Hamburg 1 – 3 Stuttgart (agg: 1-6)
Kittel 6' Millot 48', 64', Silas 97'
"We have to stretch ourselves so that on Monday we might make the impossible possible," Hamburgcoach Tim Walter had said in the prematch press conference. "In any case, we are not giving up," he added in reference to the 3-0 deficit his charges found themselves chasing after a lackluster performance in Stuttgart on Thursday.
This will have sounded like wishful thinking for most, not only due to that performance but also the record of second division sides overcoming their Bundesliga opposition since the relegation playoff was reintroduced in 2009. It had only happened in three out of 14 tries.
Bright start for Hamburg
However, this footballing miracle that Walter had been hoping for didn't look all that unrealistic – at least for much of the first half on Monday night in the Volksparkstadion.
In a role reversal compared to the first leg, Hamburg (HSV) came out like gangbusters, winning a free kick just outside the Swabians' area in the 4th minute. Jean-Luc Dompe almost made the best of it, striking a ball that bobbled and threatened to dip under the bar — forcing a sharp save from Florian Müller.
HSV pressed on and were rewarded two minutes later, with Sonny Kittel taking a final pass just outside the box and striking a screamer that left Müller without a chance. The crowd, that had been fully behind their side from the opening whistle on, seemed to grow even louder in the ensuing minutes, as Stuttgart struggled to find their way into the match.
However, work their way into it they did, and the Swabians thought they had been rewarded on 17 minutes, when Serhou Guirassy found the inside of the right post with a neat backheel — only to have it rightly reversed by VAR for offside.
Stuttgart right the ship
After the restart, it wasn't long before Stuttgart, the team that finished 16th in the Bundesliga this season, thus getting themselves into this predicament, showed that they weren't about to let history repeat. In 2019 they'd become the last Bundesliga side to lose to their second division rivals in the end-of-season playoff. While Union Berlin won promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in their history, a red-faced Stuttgart dropped down to division 2.
On this night, the Swabians had other plans, coming out of the changing room much brighter, with Enzo Millot putiing them back on level terms on the night, three minutes after the restart. Less than 20 minutes later he took advantage of a misplayed pass back to HSV keeper Daniel Heuer Fernandes to essentially decide it. Tim Walter could only shake his head as he looked on from his seat on the home side's bench.
Silas Katompa Mvumpa's goal almost on the final whistle, was a mere formality.
A bitter end
There's no questioning Walter's side's effort in the second leg, but like last year, Hamburg – and their coach – stumbled at the final hurdle.
This season's end has been particularly bitter for HSV and their fans, having thought on Matchday 34 that they had clinched promotion, only to learn that Heidenheim had scored two late goals against Regensburg to push then down into third – and the playoff.
From the Bundesliga's inception in 1963-64 Hamburg had long been unfamiliar with such worries, but since their first ever relegation in 2018 they've finished fourth – and out of the playoff three times – followed by two stumbles in the relegation contest.
Fans of the club once known as the "dinosaur" of Germany's top flight are being forced to gradually become accustomed to something they once thought was impossible — life in the second tier, for a sixth consecutive season.
Edited by: Mark Hallam