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Swiss Coach Gradually Reviving Hertha Berlin

At the start of 2008, many German soccer experts picked Hertha to be relegated. But after a five-game undefeated streak, things are looking up in Berlin. That's partly down to the work of their Swiss coach, Lucien Favre.

Ebert and Raffael celebrate

How long can the happiness at Hertha last?

Even hardcore Hertha fans have trouble identifying all the players on the field these days -- but that doesn't mean they're unhappy.

After falling perilously close to the relegation zone, Berlin has earned three wins and two draws in their last five matches, creating a comfortable cushion between themselves and the second division.

What's more, the team is playing arguably their most attacking, attractive soccer since 2000, when Berlin competed in the Champions League.

When Hertha Commercial Manager Dieter Hoeness brought in Swiss coach Lucien Favre in the off-season, he announced that 2007/08 would be a transitional year. That was no exaggeration.

Gone are Brazilian stars like Gilberto and Marcelinho, as well as problematic young talents such as Kevin-Prince Boateng and Ashkan Dejagah. Taking their place are decidedly unfamiliar names like Rudolf Skacel and Gojko Kacar.

So what are the reasons for Hertha's minor renaissance?

From cheese to clockwork

Lucien Favre

Favre was hired in 2007 to re-route a team headed nowhere

One major factor is that Lucien Favre has put his stamp on a squad often dismissed as uncoachable.

Favre -- an extremely gifted soccer player whose own career was cut short by injury -- favors what he calls "polyvalent" players. What he means primarily are defensively solid midfielders who can advance the ball with one-touch passing.

The formula definitely worked at Favre's previous club, FC Zurich -- they won two Swiss league titles.

The most obvious benefit of this philosophy for Berlin has been defensive stability. Hertha conceded 55 goals in 34 Bundesliga games in the 2007 calendar year -- whereas after six games in 2008, they've let in a mere five.

Favre has also proven willing to improvise, scrapping his preferred back four for a 3-2-3-1-1 formation to better utilize Hertha's current personnel.

Berlin's defense, which had been reminiscent of Swiss cheese, is now working with some much-needed clockmaker's precision.

Green but game

Ebert versus Delpierre

A revamped Hertha squad beat defending champs Stuttgart in February

On the offensive end, Hertha's improvement under Favre isn't as noticeable in the statistics.

That's partially due to the fact that Hertha are fielding a young squad. In their most recent match against Dortmund, seven players out of the starting 11 were under the age of 25.

Favre's youngsters often lose their nerve when trying to make a precision last pass or convert opportunities. In both of their draws this year, Hertha were the stronger side and could have won with better finishing.

On the plus side, the generational conflict that has plagued Berlin in the last few seasons appears to have been laid to rest. The youngsters respect the veterans' authority, and experienced players have accepted a seat on the bench without much complaint.

"If the players have an intelligence for the game, hierarchy is not a problem," Favre told DW-TV.

Berlin's success rate with transfers has also improved since Favre got involved. In addition to Skacel and Kacar, striker Raffael, midfielder Fabian Lustenberger and defender Steve von Bergen have all proved worthwhile additions to the squad.

"You have to study a player very closely," Favre said. "And if you make a mistake, you have a player under contract for two, three or even four years. That's expensive and creates a problem. Especially for the coach."

The Pantelic situation

Pantelic

Marko Pantelic -- will he stay or will he go now?

Rarely has the mood been more harmonious at Hertha. Indeed the only serious point of friction, for the moment, is between Favre and Hertha's top performer, forward Marko Pantelic.

The Serbian striker has scored 11 goals this season, but Berlin's tabloids have repeatedly reported that Favre considers Pantelic too egotistic and would like to ship him off

The coach is at pains to deny that.

"If you want to get to the top, you have to emphasize the positive," Favre said. "Pantelic is trying hard to improve and play the sort of game I want."

Nonetheless, should Hertha, still burdened by millions in debt, be offered a hefty transfer fee for the Serb, they might be tempted to take the money and extend Favre's rebuilding experiment.

DW-TV's Bundesliga Kick Off, which airs Thursday, March 13, features an extensive interview with Hertha coach Lucien Favre.

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