Hamburg will need Rafael van der Vaart to be superhuman to turn their fortunes around
“I’m not Superman“, said Rafael van der Vaart wisely upon his arrival in Hamburg. It is a shame, because Superman is just what Hamburger SV need at the moment. Three defeats in the first three games equate to the club’s worst start to a league season in 40 years, and while the weekend saw them finally score their first Bundesliga goal since April, it will come as little consolation after the team slumped to a 3-2 defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt
We must assume that van der Vaart is right, of course, unless the Frankfurt pitch staff were prudent enough to lace the turf with Kryptonite. The Dutchman’s first game since his return to HSV was strong – he involved himself in both goals – but not strong enough to stop the rot in Hamburg. At least not immediately.
HSV are one of those grand old institutions of German football. Alongside FC Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, they are one of three German sides to have been crowned European Champions, and their hall of fame plays host to such names as Uwe Seeler, Kevin Keegan and Felix Magath. They have never been relegated, and, as the Bundesliga begins its 50th season, they remain the last club to have played in every single one of them. With the club itself also celebrating a 125th anniversary this year, it would be a dark symmetry indeed if they were finally to lose that distinction come May.
In football, sadly, longevity does not endow a divine right to survival, and despite their perfect record, HSV this season face the very real possibility that they might go down. Not just the poor start, but a squad which is generally seen to be weaker than it should be and colossal crisis of confidence are all factors in what is fast becoming one of the darkest hours of the club’s Bundesliga history.
Add on to that, if you will, the diplomatic frictions between those running the side, and you have a real recipe for disaster. This summer saw coach Thorsten Fink and sporting director Frank Arnesen (also an ex-Spurs man) join the growing list of Bundesliga managerial teams at odds with one another. As the official line goes, their professional relationship remains “as strong as ever”, but that is a soundbite which is all too familiar to most fans – it is football’s equivalent of staying together for the kids.
Defeat on Sunday was made all the bitterer by the fact that it was Hamburg’s former coach Armin Veh who led Frankfurt to victory. Veh’s dismissal in 2011 paved the way for Michael Oenning, who was eventually chased out by Arnesen and replaced with Fink. None of them have been able to restore the comfortable success of previous years, and it now falls to the likes of van der Vaart to shoulder much of the pressure as the side prepares for yet another lengthy relegation battle.
Alongside goalkeeper René Adler, van der Vaart is a rare star signing in a squad with which most HSV sympathisers are less than happy. Fink insists that his side has the potential for a top ten finish, but it is difficult to share the view objectively. Arnesen’s raid of Chelsea’s youth system last year has proven more costly than effective. Michael Mancienne has failed to live up to the legacy of HSV’s last English hero, and the only new signing to truly impress last season – Gökhan Töre – has already been sold, with half the funds going straight to west London.
While van der Vaart’s return to north Germany was, for a short while, cause for great celebration, the honeymoon period is over. HSV are by no means destined for relegation, but if they are to stay up, they will certainly need one or two superhuman performances from The Flying Dutchman and his teammates. Or, at the very least, an improvement in current form.
As for the troubles at the top, while Fink remains determinedly positive, Arnesen is left to bat away attacks from a growing number of critics. At least he seems to have taken a leaf out of the well loved van der Vaart’s book. When criticised over his performance as sporting director, Arnesen’s response was familiar. “I’m no Superman”, he said. Which is a shame. Because Superman is just what HSV need at the moment.
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