It’s that time of year again, where the agonising wait for the winter pause to end is over and the Bundesliga returns to its full glory.
Sometimes with a bang, sometimes with a yawn, the opening fixtures of the Ruckrunde can be exciting times since clubs return to the open stage with new incentives. They now know where they stand for the season…
Relegation dog fight,
Every club has something to fight for. Their standards and goals are set, the second half of the season is the moment to begin again, in particular for those teams struggling at the foot of the table.
The likes of Nurnberg, Hannover and Stuttgart can use the winter pause to pinpoint what exactly has gone askew with their season.
For Hertha BSC the focus of the extended winter break was purely to ensure that almost an entire starting elevens worth of players were at least 3/4 of their way onto a full recovery before the season restarts.
11 players either injured or unavailable meant scraping the barrel for the last two or three games of Hinrunde, it also meant just 1 point from a possible 9, which was completely the opposite to what Pal Dardai wanted.
During that 6 weeks, the likes of Bayern and Dortmund jetted off to the sun, halfway across the planet to train and prepare for the next half of the season.
Hertha did not. Instead the team remained at home, training in the sub zero degree temperatures in Berlin, a useful tool to help prepare for the fact the first few games of the next round are going to be played in minus Celsius… training in the desert doesn’t prepare anyone for that. Berlin braved the cold instead, playing a handful of training matches whilst pushing for the likes of Marko Grujic, Niklas Stark and Karim Rekik to regain their full fitness.
But it worked. Hertha returned to some sort of action in the friendly tournament “Telekom Cup”hosted by Fortuna Dusseldorf… where they lost both games to Dusseldorf and to Monchengladbach.
It wasn’t a case of playing badly, it was a case of ‘this team haven’t played in match conditions alongside one another for almost 3 months’, and it showed.
Friendlies out of the way, they returned to Bundesliga action away from home in the reverse fixture list for the Ruckrunde… beginning with lowly Nurnberg who themselves now have to focus purely on what’s above them, fighting for their lives at the very foot of the table.
No. With fresh minds, teams in the bottom half are far more dangerous when coming into the Ruckrunde than people realise. Their ambitions and goals are set, their minds are focused and they’re prepared to give everything and anything for survival. Stuttgart showed that sort of fight pre Christmas break and Nurnberg were not going to be any different, they were not going to make it easy.
Auswarts Challenge: Destination Nurnberg
Games against bottom clubs are not easy and no one should ever walk into them believing they’ll walk away the victor. No game is easy, no game is hard. You have to take it as it comes.
Stuttgart had already taken advantage of the frailties in Hertha’s injury stricken defence at the tailend of the Hinrunde. Now, FC Nurnberg were refreshed after the winter break just as the Berliners were, but “Der Klub” have much bigger problems than just injuries.
Rooted to the bottom of the table, Nurnberg had suffered monstrous defeats at the hands of Borussia Dortmund (7-0) and RB Leipzig (6-0) in the first half of the season, but showed glimmers of class in their draw against Frankfurt and downing Fortuna Dusseldorf 3-0.
But rock bottom clubs are in that position for a reason, and Nurnberg were never going to be pushovers, especially since now the players were motivated to turn their season around starting with Hertha.
The Berliners were not without worries themselves. Draws to Augsburg and Hoffenheim and then losses to Leverkusen and struggling Stuttgart away from home as well as a disastrous performance against Dusseldorf resulting in a red card and 4-1 loss, Hertha had managed prise themselves up the table due to other results and victories at home over Frankfurt as well as sinking lowly Hannover in the Hinrunde.
Over the duration of the latter stages of the first half of the season, Hertha had an almighty battle to field a strongest 11 on the field, almost as many players that could start were also on the injury list.
Marko Grujic, a key playmaker in central midfield, injured yet again after the horror tackle he suffered in the 4-2 home win against Borusssia Monchengladbach, was one of the most noticeable losses in a key role. Along with Grujic, there were injury problems for Karim Rekik, Niklas Stark, Jordan Torunarigha, Derrick Luckassen, Lukas Klunter, Javairo Dilrosun, Mathew Leckie, Salomon Kalou as well as U23 options Julius Kade and Marius Gersbeck. With several vital defensive players missing, Hertha were forced to field a team not experienced with playing together and with players in makeshift positions. The aim was to make it to Christmas without losing anyone else to injury… by the time the winter break came, it was a relief, as the startelf was as long as the injury list.
It meant however, that the team had weeks to recuperate and work to regain fitness.
