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Fabian Lustenberger. Photo by Steindy (Wikimedia Commons)
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It is difficult to know what a "par score" is for Hertha BSC this year. It was always going to be tough to recreate last year’s free scoring romp through the 2.Bundesliga, but equally nobody expects a Lucian Favre reprise, where the stultifying nature of their games meant that despite the highest placed finish in years, more people actually watched them a league lower.
Against Köln a couple of weeks ago they were magnificent, with Änis Ben-Hatira running rampant along the left wing. Then they had to travel to Munich. To Babbel's home town (where he still lives, mostly), and the club he served so well. It was always going to be a spanking, and there was little shame in losing 4-0 at the Allianz Arena.
But then, on Saturday, came Mainz. The surprise package of last season, who were somehow supposed to be representing the new, brash, flash German football. Thomas Tuchel was the new Jürgen Klopp. He had a shaving problem (nothing wrong with that) and his team played lightning fast football, where the opposition wouldn't be allowed to rest for a second. They would get at them. Unfortunately, it seems an awful lot of this was built around Lewis Holtby, now at Schalke, and the wheels have come off the Mainz juggernaut this year.
So should Babbel have gone for them, or should he have kept his tinder dry for Tuesday’s cup game against Rot-Weiss Essen, and stay happy with a point, and to consolidate that spot just below mid-table? Frankly, judging by the disconsolate looks in the stadium during an awful, turgid game of football, he should have gone for them.
I'd say that Hertha played like hermit crabs, always going sideways, but hermit crabs also have to come out of their shells sometimes. Hertha didn't. They sat and waited, sat and waited. On the rare occasions the ball did break for them up front it found Ramos so far alone that he must have felt like Frederick Knight. Raffael had one particularly trademark mazy run at the Mainz defence in the first half, but it typically ended with him squirming into a blind alley, he twisted and turned, but the chance had gone.
I love Patrick Ebert. He is an old fashioned footballer; he is round and squat-low to the ground, using this natural advantage to bombard forwards, and to charge into tackles. He is a force of nature, a gloriously old fashioned footballer who still shaves the sides of his hair himself with the trimmer that it looks like Babbel, himself, has lost. But he is also prone to have an off day. The problem was that they were sitting so deep it was as if the invites had already been sent out to Andreas Ivanschitz and Sami Allagui to come and have a go.
That it remained level was in no small part due to two fantastic saves from Thomas Kraft. The first from Elkin Soto was top class. Mainz was turning the screw towards the end of the first half, and he exchanged passes with Ivanschitz on the left of the box, receiving the ball back to hammer towards the inside of the near post. Kraft waited, he could so easily have been sent the wrong way, and instinctively stuck out a strong hand. A really strong hand and the ball flew off it wide.
Hertha hung on, but the most brutal blow of the day would be from one of their own. A cross was whipped in from the Mainz right hand side. It was going nowhere and Fabian Lustenberger was getting his head under it to knock it out when his captain, André Mijatovich, came roaring in, the sole and studs of his boot crashing down flat on the youngster’s mop of curly hair. It was a sickening blow, needing Lustenberger to come off, but at least in Peter Niemeyer Hertha have got a confident and cool defensive midfielder ready in replacement.
So Hertha remain in 10th place, and who'd complain about that? Nobody. And their faithful will happily sit through at least another year of games such as these if it means they stay in that position this season. But at some point, they are going to have to bite the bullet. At some point, and especially at home, they'll have to repeat that performance against Köln and really go for it.
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