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Bremen, Hamburg face seasons of futility

Northern Germany used to be a Bundesliga hotspot, with Werder Bremen and Hamburg maintaining a fierce rivalry and contending for titles. But similar blunders have left both clubs looking like a bit of a joke.

Last weekend's German Cup action could hardly have been more amusing had it been scripted. Early on Sunday afternoon, Hamburg twice took the lead against third-division Karlsruhe, only to fall apart at the end and lose 4-2.

Meanwhile, as Hamburg's humiliation was being sealed, their Northern German rivals Bremen were taking to the pitch against third division Preussen Münster. Werder grabbed two leads in that match, only to fall apart in the end and lose by a score of, you guessed it, 4-2.

Preußen Münster players celebrate with fans after their extra-time Cup win over Werder Bremen

As Münster's players celebrated, Werder and their northern neighbors limped home

Post-match reactions from both clubs were full of the usual promises of consequences to be drawn, efforts to be redoubled and mirrors to be looked into. Yet the symmetry of the debacles for two of Germany's bigger clubs underscored what football fans here realized at the latest by last season: neither of these clubs is what it used to be.

In the first decade of the new millennium, Bremen won one league title and two German cups and qualified for the Champions League six times. Hamburg weren't that successful, but they still managed two CL qualifications and were a semi-regular fixture in the UEFA Cup.

Last season Hamburg finished fifteenth in the table, and though Bremen wound up ninth, their 42 points put them closer to relegation than to the Champions League. So on the eve of the 2012-13 campaign, neither club's supporters have much reason for optimism.

Indeed, they may have reason for bitter laughter and tears.

Headless chickens

Werder's fantastic run of form over the last decade was based on coach Thomas Schaaf's philosophy of aggressive, one-touch football and sports director Klaus Allof's ability to feed affordable offensive dynamos - Johan Micoud, Claudio Pizarro, Ailton, Diego, Miroslav Klose, Mesut Özil - into Schaaf's system.

But Allofs' nose for a bargain has deserted him. In 2007, he paid a club record transfer fee of 7.8 million euros for Brazilian Carlos Alberto only to see the midfielder depart the club with zero goals in two games played.

Brazilian midfielder Wesley cost 7.5 million and yielded two goals in 26 matches, while Marko Marin contributed 8 goals in 87 games for the price of 8.2 million - not the return Bremen were hoping for when they made him their most expensive transfer ever in 2009.

Last season, Allofs rolled the dice to the tune of 6.2 million on Austrian-Serbian bad boy Marko Arnautovic, once deemed to have the "character of a child" by Jose Mourinho. And in one of the wildest chemistry experiments in Bundesliga history, they spent 5.5 million this season to pair him with moody Dutchman Eljero Elia, who used to play for Hamburg until he pouted his way into a transfer in 2011.

Eljero Elia during the Werder Bremen team presentation at Weserstadion on July 27, 2012 in Bremen, Germany.

One temperamental let-down not enough for you, Werder? Why not double down with an ex-Hamburg man

Meanwhile, Bremen let go of mainstay Pizarro, defender Naldo and goalkeeper Tim Wiese in an attempt to cut costs. That's angered fans, as has the decision to sign on as a jersey sponsor a chain of fast-food, roast-chicken joints that has often been accused of cruelty to animals.

The jokes weren't long in coming after Bremen's German Cup failure.

"Werder got their feathers plucked," wrote one user in the magazine Der Spiegel's on-line portal, while another opined: "If you run around like a bunch of headless chickens, you're going to lose."

Endangered Dinosaurs

Just 126 kilometers up the road in Hamburg, the situation is remarkably similar. Long gone are the days when the names of the back of the jerseys read Rafael van der Vaart, Nigel de Jong, Daniel van Buyten or Jerome Boateng. The eleven that donned the Hamburg kit against Karlsruhe were a mix of youngsters who didn't make the cut at English side Chelsea, second-tier stars purchased from more successful German clubs and the odd expensive transfer flop.

Hamburg, too, released two long-term fan favorites in midfielder David Jarolim and striker Mladen Petric. Moreover, unlike Bremen, Hamburg's coach-manager tandem of Thorsten Fink and Frank Arnesen don't have a lot of credit to burn with either supporters or the club's board of directors.

Mladen Petric hangs his head after a Hamburg loss to Freiburg last season

Mladen Petric need hang his head no more; he's moved to Fulham, where he immediately found his socring boots

It's been five years since Hamburg have had the same coach for two complete consecutive seasons. Nine different coaches have taken up the thankless task of manning the Hamburg sidelines during that period.

Hamburg is the only club in Germany to have been in the first division every season since the Bundesliga was formed as a national league in 1963. There's a clock in the stadium that keeps track of that record, and the team is nicknamed The Dinosaur.

But the mood among some fans ahead of the 2012-13 season is so bleak that a few have not only voiced, but said they long for the unthinkable.

"This season will bring the relegation Hamburg so desperately need," remarked one disgusted online user at Spiegel, after Hamburg bowed out of the German Cup.

The early rounds of that competition are famous for upsets, of course, and perhaps the sweltering weather last weekend favored the underdogs. Nonetheless, all the evidence supports the idea that things are heading south at the two former standout clubs of the north.

And both Hamburg and Bremen saw where downward spirals can lead on Sunday. Their third-division opponents, Karlsruhe and Preussen Münster, were both founding members of the Bundesliga.

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