Hamburger SV – Season Review

For the second season running for Hamburger SV, their Volksparkstadion’s famous clock – the so-called “Bundesliga clock” – the clock that indicates that HSV are the only Bundesliga club that has never been relegated –was in real danger of resetting, and this season the danger didn’t disappear by MatchDay 34. In a campaign mostly remembered for the lack of goals and sluggish performances, the traditional club finally secured a lifeline to their long-standing top-flight status, many thanks to a nerve-racking second-leg extra-time win at Karlsruher SC in the relegation playoff. For those frantic seconds, anyone involved with HSV is excused to forget all the wrong doings and falling from grace in recent years for the north German club, but since the dust settled now, perhaps its the right time to look back at the near disaster story of Hamburger SV’s 2014/2015 season.

Story of the season:

With the billionaire club fan Klaus-Michael Kuehne lending a hand on incoming transfers to help the Red Shorts revive from the horrifying sight of needing the relegation playoff to stay in the Bundesliga following a dismal 2013/2014 campaign, Hamburg looked to start the 2014/15 season on a positive note.  Last-minute deals to obtain the services of Bundesliga veteran Lewis Holtby and US prospect Julian Green on loan deals, along with the acquisition of players like up-and-rising Mainz’s danger-man Nicolai Müller, who went as far as joining the ranks of die nationalmannschaft at the time, and promising left-back Matthias Ostrzolek, were among the long-list arrivals in the busy off-season for Hamburg officials that hopefully would change the culture of losing prevalent at Hamburg in recent seasons.

Unfortunately, an ideal start on the pitch wasn’t in the cards, with Coach Mirko Slomka relieved of his duties just three scoreless matchdays into the season, leaving many to suggest that the club’s offseason moves weren’t successful.  Former Hamburg U21 coach Josef Zinnbauer replaced Slomka, and instilled some toughness to the club’s defense. In the previous season, Der Dino stumbled into heavy defeats against Bayern München, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen, but with the no-nonsense (yet inexperienced) coach at the helm, Hamburg held all Bundesliga’s Champions League representatives goalless in the Hinrunde.

The problem was, though, at the other end of the pitch – the attacking front.  Slomka didn’t stay long enough at the helm to see HSV’s first league goal of the season, and his successor Zinnbauer also had to wait to celebrate one. Playing around with the league’s record of goal droughts, summer-signing Müller finally break the drought on MatchDay six against Eintracht Frankfurt, although Lucas Piazon’s late stunner stole the show and left HSV’s winless streak intact.

Unfortunately the inability to score goals continued throughout the season, as the Red Shorts ended up with the league’s worst scoring record, managing six less goals than the cellar-dwellers – and second on the list – Paderborn, who hit the back of the net 31 times. The lack of goals and the usual drubbing by the hands of giants Bayern München in the Ruckrunde (this time around it was an 8-0 shellacking), made the case for yet another managerial sacking at HSV, and following back-to-back lackluster defeats against Hoffenheim and Hertha Berlin, Zinnbauer was shown the door.  Sporting director Peter Knäbel stepped up as an interim coach, but afteran awful couple of weeks, Hamburg turned to a familiar name – Bruno Labbadia, to try to save the club with only six league matches remaining.

Labbadia both played and managed Hamburg before, but nothing he ever did comes close to his heroics to save the proud history of the club after he took the reigns, with HSV sitting bottom of the table. He even lost his second debut,  the all-important Nordderby against fierce rivals Werder Bremen, but with three wins in the season’s last five matches and a crucial (and controversial) late equalizer in a relegation six-pointer against Freiburg, Hamburg finished the regular campaign in the relegation/promotion playoff place for a second season in a trot.

Decisive moment of the season:

All the revival signs since Labbadia’s arrival were great, as only the two Borussias – Dortmund and ‘Glabdach – collected more points than the Red Shorts in the form guide, but it would have meant nothing if it wasn’t for the remarkable finale to the season. After the first-leg of the playoff ended all-square at Hamburg, Karlsruher pretty much come out the happiest side with the single goal they scored on foreign soil. Still many tipped Hamburg to find a way to save their season against the third-placed second-division side three days later in Karlsruhe, as HSV did at the end of 2013/2014, when last season’s playoff first-leg at home ended in a draw, before HSV were eventually saved from relegation in the second leg at Greuther Fürth with the help of the away goal rule. But HSV couldn’t convert their dominance in possession to goals in the second leg, and with twelve minutes on the clock, against the run of a play, Reinhold Yabo found the net with a rare well-worked move by the side based in Baden-Württemberg.

