Hannover and Schalke meet this weekend with one club cosseted comfortably in second place while the other is looking nervously over their shoulders with a six-point gap between themselves and the bottom three.
The scenario is most likely the one you would have expected at the start of the season, but there’s just one small glitch – the teams are the other way round. While Schalke have struggled, Hannover – incredibly – have soared. The trauma of last season, Robert Enke’s suicide and their desperately near-brush with the drop, now seem a lifetime away.
Working with largely the same squad as last season, Mirko Slomka, who arrived just after the 2010 winter break to ultimately save Hannover from the drop, has hit upon the right words and blend of players to work a minor miracle – they already have one more point than they mustered in the whole of last season. It is an almost mystifying tale of success, but – if you break it down – the secret is simple.
The Bundesliga bean-counters tell us they are the team that takes the highest percentage of their chances in the division (18.9%), and they have simply made every goal count. Each time they have struck the net this season it has been worth a handsome 1.21 points, while eight of their 11 season wins have been by a single-goal margin. The 3-0 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt last time out, impressive though it was, was more the exception than the rule.
To do that you need a man to put the ball in the back of the net, and that man for Hannover is Didier Ya Konan. The Ivorian is so talismanic he could be used to ward off evil spirits. Hannover average 1.5 goals with him in the side, 0.7 without. Good job for the club he decided to sign a two-year contract extension just before Christmas. “Everyone has seen in games this season just how important Didier is for our quick and surprising counter-attacking game,” said Slomka after his star forward tied himself to the club until 2014. “We can achieve still a lot more with him.”
Without him, Hannover simply can’t win. In fact, the ten league games Ya Konan has missed since joining the club from Rosenborg in summer 2009 have all ended in defeat. That dependance would clearly be a major problem if he were to sustain a long-term injury, but Ya Konan and fellow forward Mohammed Abdellaoue, who between them have scored 15 of the team’s 28 goals this season, do also have an excellent supporting cast.
Young midfielder Manuel Schmiedebach’s drive from the centre of the park nicely complements the steadier, grittier Sergio Pinto, while Moritz Stoppelkamp’s duck-to-water adaptation to the top flight after his summer move from Rot-Weiss Oberhausen was only cut short by injury. After club boss Martin Kind said last summer, “He’ll never play for us again”, Jan Schlaudraff’s career has been resurrected spectacularly, while Emmanuel Pogatetz has added yet more steel to an uncompromising and experienced back four, unruffled by Slomka’s surprise decision to drop regular goalkeeper Florian Fromlowitz in favour of the untried Ron-Robert Zieler against Frankfurt.
The team’s unity and resolve has proved particularly important when the strikers have done their work. “We’re brutally strong when we take the lead,” said Stoppelkamp, and Hannover have yet to lose in the 12 games they have gone in front, winning 11 of them. When they suffered back-to-back 4-0 defeats – to Hoffenheim and Dortmund – it seemed as if the dream run was over, but they have silenced the doubters with a run of six wins in their last seven which suggests they may just have some staying power.
All is not rosy, of course. They have been beaten by St Pauli and Nuremberg this season – two sides a ‘top-five team’ would expect to defeat – and there is the thorny issue of Slomka’s future.
The ex-Schalke boss reportedly wanted to quit Hannover last week with the contract extension offered him clearly not to his liking. Kind’s diplomatic skills brought about a change of heart. A meeting earlier this week produced nothing more than positive noises from both parties, though Kind has since said Slomka “only has to put pen to paper on his new deal”.
It is difficult to say how – if at all – the wrangling will affect the squad, some of whom – notably Karim Haggui, Christian Schulz and Fromlowitz – are out of contract come the end of the season, too. Back-up forward Mikael Forssell is also set to quit the club at the end of the season, as he exclusively revealed to Dan Levy on this week’s Bundesliga Podcast (download the podcast here: http://thebundesligapodcast.com/ ). It would be a shame, though, if after having enjoyed the best first half to a Bundesliga season in the club’s history, off-the-pitch distractions prevented Hannover from capping a fairytale campaign with a happy ending.
Eurosport 2 Bundesliga commentator
Join us when Week 19 kicks off with Hamburg hosting Eintracht Frankfurt (20:30CET) on Friday. Dortmund’s encounter with Stuttgart is LIVE at 15:30CET on Saturday before we bring you extended highlights of Bayern Munich v Kaiserslautern (17:30CET) ahead of our second LIVE match of the day, Cologne v Bremen. Sunday sees Monchengladbach host Leverkusen (15:30CET) and Hoffenheim entertain St. Pauli (17:30CET) – both of which you can see LIVE on Eurosport 2!