IT’S second against seventh this weekend in 1. Bundesliga, as two teams who’ve enjoyed winter campaigns to be proud of square off in the last round of league matches before the winter break. Although Bayer Leverkusen’s hopes of winning the title probably disintegrated with last weekend’s 3-2 loss at Hannover, both they and Hamburg have a very good chance this season of making the 2012/13 Champions League given the erratic form of every team in Germany’s top-flight bar Bayern Munich.
All eyes will be on the away side’s goalkeeper René Adler this weekend, who has been one of the top-performing players in the first half of the 2012/13 1. Bundesliga season. He left Bayer Leverkusen over the summer to join Hamburg, and will be keen to show his former employers just what they’re missing at the BayArena. Adler will have a tough time keeping in-form Leverkusen striker Stefan Kieβling at bay, though – the 28-year-old has been in outstanding form this season, with ten goals and some fantastic line-leading performances to his name.
With big-name players and dressing-room personalities such as Michael Ballack, Tranquillo Barnetta, Eren Derdiyok and Adler all leaving Bayer Leverkusen over the summer, not to mention coach Robin Dutt being fired before the 2011/12 season was out, the North Rhine-Westphalian club underwent a minor transmogrification ahead of the present campaign. Leverkusen didn’t go wild in replacing the players who left the club, though. Those who did come in were Chilean attacker Junior Fernándes (Club Universidad de Chile), who scored twice on his début for the club during their 4-0 win against Carl Zeiss Jena in the DFB-Pokal, but has done very little since, centre-back Philipp Wollscheid (Nuremberg), Polish full-back (released by Werder Bremen), and 20-year-old right-back Daniel Carvajal (Real Madrid B) – a player who has taken the league by surprise, proving to be more than competent in Leverkusen’s bid to halt the Bayern Munich juggernaut. Meanwhile, Jens Hegeler and Hajime Hosogai, an attacking midfielder and full-back/defensive-midfielder who were out on loan at Nuremberg and Ausburg respectively, also returned to the club over the summer, but only the latter has been incorporated into the first-team fold (as a left-back)
Perhaps even more so than Kieβling, the main man for Leverkusen – who made it through their Europa League group with ease earlier this month – this season has been Gonzalo Castro. The versatile defender-cum-midfielder, who has been capped several times by Germany, has been talismanic on the pitch, weighing in with a number of goals and assists. André Schürrle has also looked much-improved in recent weeks, despite an iffy 2011/12 campaign and a poor start to this season when he couldn’t find the back of the net. As ever, though, it is the reliable Kießling who leads the way in the scoring stakes for the club, having scored ten times in 1. Bundesliga. International recognition from the German national team, however, continues to elude the 28-year-old. He, Castro and Schürrle also happen to be the only players to have featured in every Leverkusen league game so far this season, and the importance of keeping such key attacking personnel fit has been crucial to Leverkusen’s emergence as the only credible challenger to Bayern Munich – a challenge, as mentioned in the intro, that most likely died last Sunday at the AWD-Arena.
Trailing Kieβling in terms of goals scored are Castro (six), hot-and-cold attacker Sidney Sam (four), and Schürrle (three). The latter, however, has provided the most goal assists for Leverkusen this season, setting up five goals – one more than both Carvajal and Castro, and two more than Kieβling and tireless centre-midfielder Lars Bender. Despite Bayer only having one player sent off so far (midfielder Simon Rolfes), the defence has accumulated a number of yellow cards, with centre-back-cum-defensive-midfielder Stefan Reinartz and Carvajal banned this weekend after both picking up their fifth yellow cards of the season at Hannover (the former gave away the penalty that won the home side the game to collect his). Ömer Toprak, meanwhile, is just one card away from a ban, and Wollscheid and Rolfes have picked up three bookings apiece.
Since taking charge at the BayArena, coaching duo Sascha Lewandowski and Sami Hyypiä have deviated from the 4-2-3-1 formation used by a number of Leverkusen coaches over the last few years. One might argue that that system would be the best bet for getting the most out of the club’s attackers, as it gives the likes of Sam and Karim Bellarabi the chance to stretch opposing teams, while allowing players such as Schürrle a number of positions from which to probe, or interchange seamlessly with his fellow attackers. But, the rookie coaching duo have looked to play two tight and narrow banks of four, with either two strikers up top, or a defensive-midfielder making it 4-1-4-1. Early on, the duo altered their system several times, looking to work out what the best way to play was for their young team. Ever since a 3-0 loss at Dortmund in mid-September, though, everything seems to have come together, with Leverkusen looking tactically well-drilled: both hard to break down, and fluid in attack.
