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Markus Babbel’s reply was as withering as his stare when he was asked a question in the press conference after his Hertha BSC had lost 2-1 at home to Schalke on a chilly Friday evening.
“So, was the game lost in defence?"
Schalke’s boss Huub Stevens had just answered it in the negative, but he is a funny man with a beautifully mischievous grin. The kind of guy that going to press conferences is almost worthwhile for – and I say almost, because they are usually a pointless game, a to-ing and fro-ing with nothing of great import said in between. Babbel, though, looked pissed off.
“No. That is impossible…” Silence.
He was right in many ways, of course. It would be unfair to blame Hertha’s lack of penetration through the middle, or their inability to convert more than one of a glut of corners that completely outweighed the opposition’s, squarely on the four guys at the back. Schalke’s full-backs, Fuchs and Papadopoulus were content to sit deep, to contain the threat of Christian Lell and Levan Kobiashvilli’s overlaps that had caused so many problems against Leverkusen a fortnight earlier.
However, although Hertha had played pretty well against their greatest enemies, Raul had been buzzing around the top of Schalke’s diamond midfield all evening, irritating and probing away. It was he who was left entirely alone to set up Schalke’s winner, and it was he who shouldn’t have been. It was another mistake of the kind that Hertha have made a habit of, especially at home this year, when their concentration flicked off like an overwhelmed fuse.
They were caught ball-watching as the former Madrid legend went all Louis Armstrong (he had all the time in the world) and picked out the impressive, blonde mopped Finn, Teemu Pukki, on the edge of the box. Hertha still stood off him, and he buried a beautiful effort with ease beyond Thomas Kraft’s despairing dive.
As a player Babbel would have rarely been found out this way, so it must be particularly galling to have his players do it, when his influence over them is at its most negligible. He slumped back into his seat on the bench, knowing that the pressure on him wasn’t to be lessened due to his perceived intransigence in signing a new contract with the club known as the Old Lady.
The weekend could have gone much worse than it did for Hertha. Adrian Ramos’ excellent headed equaliser at the near post showed that he is a world class performer, and (it must be remembered) one that stayed at Hertha in the 2. Bundesliga because of the new boss. With that extra bit of luck that is lacking at the Olympiastadion, captain Andre Mijatovich could have bundled another dead ball over the line to drag Hertha back into the game, and another player that is at the club solely due to Babbel’s influence, Kraft, made a fantastic save from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar when he looked set to score another to add to his opener, his 25th goal in 24 games in all competitions this season.
There was a bit of sporadic whistling at the end, but in truth it was a bit half-arsed, and was born of the annoyance at losing to a team who Hertha have loathed since the early 1970s that barely even recognise the antipathy coming their way. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then imagine the frustration of an old lady whose scorn is treated with near total indifference.
Today’s newspapers are claiming that the contract impasse is reaching an end, and that Babbel could be off imminently, but Hertha remain in 11th and will be looking for at least a point in the final match before the Winterpause, next week in Hoffenheim. A win after that against Kaiserslautern will take them through to the quarter-finals in the cup. This is surely still an excellent return for a newly promoted side, and although there is definite frustration at Babbel’s contract situation, and the small errors on the pitch that continue to undermine performances, Hertha will do well out of the break, to think, and to work on the finer things, but also to concentrate on those things they are doing well – and there are many of these still. It is not the end of the world yet.
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