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May 13, 2014

Week of destiny for ailing Hamburg

It says something for Hamburger SV's nightmare of a season that the forthcoming relegation playoff with 2.Bundesliga high-fliers Greuther Furth is seen as an opportunity, rather than a doomsday scenario. The latter prospect already came and went on Saturday on a nail-biting final day of the regular season.

Essentially, Hamburg had to win in order to guarantee third-bottom place, and a crack at the playoff. Their 3-2 defeat at Mainz was underpinned by many of the on-pitch issues that have blighted their season -- scandalously bad defending, individual errors by experienced players -- but they could have been even more costly.

Had either of their relegation rivals, Nurnberg and Eintracht Braunschweig, won their games, the only ever-present club in the Bundesliga since its 1963 formation would already be preparing for a debut campaign in the second tier. If both had won, Die Rothosen would have finished bottom.

In the event, it was the fortune of Mirko Slomka's side to be involved in an unbearably tense relegation struggle full of misfiring teams. Both Hamburg and Braunschweig ended the campaign on a run of five successive defeats; Nurnberg's seven consecutive losses condemned them to the drop.

Furth know a thing or two about humiliation, having finished bottom in their first Bundesliga campaign last season, and having failed to win a home game all season. Yet even if they pale in comparison to Hamburg size-wise, Furth have all the form, despite losing out on an automatic promotion spot to Paderborn. They have won as many league matches in the last month (three) as their opponents have since Slomka's arrival in February. Hamburg are ailing, and have everything to lose.

The sporting crisis at the Imtech Arena could not come at a worse time for a club readying itself for profound structural change. Despite a vocal opposition movement in Hamburg's fanbase (see this ESPN FC report from December), the membership voted emphatically during the winter break to embrace the revolutionary HSV Plus plan. This will convert a portion of this currently 100 percent fan-owned club into saleable stock to raise capital, and to divide the club's administrative body and its football operations.

There is no doubt that the money would be handy to reinvigorate a stagnant squad. Former chairman Ernst-Otto Rieckhoff, one of HSV Plus' main supporters, has already suggested local billionaire Klaus-Michael Kuhne as a potential "strategic partner." More money would be required to stem post-relegation losses if the worst was to happen in the coming days.

Many believe a streamlining of a sprawling boardroom is also overdue. The club's convoluted voting and ratification process held up the plan to appoint Felix Magath as coach in February, and he eventually pulled out of the running to join Fulham. Kuhne was certainly a strong advocate of the potential appointment of Magath before it hit the buffers.

Magath is a legend at HSV after a glittering decade as a player at the Volksparkstadion, incorporating a European Cup final winning goal against Juventus in 1983. Still, the less abrasive Slomka seemed a more sensible choice. He has been here before too: In the second half of 2009-10, he saved Hannover from relegation, despite presiding over defeats in each of his first six Bundesliga matches in charge. His start at the Imtech was considerably brighter, with a spectacular 3-0 win over Borussia Dortmund in his first game in charge.

The victory over Dortmund was illuminated by a magnificent long-range free-kick by Hakan Calhanoglu, who has become the team's heartbeat. In his first top-flight season, the 20-year-old has scored 11 times from midfield, yet there is a sense that he too is becoming exasperated with the chaos around him. This week, Calhanoglu's adviser Bektas Demirtas admitted to Hamburger Morgenpost that his client would welcome a move away, with Leverkusen his preferred option should he elect to stay in Germany and the likes of Man City and Chelsea also showing interest.

Even if the timing of the leak is dreadful, one can understand Calhanoglu's frustration. It is not just his considerable talent that has made him stand out this season. He has been one of the few players in the Hamburg squad who has dared to play; so many seem constricted, almost paralysed by fear. Germany defender Heiko Westermann's dreadful error for the opener by Mainz's Elkin Soto on Saturday was a case in point, while his fellow international, goalkeeper Rene Adler, has had a mistake-littered season.

So what's causing the malaise? Despite the clichés that players peddle, off-pitch uncertainty does weigh in. If playing staff can disconnect themselves from the intricacy of a club's politics, they at least need to feel that their environment is one of ambition and progress -- and certainly stability.

That last tenet has certainly not been fulfilled. Slomka is the third head coach of the campaign, after Thorsten Fink began the season and was replaced by Bert van Marwijk five games in. After performances plummeted under the man who took the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, he was dispensed with in late February. The other Bundesliga club to sack two coaches during the current season? Nurnberg.

Fink, the former Bayern Munich player who won successive Swiss Super Leagues with FC Basel, had pedigree too, just like van Marwijk. Like Slomka, he took over Hamburg in an unpromising position, in October 2011; last season, they finished seventh.

In an interview with Die Welt in February, Fink said: "The problem is always the same. They expect too much." And, after last season's improvement, the club "expected to compete with Gladbach and Wolfsburg" rather than looking at consolidation. Fink also voiced his doubts over the club's new direction, describing Kuhne as "a fan who doesn't particularly know much about football, but interferes anyway."

There is clearly plenty to sort out, but these distractions must be put to one side, for the coming days at least. Furth come to the Imtech for the first leg on Thursday, before the return on Sunday. "The fans were our Man of The Match," said Rafael van der Vaart after the Mainz match. It is now time for the players to match the investment of their support.