By the time the first game of the Ruckrunde, only four first team players were left unavailable. (Leckie for the Asian Cup with Australia, Torunarigha, Dilrosun and Luckassen as an injury risk). The theory as to whether the “Grujic magic” was true, was about to be put to the test. Hertha are unbeaten when the Serbian has played.
In temperatures of just -1, things in Nurnberg got off to a slow start. Creativity is difficult in such conditions but Nurnberg were fully displaying the reason they were bottom of the table. They didn’t shape a single clear cut chance in the opening 30 minutes. But their opponents did.
Good movement from Duda in the midfield allowed Vedad Ibsievic to weave his way through the middle, when his well placed shot squeezed into the bottom corner giving the away side a well deserved lead.
It looked as though that would be enough to see the Berlin side through the first half. Nurnberg continued to create almost nothing as their lack of flare coming forward was evident, but Hertha began to sit back, slowly allowed the home side to begin pressing and putting on pressure. The backing off and sit back defending tactic and then pressuring on the counter, did not do Hertha any favours, allowing Nurnberg to have the ball allowed the home sides confidence to build.
Whilst there were few clear chances for Nurnberg, their first real opportunity came from a corner. Initially cleared, Hertha failed to clear their lines as the ball was played back in. With anyone failing to get close or tight enough to defend it, the ball dropped to Nurnberg’s own captain Hanno Behrens, who levelled the game from absolutely nothing just before the half time whistle.
Jubilation for Nurnberg, frustration for Hertha. The blue’s defensive issues would all serve to become evident in the following fixture against Gelsenkirchen 6 day later, but on this day the failure to calmly work to clear the ball and the lack of communication at the back led to a goal that shouldn’t have been conceded. It is unfortunately the story of the season.
Half time talk over and it looked as though the equaliser had given Nurnberg a new lease of life. They began the second half brightly, began pushing the Hertha defence, only this time the away side managed to cope with the pressure far better. It also didn’t help Nurnberg as they seemingly forgot how to defend themselves.
Just 3 minutes after the restart, a wonderful assist from Vedad Ibisevic allowed space for Ondrej Duda to steer his shot past the keeper and make it 2-1 to the Alte Dame.
Duda’s 8th goal of the season, a bet won with team mate and best friend Salomon Kalou, and relief for Hertha.
From that moment, Nurnberg just couldn’t seem to pick themselves back up. Conceding so soon after the restart seemed to knock the air out of them.
Matters went from bad to worse for the home side when, once again it was Duda who would haunt Nurnberg, this time the assist from Davie Selke and the finish from Duda to take his tally to 9 for the season.
Amazingly, despite only scoring once, captain Vedad Ibisevic was involved in every goal that Hertha scored that afternoon, assisting the second and part of the build up for the third.
Nurnberg were sunk, they simply could not bring themselves back from the brink after Duda’s brace. It could’ve gotten even worse for them, as Davie Selke saw his strike bounce back off the post late on.
But that was how the game ended. For Hertha, a decent performance but with much work to do still, in particular in the shaky defence. For Nurnberg, it was a dismal way to start their fight against relegation.
Hertha’s ambitions for European Football next season are entirely plausible and the goal of reaching those spots along with a potential appearance in the latter stages of the DFB Pokal are achievable, as shown by gritty performances like this one, but there is always work to be done. Conceding such slopping goals with a strong defence, the likes of Stark and Rekik and Torunarigha, shouldn’t be happening so easily. The gaping holes in the defensive midfield and the general defence would only be more evident in the following game.
Heimpunkte: Gelsenkirchen, the tale of two blues.
Defensive issues are still ongoing. Ever since the injury returns of Rekik and Stark there seems to be an unbalanced defence with the middle being far too easily split open and the defenders becoming either far too deep or losing concentration at key moments.
Fabian Lustenberger, despite having been rock solid 95% of the time for so many seasons, is not getting any younger, it may be possible that now in the latter stages of his career, he simply cannot consistently keep up with the pace of the game, and that Rekik and Stark being so young, still have much to learn as they have not yet reached their prime. It was momentary lapses in concentration that led to goals in several away loses in the Hinrunde, goals that weer easily avoidable.
