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May 19, 2014

Hamburg's relegation escape precedes a difficult summer

The clock at the Imtech Arena only stopped temporarily -- it was covered by sheets ahead of the German national team's visit to Hamburg in midweek -- but it keeps ticking. Hamburg's spell in the Bundesliga will continue after a nail-biting survival effort, after a 16th-place finish dumped them into a relegation playoff.

On Sunday, a 1-1 draw in the second leg at Greuther Fuerth preserved Hamburg's unique record of being the only side to appear in every season of the league's 51-year history.

It came down to the finest of margins, the narrowest of clearances and the smallest touches from Jaroslav Drobny's padded glove that, in the end, kept Hamburg with their heads above water. Stephan Fuerstner's second-half goal cancelled out Pierre-Michel Lasogga's early headed opener, leading to a nerve-jangling last 20 minutes for the Bundesliga's dinosaur club.

But it was a moment of inspiration from the Czech goalkeeper, one of the least reliable players in the bygone era of failed HSV manager Michael Oenning and sporting director Frank Arnesen, as he clung gratefully to the ball in the closing stages having produced a string of tie-winning saves.

There were euphoric celebrations at the final whistle, almost like a cup or title triumph. Whatever your thoughts are on Hamburg celebrating as if they'd won the European Cup again, the players were awash with relief; safety in their final game was the culmination of a horrific season and a turbulent period in the club's history.

Yet the summer yields a familiar situation. Sunday's joy surely won't last long. Since Arnesen's calamitous tenure in which he essentially sold off the club's most experienced players and replaced them with a clutch of youngsters from Chelsea -- of whom, only Michael Mancienne and outcast Slobodan Rajkovic survive -- it has been constant upheaval for HSV.

Next week, in an idea which was mooted in January, the club could take another landmark move, leading to the concession of the club's 100 percent supporter ownership in search of fresh capital. The organisation, HSV Plus, will need a two-thirds majority at the General Assembly on May 25 and if they are backed by the club's members, a new supervisory board will be the first port of call.

Endorsed and strongly backed by several prominent former footballers and officials, the club could look to raise fresh capital for investment with billionaire Klaus-Michael Kuhne perhaps the man to step in and provide the necessary funds. Kuhne was influential, for instance, in the signing of Rafael Van der Vaart from Tottenham in 2012.

In the short-term, though, the proposed reforms could lead to major changes within the sporting department of the club -- Oliver Kreuzer, current sporting director, could be shown the exit door and would likely be joined by chairman Carl-Edgar Jarchow as well as the current supervisory board.

While the cleansing -- and potential turmoil, depending on the outcome of any vote -- of the club in the background continues to add an unpleasant atmosphere, the playing squad will require significant changes ahead of the new season. Top scorer Lasogga returns to Hertha BSC in the summer after a successful loan spell but it looks unlikely the German centre-forward could be enticaed back. Or, to put it more bluntly, Hamburg would be unlikely to fork out another four or five million euros for one individual player considering the need for considerable transfer activity.

It leaves Hamburg worryingly blunt in attack with Jacques Zoua, who has looked fairly abject since arriving from FC Basel, their only recognised striker next season. Zoua could be one of many nudged out of the Imtech Arena's exit.

The striker crisis is one thing, but the club will also need to find a way to flog several experienced international players after Kreuzer was unable to sell a number of those out-of-favour in January to trim the budget.

Belief in a core of Rene Adler (29 years old), Marcel Jansen (28) -- who has received interest from Leverkusen -- Heiko Westermann (30) and Rafael Van der Vaart (31) might already be long gone among the Hamburg supporters. Furthermore, there will need to be a seismic shift in performance fuelled by some kind of confidence from a hardly inspiring management team. The evidence of the past few seasons is not a random throw of the dice.

The jury is even still out on Mirko Slomka after a fairly underwhelming tenure as HSV's third coach of the season following Bert van Marwijk and Thorsten Fink. Slomka is the eleventh coach at the Imtech Arena since 2007, with Huub Stevens the only one to last more than 12 months at the helm.

Such changes affect cohesion and team harmony but the shedding of first-team coaches will be a routine, cyclical and destabilising process if the wrong appointments are regularly made. Slomka's relatively pragmatic approach, less concerned by the long-term vision of the club but more with the week-to-week stability of his side, might not fit in with HSV Plus' plans -- or even those of the current incumbents.

If we take into consideration the nine out-of-contract players, then several players probably should be released. Furthermore, with the need for strengthening and reinforcements, the transfer window could be even more crucial for Hamburg and Kreuzer than usual.So, where are the positive assets in the Hamburg squad?

Hakan Calhanoglu, for one. The 20-year-old has been an outstanding signing from Karlsruher SC and has attracted interest from other Bundesliga clubs. The Turkish international is not the finished article by any means, with his devastating setpiece talents occasionally masking some below-average performances. But flashes of talent come out of every touch, and he should be the centre-point of this team for years to come. Though he could be the subject of a 12 million-euro offer from Leverkusen, if reports are to be believed, a revitalised Hamburg should make tying up his future an immediate priority.

Calhanoglu's Turkish teammate Tolgay Arslan is reportedly on Galatasaray's wanted list -- more likely if the club was relegated, perhaps -- with the 23-year-old showing huge maturity in central midfield this season. Arslan is an orthodox box-to-box midfielder: tenacious in his tackling, tidy in his passing and with enthusiasm to match.

There's potential also in 23-year-old Maximilian Beister, who has been injured for most of the second half of the campaign, 22-year-old full-back/midfielder Zhi-Gin Lam and teenage defender Jonathan Tah.

That said the need for a revolution is clearly evident and in the short-term, another 10-15 new players to (at the very least) secure the club's status beyond next season as a top-flight club. SC Paderborn are immediately regarded as the favourites to finish bottom next season but until there are new recruits, Hamburg's destiny might also lie in the bottom three again. 2.Bundesliga champions Cologne, on their return to the top division, look a strong force with a young, talented core that will be flanked with some established additions for the 2014-15 season.

Hamburg's ownership -- present or potentially reformed -- will not stand for another repeat of this dreadful campaign. Their loyal supporters have already made that clear with several protests, amid some outstanding backing during club training sessions.

The milestone vote at the General Assembly next week will shape the club's future for more than a few months or the stay of any coach. Unless they adapt and reform astutely, they could face another crisis in 12 months' time.