Hertha Berlin bracing for high-flying Union’s visit in derby

BERLIN (AP) — Union Berlin is flying high and Hertha Berlin is in free-fall.

Second-place Union is three points behind Bayern Munich after completing its best-ever first half to a season in Germany’s top division. Hertha, meanwhile, is in second-to-last place after starting 2023 with a 3-1 loss at relegation rival Bochum and a 5-0 setback against visiting Wolfsburg.

Hertha coach Sandro Schwarz called that latest loss “a slap in the face,” and Union can deliver another in their Bundesliga derby on Saturday.

Hertha, with 14 points, has seven points less than it had at the same stage last season, when it only clinched survival through a playoff win over Hamburger SV. This season, cash-strapped Hertha doesn’t have the option of turning to veteran coach Felix Magath as an emergency solution.

Years of financial mismanagement have taken their toll. Lars Windhorst invested 374 million euros ($408 million) since 2019 on his dream of turning Hertha into a “big city club” on a par with Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain. Hertha, however, has lurched from one crisis or scandal to another.

Hertha is no longer even the biggest club in Berlin. In September, Union said it had nearly 46,000 members, while Hertha counted just over 44,000 in November.

Windhorst, who only ever saw the team fight relegation, sold his 64.7% stake to Miami-based 777 Partners in November after falling out with club president Kay Bernstein. That dispute followed allegations that Windhorst hired an Israeli detective agency to force out the previous president, Werner Gegenbauer.

There has been relative calm at Hertha since Windhorst’s departure.

Deyovaisio Zeefuik, Davie Selke, Lee Dong-jun, Vladimir Darida and Linus Gechter have all left the club since as Hertha works to bring down its expenses.

Hertha signed Florian Niederlechner from Augsburg, but the 32-year-old forward was injured on arrival. Still, he might be able to make his debut on Saturday.

Hertha had shown signs of encouragement at times before the league’s extended the winter break, but also a vulnerability to defensive lapses with costly consequences. Another relegation battle is the logical result.

“We’ll pull through,” said Hertha sporting director Fredi Bobic, who added Tuesday he had “a lot of trust” in Schwarz’s work and there was no question of changing the coach.

“It is absolutely and not even remotely up for discussion,” Bobic said. “I see how he works and what he does.”

However, Hertha’s performances so far in 2023 give little grounds for optimism.

There’s plenty of it on the other side of the city in the eastern borough of Koepenick, where Union reacted to the unforeseen loss of Norwegian right back Julian Ryerson to Borussia Dortmund by signing Croatia defender Josip Juranović from Scottish champion Celtic in the club’s biggest transfer to date.

Not content with only one World Cup player, Union sporting director Oliver Ruhnert is also reportedly working on signing Tunisia midfielder Aïssa Laïdouni from Hungarian club Ferencvaros.

Union, the only team in the Bundesliga to have played in East Germany’s system, was promoted to the first division for the first time in 2019. But Ruhnert and coach Urs Fischer have overseen steady improvement every year since. They’ve kept expectations low while overachieving.

Fischer and everyone else at the club says their goal for the season is survival, but Union clinched European qualification the last two seasons and current transfers show the club’s ambitions are growing.

It’s going the other way at Hertha, where the cost-cutting and constant setbacks have left their mark.

“We’ve made a terrible start against Bochum and today against Wolfsburg,” Schwarz said Tuesday. “But there are two ways to go about it — to have a sinking feeling for the rest of the season and get relegated, or to stay together and show the excellent phases we’ve already shown, to give belief back to the group, and to have confidence for Saturday.”

Union has won the last three derbies — the last four including their meeting in the German Cup last season.

“Don’t dwell on the past too long,” Fischer said. “We’ll have to be ready against Hertha.”

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