Hamburg launch their greatest Bundesliga escape attempt of all

Just a fortnight ago, HSV were staring squarely down the barrel of a first-ever relegation. Now they’re out to make history

Teetering on the edge of the precipice might be a near-annual occurrence but this time, they’re balancing on one leg, juggling and eating fire at the same time, all while wearing their most spangled leotard. Not for nothing are Hamburger SV known as Der Dino, the only ever-presents in the Bundesliga since it began in 1963 but even so, their latest escape attempt is stretching the boundaries of credibility.

Saturday’s 3-1 victory at Wolfsburg, themselves a storied name struggling to avoid a humiliating fall from the top flight, was simply “incomprehensible”, according to Hamburger Morgenpost. “Titz, Tore, Tiki-Taka,” was the far dizzier description from Bild. The Tore, the goals, are perhaps even the most surprising aspect of a genuinely arresting story, but while coach Christian Titz – their third of the season – and the manner of Hamburg’s upsurge in form both deserve note, it’s worth first taking stock of the fact that they’re in the conversation at all, rather than already being dead and buried.

Just a fortnight ago, HSV were staring squarely down the barrel, after a 2-0 loss at Hoffenheim left them eight points adrift of safety with four games left. If they were to complete the great escape, it would be the greatest of all, statistically at least. No other team in Bundesliga history has been that far adrift and made it out.

Having given themselves the smallest glimmer of hope with last week’s win over another struggling team in Freiburg (in all honesty, it would have barely raised an eyebrow from any other club without HSV’s formidable background in escapology), this was something else. Granted, Wolfsburg had been wobbling like an all-day drinker making their way out of the Bierkeller at closing time, and they were abject in last week’s thrashing at Borussia Mönchengladbach.

They might have been there for the taking, but the 3,000 travelling fans who followed Hamburg to Lower Saxony would still have been erring on the side of hope rather than expectation. Despite the upturn under Titz, HSV were going into a must-win game having failed to triumph in an away game since the visit to Köln – and we all know how their season turned out – in August.

Yet they attacked the occasion with real vigour from the off, with their urgency making Die Wölfe looks nervous and, in comparison, largely pedestrian. Former Hamburg coach Bruno Labbadia had shaken up the home side’s line-up, with his front three comprised of Divock Origi and Renato Steffen – both starting for the first time since February – and Jakub Blaszczykowski, making his first appearance since early November.

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For the bulk of this campaign HSV have, to paraphrase Big Daddy Kane, made a butter knife look like a machete, as the Bundesliga’s least prolific scorers. It all clicked here, though, for Titz, and the goals came. Bobby Wood showed great nerve in opening the scoring from the penalty spot towards the end of the first half, having not scored since August, a dry spell lasting 1,293 minutes. Tatsuya Ito, the diminutive winger who has at last added stamina to his flair in recent weeks, won the penalty and soon created the second for Lewis Holtby.
After Josip Brekalo pulled one back for Wolfsburg in the second half, a blast from relegation escape past sealed the deal. “Lucky” Luca Waldschmidt smashed in the rebound after Koen Casteels stopped Filip Kostić’s stoppage-time penalty – his second Bundesliga goal, 11 months after his first, the late winner which condemned Wolfsburg to last season’s relegation play-off. “It’s time again,” he had smirked prophetically in the pre-match press conference.

That’s exactly what it is. Having endured the play-off in two of the last four seasons and escaped it on the final day last time, this is the moment when the worries about HSV’s cyclical self-destructive behaviour take a backseat and we just focus on what they do – avoiding the worst by the skin of their teeth. “I always believed,” said midfielder Aaron Hunt, and why wouldn’t he? They always find a way, and they seem to be doing so again.

Hamburg players applaud their fans after seeing off Wolfsburg.
Hamburg players applaud their fans after seeing off Wolfsburg. Photograph: Ronny Hartmann/AFP/Getty Images

Rather than dwelling on the myriad shortcomings of the season, HSV have hunkered down and installed an in-house mindset of being in their own World Cup. “Wolfsburg was our quarter-final,” said Titz afterwards, “and now we are in the semi-finals in Frankfurt”, referring to next Saturday’s trip to Eintracht. Should that be safely negotiated, all eyes will shift to the ‘final’, the last-day encounter with Europe-chasing Gladbach at the Volkspark.