Rekik and Stark’s central defensive partnership is usually a good one, the most concrete Hertha have. Strong on the ground and aerially, there was very little issue with them against the likes of Bayern at the beginning of the season. But after both suffered injury the centre back pairing has changed several times to fit the needs of the defence. Lustenberger and Torunarigha are both capable of playing that position, but aren’t the strongest pairing and when the latter was also injured it left Hertha with a very thin central defensive pairing. The final loss of the Hinrunde against Leverkusen saw Lustenberger and Torunarigha paired up, as did the loss to Stuttgart. Against Hoffenheim, Derrick Luckassen made his debut and had a strong performance, but he too succumbed to injury.
Despite Jordan scoring against Leverkusen, the general defensive line down to its bare bones, U23 defensive giant Florain Baak was drafted into the squad against Leverkusen and may have even been a better option at the back than Lustenberger but shoving in inexperienced players at the deep end when the defence is always wafer thin, was probably not good for the team or players confidence.
But with Rekik and Stark being out for so long, came another problem upon their return.
The pair had not played together in that central defensive unit since the 4-1 defeat to Dusseldorf in early November. It was now nearly 2 months later and the two hadn’t defended together at all in that time. January saw them both return to training a small training match against Aue and Bielefeld, then a dodgy friendly cup against Dusseldorf and Monchengladbach wasn’t really enough to determine a strong returning partnership. There is only so much that can be done in training sessions. These friendlies are merely tests and not comparable to actual competitive match conditions where the stakes and pressure are much higher.
The only way to truly regain the confidence and strength in the defence that was seen against Bayern in the early season, is to continue to work at it by learning from mistakes in competitive matches. Whilst frustrating to watch when things go wrong, it’s the only way to determine what needs to be worked on in training, as was made extremely clear in the match vs Gelsenkirchen.
Schalke 04 hadn’t tasted defeat at home against Hertha since 2004.
That all changed in 2018 when two goals from Ondrej Duda sunk the miners as the runners up from last season had an abysmal start to this campaign.
Throughout the season, the Gelsenkirchen side have been improving, beating a tiring Wolfsburg side 2-1 on the opening day of the second half of the season. A win a piece for both teams, they were each seeking victory on a bitterly cold night in Berlin.
Schalke now had similar issues to Hertha in the injury department. Several of the big stars were out due to knocks, meaning the royal blues were scrapping the barrel of the own squad, with former Union Berlin man Steven Skrzybski taking the strikers position.
With the strongest players in Schalke’s squad all missing, the likes of Harit, Embolo, Burgstaller and Di Santo, they were now in a similar position to that of their rivals just before the Christmas break.
For Hertha, there were welcome returns home for Grujic, Rekik, and Stark. Kalou was subjected to the bench in favour of Ondrej Duda and Davie Selke and the starting eleven was the strongest it could for the match under the Friday night lights.
The game began, like the week previous, gritty, with very few chances for the opponents and just a few for the hosts. Hertha did have a chance when Davie Selke’s shot was saved well, straight at Schalke’s new starting keeper Alexander Nubel.
Gelsenkirchen had create literally nothing at all in the opening 20 minutes but that didn’t stop them taking an undeserved lead. Poor defending from Hertha allowed Yevhen Konoplianka to take the ball down the flank and cut inside. Defensively it was a mess, as Ondrej Duda was the closest player to closing the Ukrainian down before he managed to easily get his accurate shot away, which Jarstein had no chance of saving.
With not a single Hertha defender in sight, Konoplianka was easily able to manoeuvre past Duda to strike from outside the box. The constant backing off of defensive duties from the Hertha defence would continue all evening. Without the attempt to close the attack down, the home side were massively vulnerable to attempts from outside the box and to counter attacks. One thing is certain from a defensive perspective regarding that goal… a number 10 should not be that deep inside his own half, trying to close down an attacking player, that is simply the job of the defenders and defensive midfielders. Duda’s positioning at that moment only shows how poor Hertha’s defensive closing down of Schalke’s attacking players was.
Frustrated, it didn’t take long for Hertha to respond with a sublime attack of their own. This time it was the away side that looked entirely shaky at the back, as some neat passing lead to a counter by Arne Maier, started by Marko Grujic who managed to squeeze back into the centre to finish the move after a beautiful backheel pass from Ondrej Duda.
It was only Grujic’s second goal of the season, on his return home to the Olympiastadion after injury. Involved in the build up and with the finish to match, this was by far Hertha’s best ‘team goal’ of the season. Every player on the same page and piling forwards in an all out attack showed just what the men from Berlin are capable of when they focus on the task ahead.
