After another consistent series of performances culminated in promotion to the top flight, Hertha Berlin have shown they're too good for division two. The question is: Are they good enough for the Bundesliga?
To appreciate how close Hertha Berlin, who sealed promotion to the first division on Sunday, came to an absolute abyss, you need only listen to the words of congratulation from Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp.
"The mood there was very bad, and we thought everything was going to disintegrate," Klopp said in a statement, referring back to the spring of 2012. "This shows that if you keep your cool and make the right decisions in football, you can come back."
Less than a year ago, Hertha went down to the second division for the second time in three seasons after coming up short in an end-of-season playoff with Fortuna Düsseldorf that ended in a near riot. The debt-ridden club was forced to sell their best player, Brazilian playmaker Raffael, faced massive fines for fan misbehavior and had their most experienced veteran, midfielder Levan Kobiashvili, suspended for more than six months for physically attacking a referee.
As starting points for a phoenix-from-the-ashes routine, it didn't look too good for Hertha. When the team last secured promotion in 2010-11, they did so with a basically intact squad that was far more expensive than any of the competition. In 2012-13, the playing field was far more level - with big clubs like Cologne and Kaiserslautern also bucking for a return to the top flight.
Germany was the only major European country without a first-division team in its capital, and it didn't look as though that fact would necessarily change any time soon. Berlin, however, had two aces up their sleeve: a low-key coach and a player whom most people had written off as a curiosity.
J-Lu in the 'hood'
Berlin commercial manager Michael Preetz reacted to relegation last May by immediately hiring coach Jos Luhukay. Luhukay was the man who led Augsburg to the Bundesliga two seasons ago, defied the odds in keeping the club there for another season, and then left the Bavarian side. The diminutive 49-year-old Dutchman proved to be a huge steal for Hertha, changing the culture of a team that had fallen prey to both inflated egos and debilitating self-doubts.
Luhukay is the man with the plan
"I think too many people here believe that they are really big names," Luhukay – who was given the faintly risible nickname J-Lu - said shortly after taking up the post. "As of today, we're trashing that."
He also retooled Hertha's style of play to focus on defensive stability and teamwork. "Attitude often trumps talent," is one of Luhukay's favorite mantras. As a result, Hertha haven't landed a lot of spectacular blow-out wins, but they have consistently racked up points and kept the competition at a distance.
"We've only lost two games, have conceded the fewest goals and scored the most," Luhukay told reporters after his team beat Sandhausen 1-0 on Sunday. "If you want to talk about a weak phase, maybe it was at the start of the season or immediately after the winter break. But even then we still earned points and even won matches.”
On the money with Ronny
Hertha wouldn't have 66 points, were it not for midfielder Ronny who's enjoyed a career season. With 16 goals and 13 assists in 30 matches, the Brazilian is clearly the second-division's offensive player of the season.
Few would have predicted such an explosion by Ronny. The 26-year-old was brought to Berlin in 2010 primarily to convince Raffael to accompany Hertha down to division two in 2010-11. Ronny holds the record for the hardest ever recorded football shot (210 kilometers an hour). But in his first two seasons in the German capital, pace was precisely his problem. A fondness for junk food meant he struggled to keep his weight down and rarely made it off the bench.
Luhukay, however, saw potential in the Brazilian and insisted he be retained last summer, when many were calling for him to follow his brother to Russia. Ronny repaid that trust in spades. His goals alone have been worth at least ten points over the course of the season, and in Hertha's pivotal 3-0 win against second-placed Braunschweig in round 28, Ronny scored a brace on two free kicks and contributed an assist.
Now he'll be called upon to show he can replicate such performances in the top flight. His is the team's situation in a nutshell.
Keeping it real
Despite the celebrations about ascending once more to the elite level of German football, Luhukay was keeping his feet planted to the ground.
"We're not going to pretend that we're bigger or smaller than we are in reality," Luhukay said. "The first year will be about staying up in the Bundesliga."
Indeed, although Hertha were a class better than the rest of the teams in the second division, it's questionable whether the squad has the quality to compete in the top flight. Berlin have gotten by with 20-year-old John Anthony Brooks and converted midfielder Fabian Lustenberger in central defense. Strengthening that area will be key to Hertha's chances for survival.
The squad is also a bit heavy on defensively oriented veterans like Peer Kluge, Marcel Ndjeng and Kobiashvili and light on skill players who can pick up the slack, if Ronny has an off day or isn't able to assert himself in division one.
Whomever Hertha bring in, they won't be costing lots of money. The club remains saddled with debts of somewhere between 30 and 45 million euros. Squad improvements will have to come cheap.
"That's part of the appeal, though," an optimistic Luhukay said. "I'm not worried about us being able to put together a good team - otherwise I would never have taken this job. We just have to show some creativity in who we sign."
The days of megalomaniacal dreaming of the Champions League in the German capital are over. A low-key Dutchman nicknamed J-Lu has consigned them to the rubbish bin. And perhaps that's the best reason for hope that Hertha Berlin can avoid a seventh relegation when they rejoin the Bundesliga this summer.