Berlin; Hamburger SV, the only club to have played every season since the Bundesliga’s formation in 1963, are flirting with relegation again.
After years of upheaval, Hamburg face the prospect of their third relegation play-off in four seasons unless they beat visiting Wolfsburg on Saturday. A draw is no use - Hamburg, who have the second worst goal difference in the league, must win to leave Wolfsburg in their place.
“Now we have our final and that’s exactly how we’re treating it,” said Pierre-Michel Lasogga, whose late goal in the 1-1 draw at Schalke last weekend kept Hamburg’s hopes alive.
Whichever side loses will face the third team in the second division - all but certain to be Eintracht Braunschweig - in two games home and away to decide who plays in the top flight and who plays in the second tier.
Augsburg and Mainz are also candidates to take Hamburg’s position, though it will come down to goal difference if Wolfsburg lose and they do, too - at Hoffenheim and Cologne, respectively.
Bayer Leverkusen are virtually assured of survival because of Hamburg’s goal difference of minus-29.
Hamburg, who underwent a brief revival under coach Markus Gisdol, has dropped from 13th place to where they are now after five games without a win, but draws in their last two games kept open the chance of survival.
“We’ve worked it out that we can finish our great (challenge) ourselves,” said Gisdol, who took over from Bruno Labbadia in September.
Labbadia had saved the side from relegation last season as Hamburg finished comfortably in 10th place.
Only play-off victories over Karlsruher SC in 2015 (in extra time) and Greuther Fuerth (on away goals) in 2014 prevented Hamburg from dropping to the second division before.
Hamburg chairman Heribert Bruchhagen, who was appointed mid-season in place of Dietmar Beiersdorfer in the latest shake-up, has blamed the side’s poor start for the current predicament.
“But we turned the corner and gained points, especially in the second half of the season. That’s how we reached our final. We worked hard for this chance and of course we want to use it,” Bruchhagen said. “We’re playing at home, where we’ve shown that we can win games.”
However, Hamburg have not beaten Wolfsburg in their previous 11 meetings, while they have managed only one goal in their last five games against the Volkswagen-backed club.
Lasogga has been ruled out with a groin injury, Gisdol said Thursday, though he has hopes that the injured Nicolai Mueller, Aaron Hunt and Albin Ekdal will he able to play. Right back Dennis Diekmeier is suspended.
Wolfsburg counterpart Andries Jonker will be without the suspended midfielder Riechedly Bazoer.
His side will be just as determined to avoid the play-off.
“When the water is up to our necks, we realise that we have no choice,” Wolfsburg striker Mario Gomez said.
Elsewhere, Bayern Munich kick off their title celebrations at home against Freiburg, who occupy a qualification spot for the Europa League, along with Hertha Berlin.
Cologne and Werder Bremen can still catch the Europa League frontrunners, though they need to win their games against Mainz and Borussia Dortmund and hope for favours elsewhere.
Dortmund and Hoffenheim are vying for the last automatic qualification spot for the Champions League. Both sides are level on points and Dortmund have four goals more.
Hoffenheim, who scored five against Bremen last weekend, host Augsburg and are hoping for a favour from Bremen at Dortmund.
Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann even gave his Bremen counterpart Alexander Nouri some extra motivation.
“I’ll go on holiday with you for a week if I have to, but please put them away,” Nagelsmann said after their game last Saturday.