But the jubilation didn’t last long. The goal was followed by some extremely unsavoury scenes on the pitch,a fracas between the opposing teams. It would seem something was said in the aftermath of the goal, with Schalke complaining to the referee about something in the build up. It delayed the restart, and perhaps unsettled some of the home team… not before long Gelsenkirchen were back in front and once again it was defensive lack in concentration that lead to the goal this time from Mark Uth.
Decent build up play, yet against down the right flank led this time to a pass just inside the box to Uth, who didn’t have a single Hertha player near him. Totally alone in front of goal, not a single one of the midfield or defensive players were marking the forward which made his finish from close range all the more simple. Yet against Jarstein had no chance but the questions over Hertha’s defence and effective communication were raised yet again. The defensive line were all over the place, in a game where the attacking units were going to be key, to completely leave a centre forward unmarked is defensive suicide and is just asking for trouble.
Those sort of errors would continue into the night for both sides, in particular for Hertha who’s central defence was spared blushes due to saves made by Jarstein in the second half. But you cannot always rely on your last line of defence in your keeper.
What didn’t help matters in this case was the fact that the referee didn’t give Hertha a free kick at the other end of the field when there was a clear foul on Davie Selke, who, had he gone to ground instead of staying on his feet, would’ve probably been awarded the kick. As it was, Selke was completely wrestled off the ball, and not legally, and Schalke began the counter attack that allowed the goal to happen. The frustration of not being awarded the free kick may well have caught Hertha off guard at totally the wrong moment.
It could’ve been a real disheartening end to the first half for the home side however, the captain had other ideas.
3 minutes into the 4 of added time at the end of the first half, Davie Selke managed to wriggle through the Schalke defence and somehow find an accurate cross into the box which landed right on the head of Vedad Ibisevic to level the game with the last action of the first half.
Ibisevic and Grujic scoring in the same game, the ‘Yugo connection’ was working wonders for the home side. Grujic has still yet to lose a game with Hertha, and his professional relationship with captain Ibisevic is something to be marvelled.
2-2 at half time and one would expected the second half to be filled with the same attacking and gritty play as the first…
How wrong one can be.
Whilst there were chances for both sides in the second half the closes the away side came to scoring against were both saved brilliantly by Rune Jarstein who’s heroics were widely celebrated in the Ostkurve. Likewise the Berliners had several chances to score, with one shot from Davie Selke being brilliantly saved, a few chances in the box for Ibisevic that were blocked but the most frustrating part of the evening were the two half chances created by the oncoming Salomon Kalou.
After working hard to get into a great position in the box, the Ivorian failed to pass the ball to three waiting players in the middle, as the chance broke down and eventually came to nothing. Whether he was waiting for a foul that never came to claim a penalty, or whether he simply couldn’t find the right moment to get the shot away, the moment came and went and that was that.
Hertha’s central defence however, was continuously being split down the middle, which resulted in the saves from Jarstein. A more clinical finish and on a different night, the home side could’ve either easily won 4-2 or lost 4-2. But the build up from both sides around the 70 minute mark was just bogged down time and time again, the game slowed and became less and less aggressive.
Either side could’ve pushed harder. Hertha especially, had they pushed forwards more often and attacked the game more aggressively could’ve easily opened up a dogged and tired Schalke defence. As it was, no side wanted to open up at the risk of conceding on the counter. A similar mentality meant that the game ended the second half as it had the first in terms of scoreline. 2-2 and a point each wasn’t the worse result for either side but not the one they wanted either. Either way it could’ve been a lot worse.
Karim Rekik was incredibly lucky not to be red carded after he left Schopf in a heap on the floor, the result of a mistimed high challenge.
The last ditch heroics from Jarstein meant the home side didn’t concede more needless goals in the second half but it showed once again there are some things that need to be worked on if Hertha are to reach their goal of European football next season.
The ever fighting Hertha: The battling Berliners, a perspective shift?
“Typical Hertha” is a phrase coined by the Berlin faithful that was created long long ago. It refers to the history of the club making waves early in the season only to spectacularly miss the opportunity to keep that going once the Ruckrunde comes… or when the club has a shot at achieving something big only to miss out by producing a poor performance as was the case with the DFB Pokal Halbfinale against Borussia Dortmund over 2 years ago.
Having an “okay” season can be considered very ‘typical Hertha’ and because of the clubs turbulent history of relegation and re-promotion, many are quite okay with finishing mid to high mid-table. So long as it doesn’t result in another relegation dog fight or playoff battle it’s all okay.
But in more recent seasons there’s been a change at the Olympiastadion, more than likely down to the higher success rate of Pal Dardai and his influence on the style of football and the mentality that comes with it.
