For VfL Wolfsburg and Hamburger SV, this weekend will have a sickening sense of Déjà vu as the two clubs once again are left to battle relegation on the final weekend of the season. While this season they wont face each other on Matchday 34, their Bundesliga futures are interlinked once more. The tension of a head to head matchup is missing on the final day this weekend, but the stakes are even higher than in 2017 with the loser facing direct relegation and the winner [probably] still having to face a playoff.
Hamburg secured their 54thyear in the Bundesliga with a late winner against Wolfsburg at the Volksparkstadion and need the same result this year against Borussia Mönchengladbach to have a chance of making it 55 years in Germany’s top league. However, even a win will not be enough if Wolfsburg avoid defeat against already relegated FC Köln. A Wolfsburg win would drag SC Freiburg into the mix too, however a draw at home to Augsburg will be enough for Freiburg to stay up regardless of Wolfsburg’s result.
Incredibly Hamburg are the form side, wins over Wolfsburg and Freiburg in the last month have given them a fighting chance of staying up. And while Wolfsburg securing the point they need against Köln may sound easy, those who know the team know that a draw is anything but a formality. One win in 13, seven points out of a possible 39, four goals in eight games and no home wins since early December are the bleak numbers that have underlined Wolfsburg’s season. It’s a miracle they still have a chance of staying up and they may need a miracle on Saturday in order to do just that.
Freiburg have flirted with danger for some time now, but a crucial last minute winner over Köln two weeks ago may prove to be the vital result. Nils Petersen is by far and away the best player from the three relegation rivals and his 15 league goals are likely to be the difference for Freiburg. Defeats to Wolfsburg and Hamburg mean they must secure a point against Augsburg to be mathematically safe, but even with a loss they would only finish in the playoff place with a Wolfsburg win, and that seems exceedingly unlikely.
Whichever club comes out on top on Saturday will only have a few minutes of relief. Victory in the playoff is by no mean a given for either side. Wolfsburg had some scary moments last year against local rivals Eintracht Braunschweig, a team who were punching above their weight just making the playoff. And in Hamburg’s infamous last appearance in the nerviest of two-legged ties they needed a late Marcelo Diaz freekick to send the tie, which they ultimately won, to extra-time. Holstein Kiel await the unlucky side this year and will fancy their chances against whichever team they face.
In a way both teams deserve relegation. Hamburg have been flirting with disaster for years now, but for an incredible amount of luck would have seen their status as the only surviving member of the Bundesliga’s inauguration ended seasons ago. The clock which depicts their time in the Bundesliga rubs many fans up the wrong way, given their poor performances of late. Wolfsburg have had the better recent seasons, Bundesliga runners-up, DFB Pokal winners in 2015, and Champions League quarter-finalists in 2016. Mismanagement from top to bottom turned a squad that could have challenged Bayern Munich into one that has battled relegation for two consecutive seasons.
Hamburg have the tradition and are in many ways a more classical Bundesliga club that Wolfsburg are. Whereas Wolfsburg are potentially more likely to regroup after two disastrous season and get back challenging in the top half of the table than Hamburg are. In a way both clubs will be missed, and at the same time many many people will be pleased to see the back of one or preferably both of them. Both teams are intrinsically connected in their failures, the revolving door policy in manager recruitment and the lack of sympathy from elsewhere in Germany, no tears will be shed by fans of opposing clubs come the final whistle on Saturday.
Distaste for these two from the rest of the country is to be expected, but recent months have seen their own fans turn on them in a big way. Wolfsburg’s ultras demanded answers from the players after the 3-1 defeat to Hamburg and they were again subject to a barrage of abuse from the away end after the loss to RB Leipzig. Hamburg’s fans subjected their players to an all together more threatening message earlier this season displaying a banner reading: “We will hunt you out of the city before the clock switches off.” Recent results have cooled tensions slightly between fans and players, but relegation on Saturday could lead to ugly scenes in Hamburg.
Predicting the outcome of this relegation battle is difficult. On the face of it, Hamburg needing two results to go their way make it hard to see them surviving. The betting markets and fivethirtyeight.com (a sports and political prediction site)both make Hamburg heavy favorites to go down. Most of that is surely down to it being difficult to see them beating Mönchengladbach, rather than Wolfsburg getting a point to make Hamburg’s result irrelevant.
Saturday will be incredibly tense, probably lacking in quality and potentially lacking in drama. Few would be surprised to see Hamburg fall 2-0 down early on. For one of these teams (or for Freiburg) Saturday will just be the beginning and they will have another agonising 10 days preparing for and then facing Kiel in a battle for their Bundesliga lives. For the other it will be the beginning of a very tough 12 months. Neither one of Hamburg or Wolfsburg are equipped well to deal with relegation, and returning to the Bundesliga at the first time of asking is not a given by any means.
So, 12 months after Wolfsburg and Hamburg battled for safety, they are at it again. Only this time failure will be fatal.
By Thomas Pain.