Bundesliga newbies Hertha Berlin and last year’s surprise package Nuremberg contested a drab opening round game which the away side won courtesy of the game’s only real moment of magic from substitute Jens Hegeler. Both sides lacked a creative spark throughout the match, which Nuremberg just about edged due to their XIs inherent understanding of not only their wing-based game plan, but also of their colleagues’ movements.
Referee Peter Gagelmann got things under way at the Olympic Stadium, setting in motion a not particularly quick or unbalanced few minutes of play. There was space for both midfields to work in, although there was more cohesion about Nuremberg in the early stages, and, quicker of both thought and feet, they soon began to keep Hertha penned in their own half. The away side’s right flank looked particularly sharp, Timmy Chandler and Markus Mendler not shy about coming forward and running at their man. They were helped also by Tomáš Pekhart, who favoured veering towards that channel, either dragging Andre Mijatović with him or pressing high when Thomas Kraft started short, forcing errors.
The hosts at last managed to gain some territory in the eighth minute, Pierre-Michel Lasogga dropping to hover over the ball and showing enough strength to hold off his man for a good five seconds, allowing his colleagues to flood forward, before eventually earning a free-kick. However, the set-piece eventually led to Andreas Ottl attempting a long-range stunner, which went way over – a minute later, Mendler tried the same from just off the D with his left foot, going far closer, but still sending the ball wide.
Almog Cohen was everywhere in the first quarter-hour for Dieter Hecking’s side, flying into challenges and driving Nuremberg on. Possession was being shared equally, perhaps gradually becoming more the domain of the hosts, but with both Lasogga and Adrián Ramos dropping deep to do their work, and Peter Niemeyer more keen to get on the ball than ghost into the box, the advantage Hertha gained by getting bodies on the ball in the middle of the park was wasted by the lack of a target in the final-third. Babbel’s team were less keen on going down the channels than Nuremberg, who used it as their main method of attack: but they too lacked presence in the box.
Between the 15th and 20th minutes, both sides seemed to retreat back into their shells – lots of aimless passing in the centre of the park cancelled out by heavy pressing, before the side winning the ball then did exactly the same and received exactly the same treatment from the opposition. However, even when the game was like this, if you had to pick one of the sides to push on, Nuremberg looked the team most likely to break the deadlock. In the 19th minute, for example,Mendler curled over a sumptuous free-kick to the back post, but Timm Klose couldn’t adjust his body well enough to get a header on target. A minute later, Nuremberg broke a Hertha move down, instantly fed Eigler, who only had a few seconds to ponder what to do with the ball before left-back Javier Pinola was beyond him – the kind of understanding money can’t buy, only hours on the training ground.
Yet for all these positive moments of play, Pekhart had still not found any room in the box, and Mendler was beginning to run down too many blind alleys. Hertha, meanwhile, had started playing too many long balls – their lack of imagination punished by the fact that Nuremberg’s centre-backs seemed to have both of the home side’s forwards under their control at this stage, following them out and winning every aerial battle. So when Ramos found himself with the ball and the chance to run at the two centre-backs in the 25th minute, the Colombian seemed so surprised, he decided to wait for Patrick Ebert to fly down the flank to join him. Alas, the pair then contrived to waste the opening with some stodgy passing. Hertha, as that example illustrates, were struggling to get their full-backs involved in an attacking sense. Nuremberg had no such problem, but as easy as their outfield players found getting into the final third, they weren’t doing enough when there. Take a passage of play in the 28th minute, for instance, when Pinola put in a cross-cum-volley after another sprint down the channel. But, characteristically half a yard off the pace, Pekhart was nowhere near the chance presented to him on a plate which Maik Franz, who seemed to have built up a good understanding with Mijatović, put out for a corner just in case.
As we neared the final five minutes, the game was crying out for something, anything. Ghosts into the box or midfield movement in general on either side was conspicuous only by its absence, and save for Kraft coming out to spectacularly and athletically take one Mendler corner, there was no goal mouth action to speak of. Hertha were crying out for the creative presence of Raffael or forceful incision of Nikita Rukavytsya, both of whom were on the bench. Nuremberg, on the other hand, just needed Cohen and Feulner to inject some more energy into the game again, on and off the ball.
It was the away side who started the final five minutes of the half in possession, playing keep-ball among their defenders as Lasogga pressed alone, wide banks of 4-3-2 behind him, each stood about ten or more metres apart from the other. But Nuremberg no longer had much zip when shifting the ball out from the back, and their hold on the ball was soon lost when they attempted a feeble forward pass. They did try a couple of Hertha-esque long balls into the box in the final 60 seconds, but this lack of imagination was met by the now expected lack of movement. Not that Nuremberg were made to pay for their shoddiness by the hosts – Babbel’s side were incapable of launching a counter, their weak attempts lacking both pace, imagination, and the necessary numbers.