Hertha are no longer content with just surviving the season despite that always being the number one priority when the season begins.
Dardai had finished his full campaigns after taking over as coach in 7th, 6th and 10th place, taking Hertha to a DFB Pokal semi final and beating the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. His first task as manager was to ensure survival in 2014/15. He did so, with a little luck and help from Hamburg who were forced to play the relegation play off instead, Hertha survived on goal difference alone. Since then, there hasn’t been a relegation in sight.
All of sudden Hertha were winning games and people were enjoying what they were seeing without the fear of having to be involved in relegation again.
The much missed challenge of Hertha competing in three competitions, which hadn’t existed since that treasured memories of being a Champions League outfit (And the horror as to what followed regarding the clubs meltdown in finances) was something that whilst it resulted in finishing a mediocre 10th position in 2017/18 (accumulating in a horrible 6-2 home defeat for Leipzig), it meant the club could better understand how to balance out playing in Europe if the challenge were to arise again… and this season it seems like it could be possible.
The ‘typical Hertha’ mentality still rears its head from time to time amongst supporters but this season, it would appear the fear of failure has been somewhat erased.
Hertha as a club no longer consider themselves to be bottom half of the table, on the books to be relegated, instead they are contenders amongst the strongest sides in country, unafraid of challenging the likes of Bayern and Dortmund, having not lost to either of them in the 2018/19 Hinrunde.
Perhaps the mentality has changed. This is the first season in a long time where Hertha are not only playing well, but also playing attractive football, and where the off the pitch campaigns are far more positive, with each home match day being dedicated to specific Berlin district to bring the fans and the club closer together.
“The Future Belongs to Berlin” is the new motto, far better than the failure that was “We try. We fail. We win”.
The future is vast. Short term and long term, Hertha looks set to build a team that can achieve things, with a long term goal of also developing its own home grown talent and allowing them the chance at the top level, as shown by the fact Hertha have at least 7 players that began in the U23 on the professional squad books.
The mentality this season seems to be “We do no cower in the face of a giant. We do not give up when everything looks lost. When the worst happens, dust off and start again. Learn from your mistakes and move on”.
That’s what’s been appearing out on the pitch from day one of this season.
It was easy to go into match day 2 away to Gelsenkirchen, and recall the previous visits there. It was easy for the players to go there with that at the back of their minds and allow it cloud their ability to focus. It has happened in previous season and it happens to many teams that play the likes of giants like Bayern, who go into the match realising what a challenge they face.
But this wasn’t what happened in Gelsenkirchen. Despite Schalke having a poor start to the season, the challenge of beating them away from home in front of their passionate fans at the Veltins arena, was never going to be an easy one.
Instead, Hertha approached the game as if history had never happened. Every team they have faced this season have had the same faces, no team is greater than any other regardless of how many titles they have won in the past or how many times they have defeated Berlin before. It is quite literally one game at a time.
That win in Gelsenkirchen also appeared to start a chain of thoughts… ‘History doesn’t matter any more. If we can do this, we can do anything’.
It shone through again a few weeks later against Gladbach and Bayern despite a blip in Bremen in between.
The football is attractive, both because of the attacking options, the likes of Dilrosun and a revitalised Duda, a strong body like Grujic, a seasoned veteran like Ibisevic and a wall in the form of Jarstein, but also a solid mentality at the back.
Hertha only had about 29% of the ball against Bayern Munich when the two sides met at the Olympiastadion. Hertha won the game 2-0, and that was all down to the belief that despite the odds being against them even at 1-0 up, they were capable of getting the result if they worked hard and as a team to ensure it.
It is some of the best football both on the pitch in terms of skill and ideas and creativity, as well as the approach in which to execute it, that Hertha has produced in years.
Part of that vital glue to keep the unit together, is good leadership. In the form of Vedad Ibisevic, Hertha have a captain who’s destructive tendencies and sometimes fiery temperament (which have caused trouble for him in the past) are curbed and sedated, with the extra responsibility of leading the team, comes the responsibility to keep ones temper and set an example. Since Ibisevic was made captain of Hertha, he has not seen a red card. His last was against Schalke two seasons ago before being handed the arm band.
Balkan nations are very well known for being passionate when it comes to football, both players and supporters are well known for the physical side of their game but this means they are also extremely passionate about the sport.
