The return of an old hand
It seems safe to assume that Michael Preetz, Hertha Berlin's general manager, is an avid reader of these Bundesliga updates. Last week, we bemoaned most clubs' tendency to fill managerial vacancies with coaches who have just recently been fired by a competitor. Three days later, Preetz announced the most unexpected coaching coup since Borussia Dortmund signed Udo Lattek in 2000, seven years after Lattek had retired from the game.
The first rumours of Preetz's surprise signing began making the rounds on Friday, a few hours after Christian Wulff had resigned as President of Germany. It would be taking things too far to suggest the rumours overshadowed Wulff's demission, but they were certainly more of a talking point among journalists during the evening game between Hoffenheim and Mainz - yet another one of those lacklustre 1-1 draws Hoffenheim are turning into an art form - than the match itself.
"Did you hear that about Hertha," the reporters whispered to one another, "and Otto Rehhagel?" And more than one writer replied: "Yes, but I just can't believe it's true."
But it was. One day later, shortly before a much-improved Hertha team put in a good performance against league leaders Dortmund and were unlucky to lose 1-0, Preetz confirmed that Rehhagel would sign a contract until the end of the season and try to save the club from relegation.
Most coaches and pundits who were asked for comment during the next two days said they were very surprised but, on second thought, felt it was an inspired choice, as Rehhagel's experience, coupled with the standing of assistants René Tretschok and Ante Covic among the players, could just do the trick.
Still, there are many question marks. Rehhagel hasn't coached in the Bundesliga since he stepped down as Kaiserslautern manager in 2000, which was also the last time he coached a club side, as he spent the following decade as manager of the Greek national team. He is also notoriously aloof and rude when dealing with the press, which has already caused him problems once (at Bayern Munich) and could be a serious drawback in a media hotspot like Berlin.
Finally, he is certainly not a long-term solution, even if he should have success, which means Hertha have to look for yet another head coach in the summer - the club's ninth since 2007! (Admittedly, the list is so long because it includes interim coaches like Karsten Heine, Rainer Widmayer and Tretschok.)
The fact that Rehhagel has a reputation for being a particularly old-fashioned manager, however, should not be a problem. On Saturday, many Hertha fans were already jokingly asking themselves who would play sweeper under Rehhagel and if the new coach was going to bench all young players and only field the veterans he is so fond of. But Hertha are not in a position where they can reject rescue measures on the basis that they are unhip. The team are now only two points above the relegation zone and travel to Augsburg on Saturday for the kind of game that is a test of nerves more than anything else.
While Rehhagel's return may not have overshadowed Wulff's resignation, it surely overshadowed another comeback that took place on the past weekend, namely that of former Germany goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand.
Schalke signed Hildebrand, who was out of a contract after leaving Sporting CP last year, in October after an injury to their number one, Ralf Fährmann. At that point, some observers expected Hildebrand to become the club's new regular goalkeeper, but instead young Lars Unnerstall went between the sticks and did well. So well, in fact, that Hildebrand, save for an appearance in the Europa League, was almost forgotten - until Sunday.
During Schalke's convincing 4-0 win against Wolfsburg, Unnerstall suffered a shoulder injury and had to come off at half-time. This led to Hildebrand's first Bundesliga appearance since April 2010, when he was at Hoffenheim. "When I heard that I was supposed to come on, I had to go to the loo first," Hildebrand admitted. "The tension was pretty big."
It could become even bigger next weekend. Since Unnerstall will be sidelined for at least four weeks, Hildebrand will also be in goal on Sunday, when Schalke play away at Bayern Munich for what promises to be a very interesting game. The Munich giants lost yet another two points on matchday 22, away at lowly Freiburg, and have dropped into third place, behind Dortmund and Gladbach and only one point ahead of Schalke.
"We were under pressure before this game," director of football Christian Nerlinger said in the wake of the draw in Freiburg, "after this game we're under enormous pressure." The perilousness of Bayern's situation was exemplified by yet another comeback, though it was a subtle one: the comeback of Bayern's full back Philipp Lahm on the right wing.
The signing of the Brazilian Rafinha was supposed to have solved Bayern's problems at right back, allowing Lahm to finally move over to left back again, where he's played his best games. Lahm himself allegedly prefers the right wing, though it would seem that what he really prefers is not being shuffled around all the time.
But that's what has happened again now, as Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes thoroughly overhauled his team after 45 very disappointing minutes in Freiburg. Among quite a few other changes, Heynckes took Rafinha off at half-time and moved Lahm over to right back. The second half was better, though not exactly a revelation, so there's no telling whether Rafinha will be part of the team on Wednesday in the Champions League and on Sunday, against his former club Schalke.
Freiburg, meanwhile, will face Stuttgart in a heated derby on Saturday. It may be surprising to non-Germans that this is a derby, let alone a heated one, considering the two cities are more than 80 miles apart. But the thing about this game is that it pits a club from Swabia (Stuttgart) against one from Baden (Freiburg), and to say there is no love lost between these two regions and ethnic groups is an understatement.
It will be particularly interesting to see what happens on set-pieces. In the first nine games of the season, Stuttgart conceded only three goals from corners or free-kicks, but then this figure increased dramatically, to eight in the next ten games. "This is a very strange development," coach Bruno Labbadia said, and sat down with his players to discuss the matter. The result was that Stuttgart switched from straight man-marking at corners to a zonal marking system.
It worked reasonably well in the first three games the team tried the new method, against Leverkusen and Hertha in the league and Bayern in the cup. But on Sunday, against Hannover 96, the roof fell in. Stuttgart conceded three goals following corners in just 20 minutes (and a fourth when a defender, ironically, tried to avoid a corner).
One wonders what Rehhagel, a stickler for getting the fundamentals right, would make of such defensive liability.