The final twelve minutes of regulation time saw Hamburg come close to scoring, but luck doesn’t seem to be on Hamburg’s side. That was until the first minute of  injury-time when Jonas Meffert was penalized for a really soft handball to give the Dinosaurs a perfect opportunity of scoring from a free-kick in a danger territory. Neither the fact that HSV hadn’t scored a single goal from a direct free-kick all season nor the fact that winter signing Marcelo Díaz was still waiting for his first goal in Germany mattered, as the Chilean midfielder struck a spectacular equalizer to knot the score and bring on extra time. Substitute Nicolai Müller provided the finishing touch from Cléber’s brilliant delivery down the left-flank at the 115th minute mark to give HSV a 2-1 lead that they held to the very end as they once again barely avoided relegation to Bundesliga 2.

Player of the season:

For different reasons, picking the best and worst players from HSV’s season is almost as difficult a task as was Hamburg’s survival from their dire state. Hosts of players failed to met expectations, including most of the promising summer signings, and no consistent performer stands out like Pierre-Michel Lasogga did during the previous season. Gojko Kačar and Marcelo Díaz, ironically both deep-lying midfielders, scored the crucial goals, and veteran Rene Adler made decisive saves at the other end that eventually keep the club from the drop, but they all played less than half of the season’s fixtures.

Johan Djourou featured in one more game than the three of the aforementioned players combined, only missing a couple of matches throughout a demanding season. The Swiss international was the integral part of a stingy defense, and even went on to wore the captain’s armband on eleven occasions when skipper Rafael van der Vaart had to make do with a regular place on the substitutes bench. Never short of enthusiasm and aggression, former Arsenal man Djourou had probably the best season of his career, as he finally come to terms with Bundesliga’s playing style. Now he is officially the club captain and Hamburg will expect much from the 27-years-old no-nonsense defender in the coming season.

What’s next?

In addition to the improbable escape, HSV fans find solace from the fact that their stadium reverted back to its original name Volksparkstadion in June, thanks to Klaus-Michael Kuehne – who now has a 7.5 percent stake at the club – acquiring the naming rights for four years. Having endured a terrifying time at the dugout in early April, Peter Knäbel is now totally focused on his Director of Sports duty, as Bruno Labbadia seemed the perfect fit for the head coach position. (side note: he is the tenth coach at the club since 2010.) Although many of the players who brought on with the help of Kuehne’s money didn’t deliver, including van der Vaart in his return to the club, HSV hope to take a huge leap forward with quality signings in this summer’s transfer market.

For now, the departures from HSV dominate the headlines, as club legend van der Vaart led the way out with fellow veterans Marcell Jansen and Slobodan Rajkovic following.  The loan deals that brought in Lewis Holtby and Julian Green have little chance of turning into anything permanent as both experienced disappointing seasons.  Furthermore, defensive all-rounder Heiko Westermann is closing on a deal that will saw him ditch the Bundesliga for a move to Turkish Super Lig.

By ridding themselves of some of the famous names on their roster, Hamburg finally seem to now have a chance to rebuild the team instead of fighting against the drop in the eleventh hour by continuing with a failed system. Some insist that relegation might have turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it would forcibly create a platform to start over, but the experience from clubs such as 1860 München suggest otherwise. (The Bavarians were struggling in the top-flight at the beginning of the century, but once they were relegated, they’ve found no way to rebound, as they will head into their 12th straight season in the second-division). For Hamburg supporters, after two consecutive seasons of barely avoiding relegation, change has to be a good thing.

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Eskender born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Despite the geographical differences, he's interested in every detail of German football, if not any kind of football. Wolfsburg's industrious away win at Hamburg started his Bundesliga obsession back in 2005. You can also follow him on Twitter @eskeBMG