It’s hardly a fair fight, but the battle between Hannover 96 and Bayern Munich for a Champions League place is full of suspense, surprise and no little controversy.
Rarely has a third-placed Bundesliga finish carried so much interest.
Despite their weekend wobble at Borussia Monchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund surely have too many points in the bag to be denied the title.
Leverkusenlook a shoe-in for second, but the race for third, which offers a place in the qualifying round of the Champions League, is up for grabs.
The fact that little Hannover are one point ahead of the mighty Bayern with three matches to play is a minor miracle: the salaries of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery would cover the wages of Mirko Slomka’s entire squad.
It’s natural that in-form Bundesliga players are linked to Bayern, but when the Bavarians expressed an interest in Didier Ya Konan, who has struck 13 goals in 25 games forHannover, the normally reserved Slomka was left fuming.
”I take this seriously,” he bristled. ”Bayern are out to destabilize us. That doesn’t impress us and we’ll be happy to make life more difficult for Bayern and put them under even more pressure”.
While Munich is a European football hotspot, Hannover’s main claims to fame are former chancellor Gerhard Schröder and veteran German rockers The Scorpions.
But Slomka’s workmanlike team is looking to change all that and Bayern are clearly worried – so worried that they fired coach Louis van Gaal in the fear that they might miss out on the Champions League’s millions.
Here’s the run-in that will decide which team lands third place:
- On Saturday, Hannover face newly-rejuvenatedMonchengladbach, who will be on a high after that win overDortmund.
- Hannover’s last away day is at Stuttgart, who should, by then, be clear of relegation worries.
- Matchday 34 could be tricky, with a match against a surprise Nuremberg side chasing a Europa League place.
Bayern have an easier run-in:
- They host a Schalke team which could be punch drunk after their midweek defeat against Manchester United.
- Bayern then face St. Pauli, who are dropping down the table like a stone.
- They complete a miserable season at home to Stuttgart.
But Hannover’s fate is in their own hands. A year ago, the club was in turmoil after the tragic suicide of goalkeeper Robert Enke and seemingly doomed to relegation. Now they are on the brink of a place among Europe’s elite.
Club president Martin Kind, a man who made his millions from selling hearing aids, was initially wary of his mid-sized club competing with Europe’s aristocrats.
But that fear has evaporated.
”We want to play Barcelona next season,” Slomka insisted this week.
Slomka is at times frustrated with Hannover’s lack of ambition. Earlier this season he briefly resigned when he was told the terms of his proposed new contract. And he fears key players will leave. Ya Konan will attract interest this summer and keeper Ron-Robert Zieler, who spent three years at Manchester United, is being tipped as a replacement for Manuel Neuer at Schalke.
But form – and history – is against Bayern.
At the weekend Hannover won impressively at Freiburg while Bayern needed a late penalty to get a point at slumping Eintracht Frankfurt.
”Bayern showed they were nervous against Frankfurt while we stayed cool in Freiburg and dominated the game,” beamed Slomka.
The 2012 Champions League final will take place in Munich and on the three occasions the city has hosted the European Cup final (in 1979, 1993 and 1997), Bayern failed to even qualify for the event. They’ll do everything to stop history repeating itself.
Hannover will probably never get a better chance of Champions League football but their timing is bad: as of next season, the top four German clubs will qualify for the Champions League, because the Bundesliga’s coefficient has overtaken that ofItaly’s Serie A.
Indeed, had a single German club won a European match that they lost during the five seasons to 2008-2009, Germany would already have its fourth Champions League spot and Hannover could be dreaming of visits toEurope’s elite clubs next season.
Some suggest thatGermany (and its UEFA co-efficient) would be better off with Bayern rather than Hannover. But the 96ers say they can do the Bundesliga proud. ”With one or two new players we can compete in the Champions League,” Slomka insisted. ”Germany will not need to worry about a thing.”
There are only three matchdays left in Germany and this weekend’s fixtures kick off with relegation threatened Wolfsburg visiting Bremen (Eurosport2 North East live at 20:30). The title could be won on Saturday with Dortmund v Nuremberg(15:30). Then there’s Bayern’s vital match at home to Schalke. There are no Bundesliga matches on Sunday.