It was little surprise to see Raffael brought on for the second half, replacing the anonymous Torun. With this personnel change, Babbel now deployed a 4-2-3-1 more permanently, shifting Ramos onto the left flank and stationing Raffael behind Lasogga. But the first shot on target came from Nuremberg’s Cohen in the 48th minute, the Israeli midfielder heading tamely at Kraft after a Pinola long throw. The Argentine full-back was just as involved in open play during the second half as he had been in the first, perhaps encouraged to venture forward again even more now that Hertha’s 4-4-1-1 had become a narrower 4-2-3-1. Two minutes later, the visitors had another headed chance, this time Timmy Simons, who does his job so quietly and effectively, also heading at Kraft from a right-footed Feulner free-kick purposely aimed to the box’s edge rather than deep where the majority of players lingered.
Despite now having a playmaker on the pitch, Hertha were still looking to make too many long ball passes, and by keeping their full-backs restrained, the away side seized upon the opportunity to camp out in their opponents’ half. Nuremberg’s best chance came in the 53rd minute, when Mendler crept behind Kobiashvili and drew a tug on the joint of the box. The 18-year-old took the free-kick himself, curling a fierce effort into the arms of the well-positioned Kraft. His outfield colleagues at last gave him time to breathe in the 56 minutes, when Lasogga and Ramos held the ball three-quarters of the way up the pitch, before the latter fed Ebert’s burst on the right (Lasogga ruining the momentum, however, by passing behind his right wing colleague). Waiting for Lell to at last join him up the pitch, the two played a bit of keep-ball near the byline, before finally reverting to type and ruining the move by sending in a woeful cross.
Feulner could have made Hertha pay by creating a chance out of nothing two minutes later; the former BVB man spinning off Niemeyer and Mijatović to unleash a sharp shot low to Kraft’s left, forcing the former Bayern Munich ‘keeper into a reflex save. Going for goal became infectious for the players in white; Eon the hour, igler was fed on the wing, curling in an inviting cross which Pekhart at last got himself into the right position for. But he, like so many of his colleagues had done in the 15 minutes preceding the Czech striker’s chance to make a name for himself, headed straight at Kraft. Annoyed at being outshone by the player who had given him a head injury a few minutes earlier (an injury that required a bandage), Raffael soon got in on the act for Hertha. His dribble towards the box fed Ramos to dink a cross towards the six-yard box for the Brazilian, but unfortunately for him, Nuremberg’s defence stepped up in tandem, rendering the playmaker’s dart offside.
Yet the chance sparked a previously unamused crowd into more supportive life – a mood not exactly adopted by their representatives on the pitch, though, whose only chance in that three minutes of noise came when a long Franz ball was misjudged by Ramos, wasting the space he perhaps didn’t realise that he had. However, when Cohen flew into a lunge on Lasogga in the 66th minute, missing the ball because the man on it has such quick feet, Hertha’s players finally seemed to inject a brief bit of oomph into their game. During this phase, Ebert offered a minute or two of width and a right-footed outswung corner which Lasogga skied. But on the whole, their mini resurgence just involved seeing more of the ball, rather than actually doing anything with it.
Soon enough, the home side resorted back to to aimless punts for the unsupported Lasogga to chase. There were less than 20 minutes to play, and it was Nuremberg’s turn to hop into the driving seat again. Spurred on by the introduction of the box-of-tricks wideman Alexander Esswein for Eigler, and Chandler seemingly discovering a new set of lungs, the away side began to launch their two-sided wing assault once again. As for Babbel’s wingers, the former Liverpool defender finally put Ebert out of his misery by hauling him off with 15 minutes to go. At long last, Rukavytsya was on; a change that should have been much earlier given the space Pinola was leaving. And in the 77th minute, Babbel’s intended tactics finally seemed to create the opening he had been hoping they would all game – Lasogga dropped to flick on a long ball, and the speed merchant Australian burned down the right, just being beat by the alert Wollscheid to the ball.
Two minutes later, however, Hecking saw a substitution of his own bring instant reward. Jens Hegeler came on for Feulner, and was fed with his back to goal by Pinola from a throw. The on-loan Bayer Leverkusen midfielder spun Franz, who had gotten far too tight, before pulling the ball back from the byline to Pekhart, who saw what his colleague was trying to do and met the cross with a perfect first touch, guiding it beyond the helpless Kraft for 1-0! Nuremberg held on as the game concluded with nothing of note happening save for an impressive performance from Esswein, who looked just as good back defending as he did in jinxing past his marker. A good win for Hecking, but it’s back to training ground and tactics boards for Babbel and his squad.