Raphael Honigstein
Wednesday April 21st, 2010

In hindsight, Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung should have probably chosen a different headline. "Hannover 96: Not afraid of Robben and Ribery," the local newspaper wrote before Saturday's game at the Allianz Arena. It should have been afraid, though, very afraid.

One day and a thoroughly demoralizing 7-0 beating in Munich later, HAZ could find a bit of solace only in good old German "Galgenhumor" (gallows humor), the kind of jokes you tend to make when the noose is already firmly around your neck. "Football, in its special moments, is a fascinating sport," the paper wrote. "On Saturday, it was fascinating to see a team defending with nine outfield players deep in their own half and still managing to organize themselves so abysmally that one needed to be grateful it didn't go to double figures."

"This was my worst defeat ever," Steve Cherundolo, Hannover's U.S. fullback, said.

"Embarrassing, just embarrassing," was striker Mike Handke's verdict on a total non-performance that ruined Hannover's goal-difference (minus-29 for the season) and left many neutrals perplexed.

"Was this really a Bundesliga team?" wondered Munich's Süddeutsche Zeitung. "The same team that beat second-placed title challengers Schalke 04 in such devastating fashion a week before?"

96 manager Mirko Slomka didn't have any answers. "We seem to have two faces," he said.

Slomka refused to blame the difficult journey south for the humiliation, but the seven-hour train ride to the Bavarian capital -- all German flights were canceled because of volcanic ash from Iceland -- couldn't have helped Hannover's cause. There hadn't even been enough room for all the players to sit down; Slomka had to give up his seat for Cherundolo, for example. "Perhaps we spent a bit too much time standing on our feet," club president Martin Kind said. It was difficult to know whether he was serious or not.

At Tuesday's annual general meeting in front of very worried members, the 65-year-old Kind was in a reflective mood. "Maybe it wasn't necessary to fire Dieter Hecking so early," Kind admitted.

It almost certainly wasn't. Hecking, 45, had led Hannover to a respectable 11th place in 2007, to the dizzying heights of eighth a year later and then to another respectable 11th-place finish last season. Mid-table safety, however, was no longer enough for Kind, who started arguing for a relaxation of the Bundesliga's stringent ownership rules with a view of bringing in additional investors. When Hecking lost two of the first three matches back in August, Kind's impatience got the better of him.

Hecking was replaced by youth coach Andreas Bergmann, who steadied the ship with a few good results. Then disaster struck. Goalkeeper Robert Enke committed suicide on Nov. 10, 2009. It quickly became apparent that his teammates were unable to cope with that unprecedented situation; 96 managed only one draw from the following six matches. Bergmann, in his first season at the highest levels, was unable to stop the rut. Former Schalke manager Slomka took over in January, but "changing the manager did not have the desired effect," Kind said this week.

That's possibly an understatement: Slomka, 42, lost the first six matches and only won three out of seven after that. There's a suspicion he might well be the right man for the wrong job. He's very analytical, soft-spoken and fond of modern technology; sadly, none of these attributes really help in the relegation dogfight, when nice football tends to go out the window and those who can scrap and fight best traditionally tend to survive.

Looking through Hannover's squad, you don't find too many players who are suited for this battle. The Lower-Saxons are, on the contrary, one of the league's more technical sides, accustomed to combination football and controlled ball circulation. Albanian midfield enforcer Altin Lala, 32, the team's most enthusiastic tackler, has played only four games this season because of a persistent knee injury. Hanno Balitsch can't protect the back line without Lala's destructive qualities in the middle of the park; more cultured teammates like playmaker Arnold Bruggink simply do not see enough of the ball.

What's more, seven years of Bundesliga middle-class comfort has left the team unprepared for the kind of pressure those in the basement have learned to deal with over the years. You could argue that Hannover's playing style makes it even more vulnerable in that respect, because you need confidence to play good football. "Fear grips you and you're totally paralyzed on the pitch," explained former Hannover skipper Karsten Surmann, who went down with the club in 1986. "It was frightening."

Kind revealed that Slomka had enlisted an army of psychologists and performance analysts to boost morale before the Bayern game. "We did everything, maybe even too much," he said.

Said Surmann: "It's difficult to get into players' heads. Nothing really helps you at this stage. Nothing apart from wins."

Kind seems to agree that now is not the time for another managerial change. He has ruled out firing Slomka three matches before the end of this horrific season. "We'll see this through now," Kind said. Not all is lost, it is true: Hannover, 17th in the table, can still avoid the drop. Six points from the last nine will probably be enough; maybe a win against fellow strugglers Bochum in the last game of the season could even suffice.

If Hannover does go down, however, its demise will certainly be attributed to Enke's unspeakably sad death. But Kind and general manager Jörg Schmadtke shouldn't be allowed to hide behind that tragedy. Schmadtke, who was appointed at the start of this season in place of the successful Christian Hochstätter, has done little right. None of the 46-year-old Schmadtke's transfer signings, including forward/attacking midfielder Didier Ya Konan from Norwegian club Rosenborg Trondheim and Tunisisan defender Karim Haggu, have really worked out. Schmadtke didn't fight for Hecking quite hard enough when Kind lost his nerve in the summer, and he also oversaw the appointments of Bergmann and Slomka. These two decisions might well prove as misguided as HAZ's overly optimistic headline last week.

The perennially injured Jermaine Jones might yet win the Bundesliga Meisterschaft (championship) with Schalke this season. The club from Gelsenkirchen beat Michael Bradley's Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-1 on Saturday to keep within two points of league leaders Bayern. Bradley, 22, had a quiet game for the visitors.

Jared Jaffrey, 19, is still waiting for his first senior game at Mainz 05.

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