Ibisevic is a visibly passionate player, when he scores, it means something, it’s always evident on his face. But what’s more, when the team goes behind, it’s his place to motivate his team as captain, to do better. Time and time against this season that has been the case. From going behind against Dortmund, to the leveller away to Nurnberg, from going behind to Augsburg to the extremely hard fought for and well earned draw 3-3 to Hoffenheim, Ibisevic’s determination not to surrender is key. It was under his leadership that Hertha managed to defeat Schalke for the first time away from home since 2004 and defeat champions Bayern for the first time since 2009. As a player he played a key role in all three goals against Nurnberg but what’s more it’s mentality of players after going behind that has struck a chord this season. The type of game Hertha is playing, the aggressive attacking nature of the football they’re playing is something fans have wanted to see for a while, and perhaps they are just starting to realise their potential. That fear that Hertha will regress into the relegation threatened capital club once more, has faded for now, instead the focus is on becoming a better and better unit and team, one building for the future whilst influenced by the past. This new mentality, building and progression can be nothing other than positive for the future of the club. Fans are enjoying what they’re seeing, the team has grown, the support is strong and the belief is building.
Serbian Force: The importance of being Grujic
If only it wasn’t a loan…It’s what most of us are thinking.
A 1 million Euro loan deal for Marko Grujic’s services this season is starting to look like bargain of the century. It’s just a shame that after July, he may well never be seen in a blue and white shirt again… now it all comes down to Liverpool’s decision about what to do with him.
There’s no buy option on Grujic, the idea was to loan him out so he gain experience at the top level before returning to Liverpool with the potential to make his way into their starting 11. But there’s two major issues with the Serbians ambition to play for the Merseyside club.
One) Grujic has suffered two major injuries this season alone resulting in limited game time, in comparison to what he could’ve played. His match fitness is a concern for both parties but it means his experience in the Bundesliga has been limited. Liverpool won’t want to risk him returning only having played a handful of the games he could’ve potentially played.
Two) Liverpool’s own attacking options and financial prowess mean his chances to breaking into an already extremely strong squad are massively affected. Liverpool have only lost one game this season, with the team they currently have both starters and bench available to them, it seems highly unlikely Grujic would get a starting spot next season.
He is however, open to staying Berlin another year, if Liverpool would allow it. Grujic is seemingly happy with life in Berlin as well as his team mates at Hertha. He’s commented before on his strong friendship with Vedad Ibisevic, which is also evident on the pitch.
Pal Dardai had also highly complimented the midfielder, claiming he’s “the best I’ve ever seen in my time here”.
Stats don’t lie either. From the possible 24 points available, Hertha have gained 20 when Grujic has been on the field. He’s scored twice in that time.
Without him, Hertha have gained just 7 points and their midfield stability has collapsed.
What is worrying for Hertha at this point, is what happens after that loan spell has ended and Grujic is on his way back to Liverpool?
There’s debate as to whether it’s worth trying to convince the Serb to stay permanently in Berlin, despite the fact he’s made it abundantly clear that his desire is to play for Liverpool. Despite that, he has suggested that another years loan in Berlin would be an option he’s open to, hopefully less injury riddled than this season. It also depends on Hertha’s finishing position this season. A European spot would strongly help sway the Serb to stay another season.
From the other side, Liverpool, if they were to sell their man, would undoubtedly ask for a massive sum. The question is, if Berlin were Marko’s preferred destination, would Hertha be willing to part with possibly over 25 million Euros to get him?
He’s certainly worth it with the performances he’s put in this season. It all hangs in the balance of Liverpool’s decisions. Unfortunately for Hertha, this situation is entirely out of their hands, no matter how much they’d like to keep him.
As for Grujic’s performances, his influence has been nothing short of a miracle. Remarkable strength in the midfield, his assist and goal tally isn’t glittering (yet), but what matters is his influence. He creates from almost nothing, his strength on the ball and vision has allowed Hertha to time and time again play their way out of trouble and into a good attacking position. His calmness on the ball and his sense of awareness allows the midfield to flow and be put at ease instead of being pressured into tight and nervy decisions that lead to defensive errors.
When Grujic has made mistakes (and it has happened on occasion), he has not allowed it to faze him.
Much like Ibsisevic in his mentality, the Serb has never allowed mistakes to get in the way, in fact it was his error against Hoffenheim that allowed them to score… only for Hertha to fight back three times and end the match with a hard earned point. Grujic was instrumental in ensuring the Berliners didn’t lose. Accompanied with a strong passion to do well and continue to do better, Grujic’s feelings are clear to be seen on his face when he scores. When Hertha levelled against Hoffenheim, it was Grujic who could be seen in the background screaming with relief. When he scored against Frankfurt he immediately approached the home supporters to celebrate.
