamburg

Cologne - If there does turn out to be a happy ending for Hamburger SV in May, the turmoil of the past few days and weeks could toughen the only club never to have been relegated from the top flight of German football.

Putting on a united front

Fresh from their second managerial change of the season, the bombshell that captain Rafael van der Vaart and full-back Marcell Jansen's contracts will not be renewed, and with the small matter of preserving their top-flight status still to be resolved, these are tricky times indeed for the northern giants.

Battle-hardened from the similar struggles of last season, HSV know these are the most important eight weeks of their season - perhaps even of their history. "We're not blind to the reality," sporting director Dietmer Beiersdorfer told "We're stuck right in the middle of a relegation battle."

After last year's toils, it was not where they wanted to be 12 months down the line, nor is it where they expected to end up either. "We all thought the breakthrough would come sooner," Beiersdorfer continued. "We've got to live with the criticism, but not lose our self-determination, conviction and our internal unity."

Tough first test for convinced Knäbel

By appointing Peter Knäbel to replace Josef Zinnbauer, they have reinforced these necessary characteristics, and the 48-year-old has reported positive progress after his first few days in the Imtech Arena hot seat. "Nobody's letting themselves get depressed," said the new coach and former director of football. "They're all pulling in the same direction and have stressed in the talks we've had that all of their concentration is focused on our common goal."

Whether that transpires into an upturn in the club's fortunes will become evident this weekend when they travel to UEFA Champions League-seeking Bayer 04 Leverkusen, at the other end of the Bundesliga spectrum. A first win since 2 February is the objective, but a draw to steady the ship for what promises to be a choppy journey to survival would be more than acceptable for Knäbel's troops.

Herrmann in support role

"We've got eight weeks ahead in which we need to be totally focused," said Peter Herrmann, the man brought in to assist Knäbel on HSV's survival mission. "We've got to gather our strength and stand together if we want to reach our goal." The arrival of the former right-hand man to Jupp Heynckes at FC Bayern and Leverkusen is further evidence of the unity prevailing on the banks of the River Alster. "I felt a moral obligation to support Peter," revealed the 63-year-old after being approached last month.

Almost a year on from HSV's last skirt with relegation, Beiersdorfer is confident that the new constellation at the helm can lift the club away from the bottom three. "Peter Herrmann is capable of creating immediate bonds with the players," said the former centre-back, who knows he too will be judged on his recent appointments. "With his expertise and support, he should help the team make quick progress and get the necessary points. He knows all there is to know about football."

So too do most Hamburg fans, having seen their club remain permanently in the top flight of German football since the start of the Bundesliga in 1963. "HSV belong in the Bundesliga," proclaimed Beiersdorfer. "That is what we must and what we will prove." Fighting words ahead of one of the biggest battles Hamburger SV have ever had to face.