In one of the most memorable relegation/promotion playoffs in recent history, Hertha Berlin were demoted to the 2. Bundesliga for the second time in three years following their 2-2 draw in Düsseldorf. Fortuna’s first leg win in Berlin gave them the aggregate advantage and ensured that they returned to Germany’s top flight for the first time in 15 years. The match was marred by late drama though as Fortuna supporters lit flares and invaded the pitch with minutes to go, delaying the end of the match and casting a shadow over what should have been a momentous occasion for the club.
Lineups and Formations
Düsseldorf coach Norbert Meier kept his team the same after their surprising 2-1 win in Berlin. His mentor and former coach in the 1980’s, Otto Rehhagel, made three changes despite stating last week that he had finally found his preferred eleven. Perdedaj, Ebert and Holland sat while Ronny, Rukavytsya, and Mijatovic were all given the start. 4-2-3-1 was the order of the day for both teams but nerves more than tactics were going to make the difference in this match.
Nerves would also give Hertha the worst start imaginable. The visitors lost the ball within just seconds of kicking off and after regaining possession in his own half, Ilso released Beister on the counter, the speedy attacker racing forward, cutting past a couple of Hertha defenders and blasting the ball into the far corner from 30 meters out. Beister was far from convincing in the first leg and Meier’s use of the winger as the lone forward was questionable from a tactical perspective but he swept those doubts aside with his early goal and would have a big impact on the match.
It took a while for Hertha to regroup but they eventually settled into the game and started to dominate. Meier’s Düsseldorf are not beyond taking a more defensive approach, which they have done throughout the year and in the first leg, which also allowed Hertha to press further forward. And press forward Hertha did. Rukavytsya and Niemeyer both had good chances in the next ten minutes. Despite those warning signs Fortuna remained deep in their own half. The outcome was naturally Hertha’s equalizer on 22 minutes. Ronny floated in a free kick from the left which the unmarked Ben-Hatira headed home. Suddenly Hertha were alive again.
It was the warning Fortuna needed and the remainder of the half became the kind of chaotic end to end match that one would expect given the high stakes. Ilso and Bröker kicked into high gear and both came close around the half hour mark before Hertha responded through Raffael and Ramos. After scoring in the opening stages of the first half early Beister nearly got another at the end of it but wasted his shot. Hertha’s best chance came on 43 minutes when Ronny turned a Fortuna defender and released a shot that forced arguably the save of the game from Ratajczak. They may not have converted their chances but the signs were definitely there that Hertha could pull off the unthinkable and beat Fortuna to stay up.
Meier made one change at half, again bringing on Jovanovic for Ilso and instructing Beister to play a bit deeper since his speed could be used to bring the ball forward better and quicker. The move nearly paid dividends as Beister had another chance just three minutes after the restart but came up short. The failure to get into matches early on has cost Hertha numerous times this season and it did so again this time around. One of the game’s turning points came in the 54th minute when Ben-Hatira recklessly lunged after a lost ball only to connect with Bodzek instead. Referee Stark did not hesitate and sent one of Hertha’s most dangerous players off. After such a positive first half it went downhill from there.
Four minutes later substitute Jovanovic got on the end of a counter attack and cross from Bröker on the left, restoring Fortuna’s lead and taking advantage of their numerical superiority. The pressure now became almost over bearing and Hertha consistently exposed themselves as they chased the game. Jovanovic came close to his second in the 73rd minute and Matuschyk, who had come on for Beister, wasted yet another chance in the 81st minute. Fortuna supporters were beginning to become restless and flares were thrown onto the pitch. Referee Stark had to pause the match so they could be removed. Nevertheless, the visitors pushed on and were rewarded for their efforts five minutes from time after Ebert and Ramos combined to set up Raffael for the equalizer, setting up a tense and dramatic finish. The next goal would be decisive for either team.
With the tension mounting and nearly all of the 7 added minutes of stoppage time gone, Fortuna supporters stormed the pitch, forcing referee Stark to bring the match to a halt. After deliberating for nearly half an hour both teams returned to the pitch and played out the remaining 90 seconds but the momentum was gone and so were Hertha’s hopes for staying in the Bundesliga.
Rehhagel was at a loss for words after the match while Christian Lell echoed the sentiments of the team and probably the supporters by saying, “We were simply not worthy of Bundesliga football throughout the entire Rückrunde and are all extremely disappointed. We’re not looking to scapegoat the referee. It is difficult to find words at the moment.” It may also very well be Otto Rehhagel’s last ever match as a Bundesliga coach. Either way, the issue is not dead in the water as for the club as Hertha lawyers will closely examine the issue and consider an appeal to the league and the German FA.
As far as the match went, it would not be a stretch to say that Hertha were the better side in the first half and were it not for Ben-Hatira’s sending off they could well have won it. Fortuna’s job was made easier and an already defensive approach became even more so after the dismissal, also playing into their counter attacking strengths. Fortuna’s supporters didn’t do their club any favors though and even if the league and German FA choose not to take any actions it spoils a historic moment in club history.
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