A close up of Friedhelm Funkel's cheeks. Photo by Tim Pearce, Los Gatos; Flickr CC)
The way Hertha have been gathering points since August last year, it’s easy to wonder how on earth they conspired to get relegated in the first place.
Adrian Ramos was there in the relegation year, and he seemed to have an extra couple of legs in his pocket back then too. Raffael, the cheeky little scamperer, Kobiashivili and Lustenberger were regulars. Also the since-departed dead-eyed finisher Gekas, midfield motor Kacar and solid keeper Drobny. What on earth happened? A team that can spank then-reigning champions Wolfsburg 5-1 on their own patch shouldn’t go down, should they?
In last night’s game with Bochum, the question was, to a certain extent, answered. Friedhelm Funkel, the Bochum coach, was the man in charge of Hertha when they went down, and his current charges, while solid, well-drilled, decently-organised and pragmatic in extremis, showed very, very little in the way of the invention, flair and ruthlessness required to win football games at the (almost) highest level. That this was their first defeat in 16 games speaks more about the quality of the division as a whole than their individual achievements.
In choosing Niemeyer and Lustenberger in the centre of the field rather than Raffael, Markus Babbel was combatting Funkel’s pragmatism with some of his own. While it resulted in a game that was the opposite of compulsive viewing, it lent a deal more solidity to the Berliners; proven by the fact Mikael Aerts didn’t have a save to make all game.
Going 90 long minutes without forcing the opposing team’s weak link into action is either large-scale miscreance or very efficient stifling but, in fairness to Bochum, they were crying out for their injured top scorer Jong Tae-Se. When their lively attacker Mimoun Azaouagh was withdrawn at the stroke of half-time after a crunching Kobiashvili tackle, the writing was on the wall.
Their two biggest chances fell to Christoph Dabrowski in the second half, and both were a result of lapses of concentration in the Hertha defence. The first was a spot of control from Peter Niemeyer so poor it seemed like the perfect assist, but was slashed wide from the panicking Bochumer. The second was a Hubnik header that looped up in the air and descended at a pace languorous enough to possibly have made the waiting Dabrowski imagine the net bulging, come up with an originally choreographed celebration and run through a couple of rehearsals in his head, before scuffing the ball clumsily into the ground and wide.
Hertha were also far from impressive. This was a poor game of football, full of misplaced passes and mistimed challenges, so many of which were committed by Patrick Ebert that he was hauled off at half-time and replaced by the possession-efficient Raffael. By then, Hertha were already a goal to the good.
In a pre-match interview, Funkel recognised Hertha’s threat from set-pieces, and was proved correct as Kevin Vogt failed to clear a long free-kick after a prolonged period of Hertha pressure. Lasogga’s quick ball into the box was looped brilliantly over the keeper by Niemeyer from close range, and one could have almost believed it was deliberate were it not for the look of joyous surprise on his face as he wheeled away in celebration.
The second was a spot of ruthlessness from the Hertha frontline as Ramos made the most of the space on the right flank created by Ostrzolek’s red card moments earlier. His deep cross was cut back by Ronny to Raffael in acres of space in the bewildered and undermanned Bochum defence, and he finished gleefully. The Hertha fans couldn’t resist a dig. "Siehst du Funkel, so wird das gemacht!" they chanted. The man himself was gracious in defeat: "The more mature team won."
Hertha will play three of their remaining games at home, and it is inconceivable to imagine that automatic promotion won’t be sealed with time to spare. These days, every game feels like the one that seals the trip back upstairs. Hopefully Funkel’s former charges won’t have forgotten that a spot of pragmatism is a good idea when tempted to look too far into the future.