Season Preview — Hannover — These are the Good Old Days

Hannover fans are caught between two chairs at the start of the new season, which in fairness has already begun for the team. The 5-0 on aggregate v Saint Patrick’s Athletic in the 3rd round of Europa League qualifiers handed fans a positive start after a handful of dodgy pre-season friendlies, and points to the success of the last two seasons.  On the other hand, fans of 96 remember too many seasons of struggling to achieve simple mediocrity.

The end of last season gave the team a time to breathe and relax after 50 more or less tough matches in the Bundesliga, the DFB-Pokal and the Europa League. The most successful (international) season in the history of the club saw the team advance to the quarter finals of Europe’s second biggest team competition in their first European campaign for 19 years. Staying unbeaten at home in the league covered up an abysmal away form and secured 7th place, providing the opportunity for more magical nights in Europe. Hannover also reached round two of the DFB-Pokal for the first time in three years.

Hannover’s Front Office Working Together

While Hannover players were on holiday, or involved in the Euros this summer,  Club President Martin Kind faced his toughest challenge yet; convincing Sporting Director Jörg Schmadtke to stay with the club.

Schmadtke had decided to leave due to personal reasons – his family still lived in Düsseldorf, while his work kept him away in Hannover and involved in scouting around the world.  The media dug out the old stories of Schmadtke arguing with Coach Mirko Slomka, presuming that was a factor in the Director’s  reasons to leave as well as a suggested move to just-relegated FC Köln.

But Kind never gave up on his sporting director – and neither did Mirko Slomka. The latter suggested a final, open discussion between President and Sporting Director and in the end, an agreement was reached: After finishing the planned transfers at the end of June, Schmadtke would leave work until mid-September to take a long holiday with his family, as well as moving into a new home with his family in Hannover. From then on, Schmadtke would work part-time until the end of the year before starting refreshed again in January 2013.  Thinking outside the box to create a unique decision granting the Sporting Director some needed extended leave, even in the middle of the summer transfer window, kept the Hannover management team intact.

Roster Changes

Speaking of transfers, Schmadtke did well to keep most of the squad together with better contracts, handed to them during last season. So all he had to do was strengthen some areas of the squad  as well as replace the few departing players.

Club legend Altin Lala will help the Bayern Munich reserve side become a force in the lower leagues again for a year, then will return to his family in Hannover.

Carlitos spent most of his time in Hannover injured and his contract wasn’t renewed this summer.

Erdal Akdari never made the first team but decided to go to Kayserispor in Turkey after his time in the youth teams.

Daniel Royer only came to Hannover last season, but the young Austrian never managed to impress enough to make the first XI, so he got loaned to FC Köln.

Moritz Stoppelkamp featured as a substitute in a lot of games last season, but failed to shine with assists or goals. 1860 bought him for €250,000.

The biggest leaving transfer departure, though, without a doubt, was that of defender Emanuel Pogatetz.. The Austrian’s attitude on the pitch stabilized the defence in recent seasons and made Pogatetz quite popular among Hannover fans. In the middle of last season, he had a clash with the coach and afterwards was only CB number 3 behind Karim Haggui and Mario Eggimann. It came as no surprise to many that Pogatetz decided to leave the club and move elsewhere, but his destination left many Hannover fans speechless. Wolfsburg, of all places? The village on the canal, where trains regularly forget to stop? Fans who told everyone that it was a big mistake to let him go, found themselves in defence Even they knew there was no other reason to this than more money, even if he said he wanted to play Champions League with Wolfsburg. Yeah, sure…

Schmadtke used the €2.5m he got from Volkswagen to send it directly to Belgium. As Pogatetz departed, the transfer of Felipe was announced.  Felipe was Dante’s successor at Standard Liege after the Brazilian centre-back moved to Gladbach. The two players are very similar in quality and appearance. Hannover had direct experience of the Standard defenders’ talents, as Felipe frustrated 96 strikers in all four matches between the two clubs in Europa League competition last year..

