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Jul 31, 2013

New kids on the block

The new Bundesliga season kicks off on August 9 and there are two new kids in town: Hertha BSC and Eintracht Braunschweig.

Hertha, though, are not so fresh-faced. "The Old Dame", as the Berlin club are known, have been a yo-yo club since 2009, when Michael Preetz replaced long-standing Hertha general manager Dieter Hoeness.

At this point, Preetz faces a difficult task. Last season, Hertha went up with a record-breaking 76 points, but his four-year reign has seen the club relegated twice, though they returned at the first attempt on both occasions. Their general manager has avoided the sack, but Hertha BSC — and the Berlin media — will demand top-flight survival at the third attempt.

Preetz has enjoyed a stability that has been lacking in the coaches. Eight have occupied the dugout at Berlin's famous Olympiastadion over the past four years, with only Markus Babbel and current coach Jos Luhukay staying for longer than a season.

Babbel arrived at Hertha in July 2010 as the club prepared for a first season in the second tier since the turn of the century. He secured promotion, and not once was he doubted. However, the former Bayern defender did not last long in the Bundesliga: just before Christmas in 2011, he was sacked.

The season ended in turmoil, when the relegation fight between Hertha BSC and Fortuna Dusselorf saw the latter prevail. Then, in the summer of 2012, Luhukay joined Hertha from FC Augsburg, whom he had managed to keep in the Bundesliga against all odds. From the very first day onwards, Luhukay left no doubt about his one and only goal: to return Hertha to the Bundesliga.

"From October on, we will be unbeatable," Luhukay told the Berlin tabloids in July 2012. "When everyone has internalised my philosophy, this will be the case. Look it up. It was like that in Gladbach and in Augsburg." From September 2012 on they lost just one game - against Dynamo Dresden on match day 24.

With Borussia Monchengladbach and FC Augsburg, Luhukay had already won promotion to the top flight. He has never been relegated. That is partially down to the fact that he was sacked at Gladbach after only seven Bundesliga games, but it is also down to the miracles he performed at Augsburg.

Those miracles do not need to be replicated to see Hertha to safety. He has a solid squad with Bundesliga experience, he has signed four players he knows from earlier in his career, and he can rely on the highly-talented centre-back John Anthony Brooks, who will have to decide whether to play for Klinsmann's USA or push for the Germany team after the 2014 World Cup.

There is some pressure. The Berlin press expects greater things from "Die Alte Dame" than merely avoiding relegation, and the ever nervous Preetz, in charge of a financially troubled club, could cause more drama than needed to finally get out of that yo-yo cycle.

Still, Hertha BSC should have the quality to survive, and Luhukay's teams have always lived off team spirit and discipline. Discipline might have been a problem in pre-season, when midfield star Ronny, the brother of Gladbach's Raffael, returned from his summer holidays appearing to be unfit. Ronny will get fit in time or be replaced.

This season's other newcomers, Eintracht Braunschweig, face a more daunting battle.

The Lions, who finished nine points behind Hertha in the 2. Bundesliga last season, have made their way back to the top flight after 28 years in the second and third tiers; if the majority of German pundits are to be believed, they face an instant return.

Five years ago, Braunschweig — the 1967 Bundesliga champions — nearly hit rock bottom. Struggling financially, they were close to failing to qualify for the newly founded 3. Liga, which from the 2008-09 season onwards replaced the two regional divisions.

When they appointed the then 34-year-old Torsten Lieberknecht as their new coach on May 12, 2008, Braunschweig were 12th in the Regionalliga Nord and needed to close a two-point gap to qualify for the new 3. Liga. There were only three games left to play. Braunschweig drew their next match and now were left three points behind the pace.

However, in the end, with a 2-0 over a Borussia Dortmund II side featuring the likes of Marcel Schmelzer and Lars Ricken, Braunschweig did indeed qualify for the new third tier. The goals that day were scored by Valentin Nastase and Domi Kumbela — who had signed the previous winter — while the team also featured Dennis Kruppke and Torsten Oehrl.

Kumbela would leave the club only to re-sign in 2010, with the club still in the 3. Liga. Despite pushing forward a consolidation strategy, Braunschweig remained on the brink of insolvency in the "sportingly and economically unattractive surrounding" of the third tier, as club president Sebastian Ebel explained back then.

They raised nearly €1 million by selling lifetime season tickets to their supporters.Two hundred standing tickets were sold at a price of €1,967 and 150 for €3,697. A drop in the ocean for big clubs, but lifesaving for a 3. Liga club. "This helped us a lot back then," sporting director Marc Arnold recently reflected.

In 2010-11, Kumbela became joint top scorer in the third tier and Braunschweig won promotion; two seasons later, they have returned to the top flight with a team that was formed during the first years of Lieberknecht's reign and has been carefully adjusted since then.

Five years on from that 2008 low point, Braunschweig are not only back in the top flight, but Torsten Lieberknecht is now the longest serving coach in the Bundesliga, surpassing Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp by a mere six weeks. As a player, Lieberknecht and Klopp played together in the FSV Mainz team, and when Klopp made the switch from the pitch to the dugout, Lieberknecht trained under him for another year.

Indeed, Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Braunschweig have been compared in the past, with their quick transition and Gegenpressing and their tireless running. As with Dortmund, the city of Braunschweig breathes football. "Bundesliga is a huge present for us," Lieberknecht says, referring to the city of Braunschweig and all the Eintracht supporters.

All this, however, will not guarantee Braunschweig a second year in the Bundesliga. "There is a huge gap between 2. Bundesliga and Bundesliga regarding the depth of play and compactness. Everything is tighter," Lieberknecht said. "We have to be realistic and not believe everything will continue like that."

During the summer, Braunschweig again added a couple of players to their squad. Simeon Jackson joined the club from Norwich, Marco Caliguri made the switch from Mainz and Torsten Oehrl returned from FC Augsburg. Only three Braunschweig players have played more than ten games in Germany's top flight; Caliguri and Oehrl are two of them.

Dennis Kruppke is now the club's captain and Domi Kumbela won another trophy, this time topping the 2. Bundesliga scorer list. He will, however, be sidelined through injury when the Lions kick off their campaign. His absence, which could last way into the first part of the season, worries Braunschweig the most. They may have been written off already, but they still have the chance to replicate the miracles seen at Augsburg, who will start their third consecutive Bundesliga season despite also having been written off.

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