East meets West in DFB-Cup premiere, as Hertha hopes for a bright spot in another disppointing campaign
|Urs Fischer.||Photo: Илья Хохлов, Football.ua, CC BY-SA 3.0|
"Das ist Pokal!"
No phrase is heard more from the German media in the coverage leading up to and following matches of the nation's cup competition, and time and again, its implication-that these weeknight elimination duels tend to serve up confounding upsets, shocking collapses, and inexplicable disasters-is proven prophetic.
One needs only cast memory as far back as yesterday evening, when powerhouse Dortmund was taken out by 2nd-league Hamburg cult darlings St. Pauli, with FC Köln meeting a similar fate against the skull-and-crossbones' city and league rivals HSV. (Good night for Germany's second-largest city, in a season when both teams are also legitimate candidates for promotion.) A bit further, and you may also remember Bayern München being thrashed 5-0 by Borussia Mönchengladbach, despite the latter doing their best impression of a dumpster fire on the field for most of the current season. Or the Bavarians being ousted last season by 2nd-tier Holstein Kiel on penalties.
Hertha had their own Pokal shocker in 2020-21, when they went out in the very first round, giving up 5 goals to Eintracht Braunschweig, in what would be a harbinger for an unstable season (to put it generously) to follow. If anything, they and their fans could take some comfort heading into tonight's match that they are the clear underdogs against their rivals from Köpenick, and favourites tend to have a difficult time in this competition.
Union, for their part, are coming off a strong win against current top-4 team TSG Hoffenheim, which brought them within striking distance of a Champions League place themselves. They are currently without top goalscorer Taiwo Awoniyi-also in action tonight as he represents home country Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations-and the recently-sold stalwart defender Marvin Friedrich, who is now a member of Die Fohlen in Mönchengladbach. They beat Hertha with a convincing 2-0 in the first league derby of the season on their home turf at the Alte Försterei, and will be hoping to both reaffirm their dominance in the city and stay alive in the cup competition, having not survived the group stage of the Europa Conference League.
While Hertha has home advantage for the match, only 3000 fans will be allowed into the Olympiastadion this evening due to COVID-19 restrictions. Union has also played home matches at the cavernous multi-purpose venue this campaign, as UEFA rules determined that their own home grounds were not large enough to host matches for European competition. Though they thoroughly enjoyed lighting up Hertha's home stadium all in red (and jubilantly celebrating this on social media on each occasion), they fared poorly on the pitch, and it has to be imagined that not a small number of Hertha fans smiled quietly when a key loss against Feyenoord was blamed on the pitch itself-namely, the quality of the grass-by the Union players afterwards.
Karma? Maybe, if you believe in that kind of thing.
Aside from the home advantage, Hertha doesn't have a lot going for them as the clash approaches. Top striker Stevan Jovetic remains out with injury, and without him, Hertha has managed but a single goal in their last two matches-and that one went in by accident off of a free kick from Vladimir Darida. Hertha themselves have been especially vulnerable in both set-piece and counter-attack situations this season and last, and those two forms of offence just so happen to be Union's bread and butter, even without Awoniyi, their most dangerous counter-attacker. Hertha's captain and Belgian international Dedryck Boyata could however return to the starting lineup tonight, which would certainly be a boost, as his ability both to defend well himself and organize the defence as a whole is noticeably lacking in his absences. Suat Serdar should also return after missing time for injury and suspension; his ability to dribble through midfield, shoot from distance, and link up play from box to box has made him Hertha's best midfielder this season, if not their most consistent performer overall. The hardworking but lesser-skilled Santiago Ascacibar along with the aforementioned Darida have struggled with clean passing in build-up play while playing as the double 6s in Tayfun Korkut's 4-2-2-2 this January. Serdar's qualities could prove crucial in finding holes in Union's compact set-up without the ball.
Hertha can also remind themselves that before November's derby loss, the combined score of the most recent 3 prior is 7-1 in their favour.
My tip? Bet the over on yellow cards. It's going to be a battle.