Titz deserves enormous credit. When he was promoted from the reserve team to replace Bernd Hollerbach in March, it felt like he was a cheap caretaker to preside over inevitable relegation and reconstruction, especially coming days after chairman Heribert Bruchhagen and director of football Jens Todt were removed. Instead, he had stoked belief from nowhere, with the revived Holtby the embodiment of it. “It’s the first time in [my] four years in Hamburg that we’re playing football,” he enthused the midfielder.

Holtby was rebuked for that by Titz, who thought it disrespectful of recent HSV employees and blamed it on his player’s post-match “euphoria”. Quite honestly, though, it’s difficult to argue with Holtby’s conclusions – and the honesty that has awoken something inside what looked like a shell of a team. Labbadia, who saw HSV through the play-off three years ago, can only hope he might find something similar to steer Wolfsburg away from the plughole.

Talking points

• Wolfsburg ended the weekend alone in that relegation play-off place after Mainz’s win over tailspinning Leipzig. The 05ers’ victory was capped by a goal from debutant Ridle Baku, diverted en route to the reserves’ game at Freiburg towards the Opel Arena. Köln’s relegation was finally confirmed after their late defeat at Freiburg – it came at the end, however, of a generally positive week in which Jonas Hector and Timo Horn committed to staying and joining in next season’s promotion push.

Ridle Baku, left, made a memorable debut for Mainz.
Ridle Baku, left, made a memorable debut for Mainz. Photograph: Thomas Frey/AP

• Bayern limbered up for the Champions League return against Real Madrid with wholesale changes against future coach Niko Kovac’s Eintracht Frankfurt. Jupp Heynckes started with three teenagers and 20-year-old Niklas Dorsch – who looks likely to move on this summer – opened the scoring in a 4-1 win.

• Schalke and Dortmund fell short in their attempts to secure Champions League football, held by Gladbach and Werder Bremen, respectively. BVB were kept out by goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka, described as “world-class” by Marco Reus. There was bad news for Germany as Gladbach’s Lars Stindl ruptured ankle ligaments and will miss the World Cup, and the thigh muscle injury sustained by Serge Gnabry in Hoffenheim’s 3-1 win over Hannover might means he follows suit, though Julian Nagelsmann’s side moved into the top four.

• Just behind, it’s all going wrong for Bayer Leverkusen, with Lucas Alario missing a penalty as they lost at home to Stuttgart, with Mario Gómez telling Sky: “We were Real Madrid today.” That might be stretching it, but they are European contenders as they continue their soaring form under Tayfun Korkut.

Hoffenheim 3-1 Hannover, Bayer Leverkusen 0-1 Stuttgart, Wolfsburg 1-3 Hamburg, Schalke 1-1 Mönchengladbach, Freiburg 3-2 Cologne, Hertha Berlin 2-2 Augsburg, Bayern Munich 4-1 Eintracht Frankfurt, Werder Bremen 1-1 Dortmund, Mainz 3-0 RB Leipzig

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Bayern Munich 32 65 81
2 Schalke 04 32 14 57
3 Borussia Dortmund 32 20 55
4 TSG Hoffenheim 32 18 52
5 Bayer Leverkusen 32 13 51
6 RB Leipzig 32 -3 47
7 Eintracht Frankfurt 32 -2 46
8 VfB Stuttgart 32 -5 45
9 Borussia M'gladbach 32 -6 44
10 Hertha Berlin 32 3 43
11 Augsburg 32 0 41
12 Werder Bremen 32 -4 38
13 Hannover 96 32 -11 36
14 Mainz 32 -14 33
15 SC Freiburg 32 -24 33
16 Wolfsburg 32 -12 30
17 Hamburg 32 -22 28
18 Cologne 32 -30 22