Meanwhile, over at the Imtech Arena, it was also a summer of change, as Hamburg, who have been too close to the wrong end of the table in recent seasons, had something of a squad clearout. Out went big-name strikers Mladen Petrić (English side Fulham) and José Paolo Guerrero (Brazilian side Corinthians), defence-splitting winger Gökhan Töre (Russian side Rubin Kazan), and long-serving midfielder David Jarolím (French side Evian). Meanwhile, to replace the holes in the squad, sporting director Frank Arnesen – yes, he’s still in his job, despite a baying-mob-fending-off couple of years – brought in Latvian striker Artjoms Rudņevs (Polish side Lech Poznań), Croatian centre-midfielder Milan Badelj (Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb), Czech Republic midfielder Petr Jiráček (north German rivals Wolfsburg), Austrian midfielder Paul Scharner (English side Wigan Athletic), and Adler.
The marquee acquisition, though, was the return of iconic playmaker and Dutch international Rafael van der Vaart. Purchased from English Premier League outfit Tottenham Hotspur for £10.3million, the 29-year-old was even able to get back the #23 jersey he sported before leaving for Real Madrid in 2008, following four successful and memorable seasons at HSV. The deal had to be partly financed by a local investor, as the north German club don’t have the resources nowadays to afford such an extravagant purchase. They were aided by family circumstances too, with van der Vaart’s wife still living in the city. Since returning, the World Cup runner-up has weighed in with a club-best tally of five assists, and one goal. However, van der Vaart has been out the last few weeks through injury, but the team – who have lost just two of their last eight games; Leverkusen have lost two of their last 13 1. Bundesliga games – haven’t looked overly affected.
Rudņevs and Heung-Min Son lead the way in terms of goalscoring with six goals each, trailed by Maximilian Beister – back after an impressive loan spell last season with Fortuna Düsseldorf, but yet to show the same kind of match-winning prowess with his parent club – with two. Four players, including ever-present defender Heiko Westermann, and week-by-week improving centre-midfielder Badelj, have a single goal each, with Hamburg not having been the most prolific side in front of goal so far this season. However, Rudņevs, who has taken a while to get going since his summer, now looks to be an astute and lethal signing. He’s also the only player bar Westermann and Adler to have featured in every one of Hamburg’s league matches this season.
Fink has used 22 players altogether in 1. Bundesliga, and has shown a willingness to chop and change, as well as a desire to bring players previously left out in the cold back into the fold. Recently, for instance, Norwegian playmaker Per Ciljan Skjelbred – something of a forgotten man since his move from Rosenborg last summer – has come into the team with great effect, stepping up to the plate to cover for van der Vaart. The coach has also been keen on formational tinkering, deploying 4-1-3-2, 4-3-1-2, 4-4-2 midfield diamond, 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 systems in the league this season (Swedish striker Marcus Berg, Son, Beister, Rudņevs and van der Vaart have all had stints at leading the line).
Fink doesn’t shy away from using younger, less experienced players either, as his repeated selection of Tolgay Arslan in a range of midfield positions has shown. The young German-Turk is the most booked player in the HSV squad, having accumulated five yellow cards in 16 games. Fourteen different players have received bookings while playing for Hamburg in 1. Bundesliga so far this season, although credit to Rudņevs, who despite appearing in every single game has not collected one. Two HSV players have been shown red cards – Jiráček, and Scharner (whose début for his new club was delayed after picking up an injury not long after signing).
Speaking to German newspaper Bild this week about the paucity of van der Vaart and his team’s chances tomorrow afternoon, Fink said: “It is important that the players see that sometimes we will have to be without Rafael, though we need him back desperately. We have 24 points: we go with confidence to Leverkusen, where we can play with no pressure. Why should not we score?”
Fink has a midfield selection headache this weekend, with Jiráček, centre-midfielder Gojko Kačar, winger Marcell Jansen and van der Vaart all ruled out through injury. The Swiss’ middle-of-the-pitch crisis is mirrored by defensive woes for Leverkusen’s coaching duo, with Carvajal and Reinartz suspended, and Daniel Schwaab, Michal Kadlec, Toprak all likely to be missing through injury. Meanwhile, Sam and Bellarabi are also expected to miss out having sustained knocks.
These two sides drew both their matches last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar result this weekend. Hamburg last won at the BayArena in February 2009, with two goals from Jansen helping Martin Jol’s team to the top of the 1. Bundesliga table (ahead of Hoffenheim and Hertha Berlin). The referee for tomorrow’s match will be Deniz Aytekin. HSV fans may remember the 36-year-old Europa League official from their side’s game against Borussia Mönchengladbach at the end of September (a 2-2 draw, with Gladbach defender Martin Stranzl being controversially red-carded).
Bayer Leverkusen against Hamburg kicks off at 2.30pm (UK time), and can be watched, live, on Bet365.com