Whether he is a loanee or not, Marko Grujic has seemingly embraced the philosophy and passion of Hertha BSC. Many loaned players have the tendency to treat their spell like a holiday, in which they’re placed at a smaller club to keep fit and waste time as they wait to return to their parent team hoping to in with a chance and a shot at the starting eleven. Grujic doesn’t have this approach, instead, he plays with complete focus on only one club, embraces the fans and their traditions and approaches each game with 100% determination to come out victorious. His professionalism in this loan in unreal, his talent is remarkable and the fact that Hertha will more than likely have to give him back to the red side of Merseyside come July, is a sad prospect indeed.
The frailty of a giant: How to be okay with the challenge of Bayern (DFB Pokal).
Nobody want to face Bayern until the DFB Pokal finale… but as Pal Dardai said in the round of 16 draw press conference ‘Someone has to play them, it may as well be us’.
Why not? Hertha have already defeated Bayern 2-0 this season and the DFB Pokal match is at the Olympiastadion, once again under the lights in the dark, once again quite possibly sold out. It is entirely possible to win… and entirely possible to be absolutely torn apart.
Bayern are on somewhat of a resurgence.
They’re now just 6 points behind Dortmund and have won both their opening Ruckrunde matches… however despite the results the performances have been less than convincing if you watch them back.
Many have assumed that Kovac has “stabilised the crisis and steadied the ship” but rewatching performances, you begin to realise that Bayern are just as frail now as they were when they lost to Hertha in September.
Conceding to Hoffenheim and struggling to defeat them, a Hoffenheim side that hasn’t exactly been settled themselves in comparison to last season, and then a win against Stuttgart, which despite winning 4-1 Bayern still conceded and were far from convincing defensively, it really hasn’t changed.
The results are there but the performances aren’t up to the standard the Bundesliga is used to. Dortmund are by far the best footballing side in Germany this season. Bayern, are for the most part, getting extremely lucky in their results.
Stuttgart should not be equalising against Bayern. Whilst Hertha lost to Stuttgart in the latter stages of the Hinrunde, you have to remember that Hertha had almost an entire starting 11s worth of injuries at the time. Bayern don’t have this excuse at all. In fact, they’re at their strongest at the moment, but there are obvious problems with their defence and if a team could take advantage of that, and then defend against an onslaught then the Bavarians are entirely beatable… in fact Hertha and Gladbach proved that already this season.
Provided he doesn’t get injured against Wolfsburg at the weekend, Marko Grujic should be fit for the Pokal showdown against Bayern. If Hertha are ahead in the game against the Wolves then it seems likely Dardai will substitute his star man early in order to spare him for the challenge of the Pokal. For Hertha, the DFB Cup game could prove to be more important, a priority for the season.
There’s no chance of catching the title chasers in the Bundesliga any more, despite there being a decent opportunity of making the European spots, the Pokal is something that is somewhat of a main focus point.
So often clubs field their weaker 11 for cup matches to focus on the league, like in the case of the English FA Cup. However, you have remember that the final is played at Wembley, whoever reaches the final it’s a day out for them. (Spurs’s home is not Wembley, they are simply residents there whilst their new stadium is built).
In Germany, the domestic cup final is always held at the Olympiastadion, regardless of who the finalists are. That means that if Hertha BSC were ever to make the final, they would be playing in their home stadium. It’s a unique situation in domestic cup competitions and the closest Hertha came to reaching the dream of playing in a final at home, was back in 2016 against Borussia Dortmund, in the Halbfinale… which Hertha lost 3-0.
The Pokal is also a greatest chance Hertha may have at winning a trophy, an actual meaningful title (rather than these friendly games such as the Telekom cup).
With this particular match up, so early on in the competition against Bayern, and with a win under their belt against the record champions already at home this season, Hertha could have the belief that if they overcame this challenge, provided they don’t draw Dortmund in the next round, they have ever chance of making it to the final and winning it.
Bayern have struggled to make it past amateur sides Drochtersen/Assel and SV Rodinghausen (winning 2-1 and 1-0) in the previous rounds where as Hertha initially struggled against Eintracht Braunschweig and then flew past Darmstadt. It is entirely possible that Hertha could defeat the giants of German football again, even if it seems unlikely.
