Markus Babbel won six Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, but this weekend the Hertha Berlin coach will be aiming to undo his former employers, and give the rest of the league a glimmer of hope that the season may just be interesting after all.
Hoffenheim showed that the Bayern machine is manned – and not operated by superhuman robots – before the international break, and Holger Stanislawski’s men may even have become the first team to beat Manuel Neuer – and Bayern – since Mönchengladbach on the opening day had their finishing matched their approach play.
That honour could now be bestowed upon Hertha, who have adapted well to life in the top flight. Newly-promoted sides are automatically tagged as relegation favourites, but while that may be true of Augsburg, Hertha are proving they have the quality to re-establish themselves. The omens for a win over Bayern – even discounting current form – are not great though: Muhammad Ali was heavyweight champion the last time Hertha beat Bayern in 1977, but as Peter Niemeyer points out, “We’re a very different team to two or three years ago, and certainly different to that of 30 years ago.”
You would expect the Hertha youth academy to have produced some fresh talent in the last three decades, but Babbel has rather cleverly blended the fruits of other teams’ scouting networks to produce his own brand of Berlin, er, juice. Niemeyer, who emerged at Twente Enschede before becoming a ‘lemon’ at Werder, epitomises that receipe, and he has been magnificent in the midfield holding role. “At Bremen I was a passenger, here I lead,” said the tigerish midfielder, who earlier this season proved that by backing up Babbel’s public criticism of team-mates by saying: “We’re not in Barbie World – we’re men.” Niemeyer’s highly-masculine, lung-bursting lead-by-example play has meant Munich-born Andreas ‘Ken’ Ottl to show the talent that persuaded Bayern to snap him up as an 11-year-old.
While Roman Hubnik and Andre Mijatovic have made the step up to the top flight – surprisingly keeping Maik Franz on the bench – other Bayern by-products, Christian Lell and Thomas Kraft, have helped make the Hertha back four one of the most solid in the business. Only five teams have conceded fewer than the five goals Hertha have let in this season, and Lell – though foolishly dismissed against Bremen – has linked up superbly down the right-hand side with Hertha born-and-bred Patrick Ebert, even chipping in with a goal and an assist.
Lell’s forward bursts have helped Hertha be remarkably productive at the other end of the pitch where only six teams – including three of the top four, and champions Dortmund – have scored more than Babbel’s side, not a fact you would have bet on coming into the season. The key to that efficiency in front of goal has been Raffael, who after a shocking first 45 minutes of the season in the opening-day defeat to Nuremberg, has been virtually unplayable.
Key goals in unlikely wins over Stuttgart and Dortmund were Babbel’s reward for listening to the likes of Lell, who – after a shambolic Week 1 cameo from his Brazilian team-mate – insisted Raffael was “difficult to replace”.
Not that Babbel has a wealth of riches at his disposal, though canny summer additions Tunay Torun and Änis Ben-Hatira have added youthful verve and artistry to the team going forward with Adrian Ramos and Pierre-Michel Lasogga, a forward as promising as he is powerful, giving Babbel contrasting but equally effective options to lead the line.
Lasogga is a particularly exciting prospect. An unknown nicknamed ‘Lasagna’ for the extra kilos he brought with him from Leverkusen’s youth side in 2010, the bulldozing 19-year-old – “There aren’t many players like me now,” he rightly pointed out – has slimmed down and sharpened up. Lasogga struck 13 times in 25 second division games last season, and has three in six this. “He’s like Mario Gomez. I got to know them both at the same age,” said Babbel, who was the Bayern Tor-meister’s team-mate at Stuttgart. “I think that there are a lot of similarities.”
There will be a chance to compare the two virtually face-to-face this weekend as Babbel eyes his first win from the dug-out against the team with which he made his name on the pitch, even if the man himself does not sound particularly convinced his team can do it. “We don’t just want to be sparring partners for Bayern,” said the 39-year-old. “But we’re not the biggest opponents Bayern will ever face either.” Defeat in Bavaria would certainly not be a new phenomenon or a particularly worrying one given Bayern’s form this season, and the fact that Hertha have already shown that they have more than enough to earn themselves a second bite of the cherry next season.
Eurosport 2 Bundesliga commentator
Join us for our preview show from 20:00CET on Friday before Bremen’s mouthwatering encounter with Dortmund kicks off the Week 9 action at 20:30CET. Bayern v Hertha will be our LIVE game at 15:30CET on Saturday before extended highlights of Stuttgart v Hoffenheim in our Half-Time Show at 17:30CET, which will also bring you a round-up of all of Saturday’s games. Struggling Kaiserslautern head to Schalke at 18:30CET for our second live game of the day. Sunday sees Hamburg go to fellow strugglers Freiburg at 15:30CET while we round off Week 9 with Cologne against Hannover at 17:30CET.