It was all under control. Hertha had their gameplan and found Borussia Dortmund snoozing passively in the early afternoon sun, agreeably enough, seemingly more focused on farewells to the long-serving Michael Zorc and Marcel Schmelzer, not to mention Premier League-bound Erling Haaland. Ishak Belfodil rattled in a first-half penalty and it was as comfortable as Felix Magath could have hoped for in his most warm, fuzzy daydream.
What happened next was Hertha 101, a tour de force in sweaty palms and perhaps even sweatier minds. Dortmund were revived from their slumber, certainly, and the half-time introduction of the lively Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, the 17-year-old who is already muscling his way into being a regular in this column, put some pep in Schwarzgelben steps, but Magath’s afternoon was familiar in turning from enjoyable idyll to nightmare flashback. Hertha “missed the third match point in a row,” as Kicker’s Steffen Rohr put it – after the concession of a late equaliser at Arminia Bielefeld and shipping a late winner to Mainz last Saturday had denied Hertha successive results which would have assured salvation, they were at it again here. “We had it well under control defensively until the penalty,” bemoaned Fredi Bobic on Doppelpass on Sunday, and Haaland’s levelling spot kick and a sharply struck winner by Youssoufa Moukoko (whose own possible farewell would be a more worrisome one for BVB in the medium term) in front of the Yellow Wall won the match. It was a goal elsewhere, however, that finally condemned Hertha to the purgatory of the relegation playoff.
Of three goals scored in added time on the final day of the Bundesliga that meant something, none was more resonant than Wataru Endo’s for Stuttgart at home to Köln. Hertha had gone from comfortable to nervy to near-desolate at a speed dizzying even by their standards of unexpected (and perhaps unnecessary) drama. The captain’s goal, nodded in at the back post in front of the Cannstatter Kurve – and just in front of goalkeeper Florian Müller, pushed forward as the desperate home side threw the kitchen sink at it – sparked delirium on and off the pitch. The final day needed a Hertha loss and a Stuttgart win for the Berliners to replace the 2007 champions in the playoff place and thanks to Endo’s late nod of the head, that’s exactly what it got.
So instead of Magath spending Sunday boxing his things in his office and quietly congratulating himself on an emergency job well done, the coach and his assistant Mark Fotheringham were off scouting potential playoff opponents. It was Fotheringham, in the end, who ended up watching the opposition, as Hamburg’s 3-2 win at Hansa Rostock set them up for what will be the biggest playoff in recent memory – against a club with whom Magath has a historic link. “I’ve come to terms with the result,” Magath reflected. “I think we played a very good game and stood up to the German runners-up for more than 90 minutes. We’ve proved that we’re a top-flight team. Now we have to do it twice more.”
The experienced Magath says believing in his players is one thing. Them believing in themselves is something quite different. He’s right – they don’t look like relegation fodder since he took charge and even if the club needs restructuring “from top to bottom” (as Magath himself put it this week) they have played well enough to survive. The problem is that they’ve dropped the ball just when it counted.
For Stuttgart it was maybe even harder to take in. After defeat at Hoffenheim in late February, conceding two goals in the final five minutes to transform a win into a loss, they looked finished. Reaching the playoff at that point would have been considered a major victory. The club’s and sporting director Sven Mislintat’s determination to keep faith in coach Pellegrino Materazzo when some around were losing theirs has been vindicated in emphatic fashion.
“I don’t even remember what happened,” Materazzo told Sky of the moment when he charged down the touchline and joined the jubilant bundle of his players in the corner in the aftermath of Endo’s winner. “I’ve got a headache from all the screaming. I don’t even know who scored the goal.” The coach started to come to “with Fritzle lying on top of me”, he said of the club’s crocodile mascot.
Sasa Kalajdzic, the fragile jewel in Stuttgart’s crown who opened the scoring, is always a beacon at over two metres tall. Here, he stood out representing the confusion, relief and joy of his club, firstly wandering around the field for confirmation at the final whistle that yes, Hertha had indeed lost, and then sitting alone and tearful on the bench while his teammates were lost in the thousands of celebrating pitch invaders.
Stuttgart will be delighted to have been spared particularly as their last playoff involvement, in 2019, saw them relegated by Union Berlin. Hertha will hope to avoid a similar fate, after a weekend in which Union joyously celebrated Europa League qualification and finished an astonishing 24 points ahead of them. Whatever the result of the playoff, it will have a seismic impact on German football.
Saturday was about celebration for Bayern Munich – or should have been, but as has become tradition, subtext fills the void left by a lack of jeopardy. The burgeoning Robert Lewandowski saga did the job after the 2-2 draw at Wolfsburg, in which the Poland striker scored a 35th Bundesliga goal of the season. After a week in which multiple reports claimed Lewandowski had agreed a three-year deal with Barcelona, Bayern made a clear they are in no mood to facilitate an exit. “He knew in Dortmund a year beforehand that he was going to Bayern Munich and had an outstanding season back then,” said honorary president Uli Hoeness. “That’s why I’m 100% sure that Robert will play very well for us next year.”
Leipzig were tardy in sealing their Champions League place, with a(nother) stoppage-time goal from Willi Orban bagging the required point at doomed Arminia Bielefeld at a point where a Freiburg winner at already home-and-hosed Leverkusen would have allowed Christian Streich’s team to leap above them and into the top four. “The last 10 minutes weren’t easy,” said Emil Forsberg. “We were following what was happening at Leverkusen on our phones [on the bench]”. Orban’s goal plus Exequiel Palacios’a 97th-minute winner for Leverkusen, struck from the centre circle with goalkeeper Mark Flekken out of his goal in a throw-everything-at-it punt for the winner, edged Domenico Tedesco’s side home, though Freiburg celebrated their Europa League qualification in the dressing room despite their defeat, as well they might. They reconvene with Leipzig in Berlin next Saturday with the DfB Pokal, which will be a first major trophy for either of these two clubs from very different backgrounds, at stake.
After last season’s mass coaching changes in the league, similar moves are afoot already, with Adi Hütter and Markus Weinzierl announcing their departures from Borussia Mönchengladbach and Augsburg respectively in their post-match conferences (the latter catching managing director Stefan Reuter, who was unaware, on the hop), while Wolfsburg confirmed the exit of Florian Kohfeldt on Sunday morning.