Relegation battle takes swing as Hamburg, Bremen battle it out in Nordderby

When the fixture schedule was released, Hamburger SV and SV Werder Bremen fans circled their Northern derby clashes pronto. There is something extra, which has been added to the tempestuous mix for Friday’s game – relegation for one of these teams has now become a realistic possibility. Indeed, if Werder Bremen take the spoils, Hamburg – the only side never to have been relegated since the league’s formation in 1963 – could end the weekend potentially third-from-bottom.

Hamburg appear intent on making their lives difficult once again. Sitting fairly comfortably in mid-table, Bruno Labbadia’s side have crumbled, winning just three of their last 16 Bundesliga matches. Results further down the table for TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, Bremen and FC Augsburg have sucked teams like VfB Stuttgart and Hamburg back towards the relegation mixer.

New task for Labbadia

The Northern Germans will draw on inspiration from previous generations in the form of a ‘Legends Walkway’ to inspire the home supporters to create a boisterous atmosphere on Friday. It might not be enough, but it was the collective strength and bond between the club’s supporters and players, which seemed to inspire them to produce big performances when the pressure was on.

Ahead of Friday’s derby, Labbadia has serious personnel problems to consider. Goalkeeper Rene Adler is suspended following his dismissal in the 3-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund on Sunday. Swedish midfielder Albin Ekdal is injured, while there are doubts over Pierre-Michel Lasogga, Dennis Diekmeier and Nicolai Müller.

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“We have everything in our own hands,” said Labbadia. Yet, the dynamics are decisively different this year: Hamburg are in accelerated decline and aren’t fighting from a position of weakness like in previous seasons. They amassed 27 points in season 2013/14 and spent practically the whole campaign mired in relegation trouble. Hamburg scraped through against Greuther Fürth by away goals to avoid their first descent to the second division. Last season, Labbadia was appointed in April 2015 and dragged Hamburg over the line, culminating in an extra-time win over Karlsruhe.

If mental obstacles emerge in the coming weeks, Hamburg could be in real trouble. Rather than individual quality or talent, it was spirit and team work that kept the team in the league last season. Labbadia isn’t considered a particularly good motivator and has to find a balance between rousing passions and giving the feeling of composure in the camp. Local rivals Werder Bremen are the first serious test of their mettle in this relegation battle, and that will act as a good indicator for what could happen against 1. FSV Mainz 05, VfL Wolfsburg and Augsburg.

Bremen and the influence of Pizarro

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Of all the sides crammed in at the bottom of the table, Werder Bremen could argue that they are deserving of a higher position. As their competitive showing in the German Cup semi-final defeat to FC Bayern München, Viktor Skripnik’s side can be a match for most in the Bundesliga. Their future in the German top flight is in the mix, but the patience and sound management, demonstrated by sporting director Thomas Eichin when Skripnik was under pressure, is

The signing of Pizarro in September brought Bremen’s recruitment strategy into the spotlight. Having signed Anthony Utah (4 million euros from Cologne) and US international striker Aron Johansson (4 million euros from AZ), bringing Pizarro in for his third stint at the club, after playing a bit-part role at Bayern Munich for several years, looked clumsy. How capable would a 36-year-old (now 37) striker be in the Bundesliga?

Quite capable in fact. Pizarro has scored 11 league goals since the winter break and has consistently maintained a high-level of performance, helped by a strict regime of conditioning and a disciplined diet. Pizarro has seemed the expertise of Italian nutritionalist Giuliano Poser whose list of clients include Barcelona star Lionel Messi.

“I no longer eat potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, products containing white flour, milk products, bread and I don’t drink alcohol or soft drinks. I also don’t eat chocolate because I cannot digest it well,” he explained in an interview with the FIFA website. Pizarro has shed around 13 pounds since he joined the club and has become such an indispensable member of the first-team that Bremen started negotiations over an extended contract in April.

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They are on the back-burner for the moment as Bremen head into their crunch final four games, starting at Hamburg on Friday. Skripnik’s side end the season at home to second-bottom Frankfurt, with matches against Stuttgart and Cologne still to come. Last week’s 3-2 win over Wolfsburg acted like a reinvigoration of players and supporters following defeat at home to Augsburg the previous week.

If Pizarro stays healthy for the run-in, Bremen have every chance of survival. His leadership and experience of high-pressure situations has proved stimulating for the rest of the squad. The likes of Zlatko Junuzovic and Fin Bartels appear to relish in a role that doesn’t capture the spotlight. As Bremen’s all-time record Bundesliga goalscorer, he also carries an outstanding knack of grabbing big goals – the first strike in the win over Wolfsburg was a game-changing moment to claim all three points.

Had he not suffered injuries that saw him miss three of four crunch games in March and April, the table could look significantly more promising for the River Islanders. But to their credit, Bremen and Skripnik have developed a positive attitude, coupled with aggressive, attacking football, which should give them an advantage in the highly-competitive relegation battle.

Ross Dunbar
@rossdunbar93

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