"I wish Hamburg the best for next week and hope they can avoid relegation," said Josep Guardiola at the weekend. "A club with so much history belongs in the Bundesliga."
The FC Bayern München coach spoke for many following his side's 4-1 victory at Hamburger SV but, despite widespread sympathy, HSV stand on the brink of their first-ever relegation after 51 years in the top flight.
Rich in tradition, the team from northern Germany lie third-bottom with one match remaining and, as things stand, are set for a play-off against the side that finishes third in the second division. Unable to exit the danger zone even if they win at 1. FSV Mainz 05 on Saturday, Hamburg face pressure from below, with 1. FC Nürnberg just one point back and even bottom club Eintracht Braunschweig still hopeful of taking the play-off spot.
HSV are the only team to have operated in the top tier since the Bundesliga was launched in 1963, and relegation would be the lowest point in a decline that has accelerated this season. As recently as 2009/10, the six-time German champions were contesting the UEFA Europa League semi-finals, a year after reaching the same stage of the UEFA Cup, but since then their fortunes have taken a dramatic turn for the worse.
Three coaches have paid the price for their toils this term, with Thorsten Fink, Rodolfo Cardoso and Bert van Marwijk all making way before Mirko Slomka was appointed in February. Optimism spread when Slomka kicked off his reign with a 3-0 success over Borussia Dortmund, but it proved a false dawn, and his side have posted just two more victories in their 11 outings since.
Nobody could accuse HSV of not giving their all, however. The club recently made the unusual step of bringing in Joseph Kuhnert, who describes himself as "a specialist in organic energy and spiritual healing", and although the move raised eyebrows, midfielder Tolgay Arslan feels the appointment has had a positive impact. "He sends out positive energy and hypnotises you," said Arslan. "He makes you feel calm and takes you on a spiritual journey."
Hamburg face more tangible trips to towns including Aue, Sandhausen and Aalen if they go down, and having lost 20 of their 33 fixtures they will not be able to claim they were unlucky. Indeed, it is only down to the poorer form of Nürnberg and Braunschweig that the 1983 European Champion Clubs' Cup winners retain any chance of disputing the relegation play-off.
Desperate to seize that opportunity, Slomka went as far as describing the weekend loss to Bayern as a potential turning point. "We showed our overwhelming desire to avoid relegation," he said. "All three teams have very difficult away games next weekend, but we still have our fate in our hands in terms of reaching the play-off. We can take lots of positives out of today. We still have a chance – that is what counts."
The mood in the Hamburg camp was also lifted by the news of defeats for both their rivals, as youngster Hakan Çalhanoğlu explained. "Everything went as we had hoped," said the promising midfielder, whose performances have been among the few plus points for the club. "Now we have a final. It's like the Champions League for me."
Given such positive thinking, perhaps the work of Hamburg's spiritual healer is bearing fruit after all.
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