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Hanover is Europe-bound, but faces uncertain future

Hanover fans are talking to their travel agents as the club is poised to be playing internationally next season. But the past shows that small teams who fly high risk crashing hard.

Hanover players celebrate

Hanover have already set a new season record for points earned

Hanover supporters watching in a Berlin fan bar on Saturday were already in a good mood as their club cruised to a 2-nil win against Mainz. But the atmosphere turned positively electric when the news broke that Bayern had only managed a draw against Nuremberg.

That combination of results meant Hanover leapfrogged Bayern up to third in the table and raised the prospect that the club - for years the personification of mediocrity - could actually qualify for the Champions League.

“I'll go anywhere to watch them, if they qualify for an international competition,” Horst Herzog, a sports journalist who has covered the team for decades, told Deutsche Welle. “Vladivostok, Kazan, I don't care.”

Hanover have never finished in the top five of the Bundesliga, and their only international experience came in 1992-3 after winning the German Cup, the team's greatest-ever sporting triumph.

But as the match against Mainz showed, Hanover deserves to be competing for the top spots this season.

Mirko Slomka

Coach Slomka is a very popular Hanover native

Grinding out wins

It was a typical Hanover victory. Outplayed somewhat at the start, coach Mirko Slomka's men caught Mainz out on a counter-attack just before the break, drawing a penalty, successfully converted, and a red card.

A man up in the second half, Hanover then controlled play, scoring again to secure the result and never looking in danger of dropping points.

Statistically Hanover rank near the bottom of the Bundesliga in both time of possession (less than 47 percent) and challenges won (just over 47 percent). But as so often is the case, those figures are deceptive.

Hanover are very efficient, converting one out of every 3.32 chances - a success rate second only to Leverkusen. Hanover have lost big on a few occasions this season, but when they have an opportunity to win, they take it. That's why they are third in the table despite having scored only two goals more than their opponents.

Still, Slomka is preaching caution.

“It's all happening a bit fast for me,“ Slomka told reporters after the Mainz match. “First we were relegation candidates and now our goal is supposed to be the Champions League. But of course, we'll be trying to defend our position.”

To understand why Slomka is a bit wary of too much success, you only need to look at the history books.

The Icarus syndrome

Hanover players shoots on goal

Hanover usually make the most of their chances

The Bundesliga being a comparatively balanced competition, outsider teams in Germany tend to fly high more frequently than elsewhere in Europe. But conversely, one-season success can be difficult to sustain.

Take the example of Freiburg. In 2001, the small Southern German club finished fourth in the league. The following season they did well in the UEFA Cup, but the strain of two competitions was too much, and the team was relegated.

It was similar story in Nuremberg in 2008. Bavaria's other club played European football thanks to winning the German Cup the previous season. But they, too, went down.

The danger, of course, is that runs of hot form, and especially stretches of efficiency in front of goal, inevitably end. The true test of a team's quality comes when it has to win when the luck is running in the opposite direction.

So how worried should Hanover be about becoming the next victim of the Bundesliga's Icarus Syndrome?

Spread burdens

Two factors speak in Hanover's favor. The first is that, in contrast to the Freiburg and Nuremberg teams who flew high, only to fall, it doesn't look as if Slomka's squad will lose any key members to summer transfers.

“I think if we can keep the team together, we'll be all right,” Herzog said. “We can compete in the Europa League, if not the Champions League.”

Hanover keeper saves a penalty

Youngster Zieler has been very cool between the posts

Secondly, Hanover are not overly dependent on any one player. Strikers Didier Ya Konan and Mohammed Abdellaoue share the scoring responsibilities, with 13 and 9 goals respectively. That leaves Hanover less susceptible to injuries and streaks of lucklessness among the forwards.

The squad is also well-balanced regarding age and experience. In midfielder Sergio Pinto are defender Christian Schulz, Hanover have two veterans who have resuscitated faltering careers.

On the other hand, 21-year-old Konstantin Rausch has emerged as one of Germany's better young midfielders. And 22-year-old goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler looks to be a fitting replacement for Robert Enke, the long-time Hanover net-minder who committed suicide last year.

Despite their jubilations, few of the Hanover fans gathered in Berlin last Saturday truly believe their team is headed for the Champions League. With a far better squad on paper and an additional home game in hand, Bayern still have to be considered clear favorites for the third spot in the Bundesliga.

But given the ten-point cushion between Hannover and sixth place, it would take an apocalyptic collapse to keep Slomka's men out of the Europa league.

After years of frustration, Hanover fans are checking to see whether their passports are up-to-date. In a few months, they're going to need them.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Matt Hermann

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