One of the surprising, if overlooked, stories of this thrilling, unpredictable Bundesliga season has been the performance of Hannover 96. The squad, which is managed by 43 year-old former Schalke head man Mirko Slomka, currently hold the fourth spot in the table with 25 points. Since being promoted from Bundesliga 2 for the 2002-2003, the Reds highest finish in the table has been eighth, and last season they finished in the 15th spot. With the exception of that eighth place finish in the 2007-2008 season, Hannover 96 have been embedded in the bottom half of the Bundesliga table since their promotion. often in a fight to survive relegation.
Coach Slomka’s team has definitely been overachieving so far in 2010-2011. While bigger clubs like Bayern Munich, Schalke, Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart, Hamburg and VfL Wolfsburg have been disappointing, Slomka’s north German side have fashioned eight wins and one draw in their first fourteen Bundesliga matches despite having a -2 goal differential. The negative goal differential may be a bit misleading, however, in that Hannover suffered back to back 4-0 drubbings away to Hoffenheim and at home to Dortmund at the end of October and beginning of November. Delete those two performances, and a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich two weeks before the Hoffenheim match, and Hannover’s goal differential would be + 9, more reflective of their fourth place berth. Six of their eight victories have been by one goal margins, though, indicating that good fortune has played a part in Hannover’s achievements so far.
Hannover 96 began the season on the wrong foot by being eliminated from the DFB Pokal Cup by Regionaliga club SV Elversburg on penalties on August 14. But Hannover rebounded to start the Bundesliga season brightly, defeating Eintracht Frankfurt and Schalke and drawing with Bayer Leverkusen in their first three league matches. Wolfsburg ended their unbeaten start on MatchDay 4, but with the exception of October (in which Die Roten suffered three shutout losses), Slomka has his team playing consistently. Hannover 96 have the second best home record in the Bundesliga, and have won three of six away matches thus far.
Hannover have had a fine season despite the fact that only one 96er, Ivory Coast international Didier Ya Konan, is among the top 25 in Bundesliga scoring. The 26 year-old attacker, who joined Hannover from Norwegian club Rosenborg in 2009, has scored six goals in thirteen matches. Newcomer Mohammed ‘Moa’ Abdellaoue was named 2010 Player of the Year in the Norwegian Tippeligaen and has added four goals to Hannover’s attack, and Ya Konan and midfielder Sergio Pinto share the club lead in assists with three. Forwards Mike Hanke and Jan Schlaudraff, along with midfielder Lars Stindl, have also been providing goals in Hannover’s last few matches.
Defensively, Slomka’s side have allowed 22 goals, tied for seventh in the Bundesliga for the least amount allowed with Hamburg. Goalkeeper Florian Fromlowitz, who signed with Hannover in 2008 as an understudy to the late Robert Enke, has been the number one keeper since Enke’s tragic suicide a little more than a year ago and has played well. Bundesliga backline veterans such as American Steve Cherundolo and Christian Schulz bring continuity and international experience to the Hannover defense, with Cherundolo having over 300 appearances in a Hannover shirt and wearing the captain’s armband. Young defender Konstantin Rausch is the only Hannover player beside Fronlowitz to start every game this season.
Hannover 96 next three matches before winter break include away fixtures at Borussia Monchengladbach and Nurnberg along with a home match against VfB Stuttgart, all winnable games for the Hannoverians. Defender Karim Haggui’s five-game suspension handed down from the DFL lasts until mid-December, but aside from Sergio Pinto’s accumulation of five yellow cards, no other Hannover players look to miss time soon from results of disciplinary infractions.
It will be interesting to see if Hannover is active in the winter transfer market — their summer acquisitions of Abdellaoue, Stindl, forward Moritz Stopplekamp, Rangers midfielder DaMarcus Beasley and Middlesbrough defender Emmanuel Pogetetz, has been a mixed bag so far, although if Beasley can withstand the physical nature of the Bundesliga, his free kick skills and speed could help the Reds’ attacking.
Hannover have had a successful season so far. Their performance does honor to the memory of their fallen teammate, Robert Enke, and with the Reds not involved in European or Pokal Cup competitions, the team has the luxury of complete focus and plenty of energy for its league matches. A tip of the hat to Coach Slomka and the men from Hannover, who have done their fans proud.