Pogatetz’s replacement, Felipe

Previously Hannover had signed their first ever Japanese player, Hiroki Sakai. Schmadtke beat teams like Borussia Dortmund to the 22-year-old, mostly by travelling to Japan and negotiating there in person with club and player. Sakai, nominated to the J-League 2011 Best XI squad while at Kashiwa Reysol, had a few days of summer training with the 96ers before heading off to represent Japan in the Olympics, where he barely missed earning an Olympic medal. He’ll be expected to apply pressure on Captain Steven Cherundolo, and to eventually succeed him at right back, a role that Sofian Chahed has been unable to fulfill.

FC Zurich midfielder Adrian Nikci was a surprise signing.  The young Swiss caught the eye of club managment and is now apparently the fastest 96er, and will be looking for playing time on either wing. If he stays injury-free, his ability to effectively replace tiring wingers from the first XI, in a hopefully busy schedule, will be well worth the €600,000 price tag.

The final transfer acquisition, done after Schmadtke left for holidays, was probably the most popular for the the majority of 96-fans. Szabolcs Huszti, the lost son, returned back to the capital of Lower Saxony after a rather unsuccessful 3-year stint in St. Petersburg. Having received €3m for him in January 2009, the club got the 29-year-old back for a mere €750,000. Huszti was given the number-10 shirt (a number that was left blank since Jan Arnold Bruggink left the team in 2010), although Huszti most likely will play on the left side and not as a classic number 10.

Looking Ahead to 2012/2013

So, where does that leave Hannover 96 this season? Tough to say, really. As soon as friendlies didn’t involve local Sunday League teams but competitive opponents, the results looked grim. A 0-2 v 3rd tier Preußen Münster and a 0-4 v 2nd tier Hertha Berlin are only two examples. Most recently, though, it looks like the concentration is back up again. There were moments in the 1st leg v St. Patrick’s, where Hannover fans needed to hold their breath, but luck was with them on a few occasions. In the return leg at home, in the fortress that is the Niedersachsenstadion, 96 never really had to get out of 2nd gear to advance to the playoff stage to now meet Polish champion Slask Wroclaw.

Perhaps the best example of how much this new team is capable of  was presented on Saturday evening at the official season-opening in a friendly v Manchester United. After playing mostly the 2nd string in the 1st half, the first XI (with a few exceptions due to injuries) took the game to United at some stages and looked convincing at keeping the ball and creating chances. The best show piece for that is the build-up and the finish for Moa Abdellaoue’s 3-1, scored with the mother of all back-heels.

The first XI could very well look like this, once the Bundesliga season starts:

Zieler – Cherundolo, Haggui, Eggimann, Pander – Stindl, da Silva Pinto, Andreasen, Huszti – Schlaudraff, Abdellaoue.

Slomka’s potential stating lineup in the 12/13 season

And even this team shows, how much depth there is right now, with Sakai, Avevor, Felipe and Schulz all making claims for the defensive spots, Nikci, Schmiedebach, Hauger, Rausch battling for midfield spots, while Diouf (still working on recovery from ankle surgery), Ya Konan and Sobiech will want to have a say when it comes to attacking positions.

It comes as no surprise, that during the Manchester United friendly, Hannover 96 club legend Dieter Schatzschneider hailed this squad as the best squad, Hannover has ever had. He even dared to mouth the words “Champions League” in a sentence also containing the words “eventually” and “in a few years”.

There is no doubt, expectations are high in Hannover. Never has the club sold more season tickets than now. The city is proud of its team —  one that has made the unlikeliest of turnarounds when only two years they were one game away from being relegated.

In their 10th successive Bundesliga year, Hannover 96 has come a long way; from being consistent underachievers stuck in the lower midfield of the table to playing internationally and creating excitement for German fans.  Hannover have been the best team in Northern Germany for two successive years.

Still, many of things could go wrong — crashing out of Europe before the achieving the minimal aim of advancing to the group stages’ or once again being eliminated from the DFB-Pokal early against a minor opponent, or a return to the bottom half of the table.

But there is enough reason for optimism in Hannover. Euphoric fans, a team collective, a functioning partnership between coach and sporting director and a squad with the most depth in recent memory makes the outlook for the new season bright.

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Ansgar Löcke is a diehard Hannover fan who has written previously for the Bundesliga Fanatic on his adventures following the 96ers in Pokal competition and in Denmark. You can follow Ansgar on twitter @Ansgarius_90

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