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Fantasy follow-up: Week 18

Premier Fantasy
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Rewind to Boxing Day 1963

Barclays Premier League
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Time running out for Doll to save Hamburg

BERLIN, Dec 13 (Reuters) - A clock built into Hamburg SV's AOL Arena counts up second by second the time from the afternoon of Aug. 24, 1963 and stands as testament to a unique record in German football.

Bayern Munich have won far more titles, clubs from the Ruhr Valley such as Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund can claim more fans and Nuremberg will always be respectfully known as 'Der Club' for their historic success.

None of those great teams, however, can match the Hamburg record of having played every season in the top division of the Bundesliga since Germany's professional league was founded.

After 43 years the clock, which can also be seen at www.hsv.de, is in danger of grinding to a halt, as Thomas Doll's hapless team sink ever deeper into relegation trouble.

The three-times Bundesliga champions and 1983 European Cup winners, famous as the former home of Kevin Keegan, Franz Beckenbauer, Uwe Seeler and Felix Magath, are second from bottom with 12 points from 16 games.

They have managed just one Bundesliga win and one in the Champions League, a 3-2 success against CSKA Moscow that came after five straight defeats had condemned them to last place in the group.

It is a bewildering decline from last season, when they finished third and beat Bayern Munich home and away in the process. It is equally remarkable that the club have kept faith thus far with Doll.

They have one more match before the winter break and a convincing win away to Alemannia Aachen on Saturday may yet persuade chief executive Bernd Hoffmann that the coach deserves to remain in charge going into the New Year.

'We'll take stock over the winter break,' Hoffmann told reporters after Saturday's goalless draw at home to Nuremberg.

'We hope that Thomas Doll will still be our coach over the second half of the season.'

That the club have not sought to replace Doll is recognition that the problems are not all of his making, with injuries and a series of questionable transfer decisions making the coach's life extremely tough this term.

The injury problems have been horrendous, with Rafael van der Vaart, Nigel de Jong, Vincent Kompany, Guy Demel and Juan Pablo Sorin just some of the players to miss significant chunks of the season.

Doll has never been able to field a first-choice team but the poor performances cannot all be blamed on the injury situation.

Hamburg have also shown a lack of discipline, with five players having received red cards in the league already this season, including captain Van der Vaart.

The Dutchman's appalling tackle on Tommy Bechmann came at the end of a 2-1 defeat by VfL Bochum earlier this month and brought him a deserved four-match ban.

Another sign of frustration came in the recent victory over CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, with Thimothee Atouba repeatedly raising his middle finger to members of the crowd who had booed him off the field. The Cameroon international was given a two-match ban for that.

Perhaps the main reason for Hamburg's decline was the decision to sell Daniel van Buyten and Khalid Boulahrouz, the club's best two defenders, just as they were preparing a return to the Champions League after a six-year absence.

Two of the players brought in to replace them, Sorin and Kompany, have spent more time in the treatment room than on the pitch, while the Dutchman Joris Mathijsen started the season looking very poor, although he has gradually improved.

Similarly, new strikers Paolo Guerrero and Danijel Ljuboja have been desperately disappointing, scoring just five goals between them.

With uncertainty at the back and a lack of quality up front it is little wonder that Hamburg are struggling but there is some hope for fans as they look ahead to the second half of the season.

The injury crisis has forced Doll to turn more and more to the young players in his squad and the performances of Piotr Trochowski, Alexander Laas, Mario Fillinger and Bastian Reinhardt have been full of promise.

Doll informed the players this week that the club were cutting short their winter holiday and recalling the squad for training duty from Dec. 27, instead of Jan. 3.

'We have a lot of work to do,' said Doll. Whether he will still be there to do it is far from certain.