But the truth is matches against Bayern and Dortmund are somewhat of a luxury for Hertha fans, who, rather than planning for the next round, just enjoy the moment and offer their full support to the team instead. Whilst we believe anything is possible, especially after the miraculous victory over Bayern already this season, we have to remain realistic to, and enjoy the moment…
But if recent history were to repeat itself… my goodness they would be celebrations for days. And a hell of a lot of Hertha fans calling in sick to work on the morning of February 7th.
Contracts, moves and the future: Who’s going where?
Alexander Esswein has already been loaned out to struggling Stuttgart for the rest of the season.
It was inevitable really, since he was already subjected to appearing for the U23 side and only really made bench appearance when the squad was stretched due to the injury crisis.
Some of the offhanded comments Esswein made upon his arrival in Stuttgart however, weren’t especially helpful. Whilst he liked Berlin, he made some rather jagged jibes towards Hertha head coach Pal Dardai, suggesting that because he scored when he last started for the club (last season against Frankfurt), that he should always be considered for the squad this season.
Dardai is known to push players when he realises he not getting the best out of them. The same was said about Duda when he struggled last season, however the key difference is that Duda allowed himself to be pushed and whilst he found it initially difficult to adjust, allowed himself to pushed to his limits, understanding what the coach wanted from him. The results of that can be seen this season, Duda is a totally different player. But Esswein never quite picked up the pace and being in contention with the likes of Dilrosun and Grujic this season, he needed to prove himself to have any chance of making the squad… and it just didn’t happen.
Meanwhile Per Skjelbred, despite not being the first choice in defensive midfield this season, signed a contract extension in Berlin. It would appear the Norwegian is happy in the capital even if he’s not starting.
Alongside Skjelbred, young Palko Dardai also extended his contract with the club. “Baby Dardai” has made a handful of substitute appearances for Hertha this season, but mainly appears for the U23. Either way, his hopes of regularly breaking into the first team are boosted as he remains a Hertha player.
There are still questions at the whether Vedad Ibisevic will sign an extension.
The captain has stated his desire to stay in Berlin, enjoying his time with Hertha and continuing to score important goals for the club, but the Bosnian is now reaching his late 30s. He could be considered the Bosnian Pizarro, but so long as he continues to score, age is just a number, and Vedo is completely fit, in fact he rarely ever gets injured. It all comes down to whether a contract can be negotiated, but it seems that with the captains desire to remain in Berlin, he could well be staying for the remainder of his career.
Can the same be said for Fabian Lustenberger? Perhaps not.
Lusti has been at Hertha for 12 years, seen relegations and promotions, highs and lows and been the captain for a number of seasons. But his time in Berlin could be coming to an end. His family live in his native Switzerland and rumours are circulating that he may return to his boyhood club in his homeland. It’s all the more likely as his appearances have been slowly being cut over the last few seasons as younger players like Arne Maier start to progress into the starting 11. Lustenberger, like Ibisevic, is starting to age, and whilst he is adored amongst Hertha fans, one of the longest serving players in Europe for a single club, it could be time for him to move on.
Not long after the 2-2 draw with Gelsenkirchen, Lustenberger made a statement revealing that was indeed, leaving Berlin and parting with the Blau Weiss, returning to his native Switzerland to Young Boys Bern at the end of the season when his contract expires.
In a heartfelt post, Lusti explained that the decision had been difficult to make, but that in his mind, it was the correct one. His family have resided in Switzerland now for years, it is time for him to return to his children, who can have their father back, and for Lusti to finally return home.
A hard choice for the former captain, that fully embraced and embodied what it means to be a Herthaner, always giving 100% on the pitch and leaving nothing behind. The man that helped lead Hertha to re-promotion to the Bundesliga after seeing them collapse. The man that captained the club to their first DFB Pokal semi final in recent times. Lustenberger may, like all players, have weaknesses, but his strengths come in the form of not only his playing ability, but his attitude and loyalty which is, these days, a quality harder to find, but one very much treasured by true football supporters.
12 years of service in Berlin, Fabin Lustenberger is a player that will be deemed a legend… and come the last day of the season regardless of where Hertha finish in the table, the match against Bayer Leverkusen in the Olympiastadion will not be solely about the result, but instead about celebrating the time Fabian Lustenberger has been a part of this club.
Danke Lusti. Alles gut.
The best of the best…
Hertha’s best 11?
What is Hertha BSC’s best 11 this season? Maybe something a little like this
With perhaps Dilrosun (Mittelstadt), Torunarigha (Rekik) and Kalou (Selke/Duda) involved as well