Hamburg SV v. Manchester City
First Leg: 9 April 2009 – HSH Nordbank Arena, Germany
Second Leg: 16 April 2009 – City of Manchester Stadium, England
Unlike the Champions League, which has been dominated by English teams in recent years, the UEFA Cup remains, largely, the province of non-English teams. This season is no different, as Aston Villa, Tottenham, and Portsmouth have all crashed out of the UEFA Cup, leaving Manchester City as the only remaining English team in the competition after taking out Aalborg on penalty kicks in the Round of 16. Their reward? A date with Hamburg SV.
For all the talk about Manchester City spending and buying their way to a domestic title and Champions League football, it’s Hamburg SV that are closer to that reality, as they currently sit in fourth place in the Bundesliga, but are only one point behind the leaders, Hertha Berlin. Manchester City are well off the pace for the Premiership title, and have been eliminated in F.A. Cup. As such, the UEFA Cup is their only chance for silverware and could be their best chance to ensure European play for next season.
That certainly wasn’t what Robinho had in mind when he joined the club. And it sure wasn’t what Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan had in mind when he decided that transfer records were made to be obliterated, especially for the likes of Kaka, Gigi Buffon, David Villa, and (depending on which newspapers you read) Cristiano Ronaldo, John Terry, Didier Drogba, and a genetically engineered superstar with DNA from Franz Beckenbauer, Pele, Maradona, and Cruijff. Nevertheless, good teams are rarely built overnight, and City need to establish themselves as a success in both England and in Europe before the big stars will be willing to sign on. Winning the UEFA Cup would be a good start.
In order to stand any chance of lifting the Cup, City will have to figure out how to get the best from their moody and erratic star. After a brilliant start to his City career (including a beautiful free-kick goal in the opening minutes of his debut against the team that wanted him so badly but came up short, Chelsea), Robinho has been decidedly mediocre as of late. He has yet to score in 2009 for his club, and has looked disinterested and bored . Worse, he has been a disciplinary problem, clashing with Mark Hughes over, among other things, the club’s inability to sign his countryman, Kaka. When he’s at his best, as was the case early on during his City tenure, he and Shaun Wright Phillips can be a lethal one-two combination.
City look to be getting healthy and improving on their recent form. Craig Bellamy, who had been on a goal-scoring tear before getting injured in a couple of months ago, is ready to come back. City’s defensive deficiencies seem to have been addressed, as newcomer Wayne Bridge has combined with Micah Richards, Richard Dunne, and Nedum Onuoha to make life easier for new keeper, Shay Given. City remain erratic, capable of beating Aston Villa one week and going toe-to-toe with the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, only to lose to Stoke or West Ham the next week, and will need to play up to their potential if they are to have any shot at winning the UEFA Cup.
Things have been much more low-key in Hamburg, as the club has quietly put together a solid Bundesliga and European campaign. Nevertheless, Hamburg can be every bit as erratic as City, and their recent form has made their supporters wonder which squad will show up for this tie. Will it be the team that defeated Bayern Munich in January, Bayer Leverkusen in February, and Schalke in March, and impressed the world with a 3-2 victory at Galatasaray to knock the Turkish giants out of the UEFA Cup in the previous round? Or will it be the team that recently dropped consecutive league matches to VFL Wolfsburg and relegation-threatened Borussia Monchengladbach by a combined score of 7-2?
Hamburg have firepower up front, particularly with Croatian strikers Mladen Petric (who is not-so-fondly remembered by English fans) and Ivica Olic (who scored the winning goal against Galatasaray), and José Paolo Guerrero providing the goals. German international Marcell Jansen has already established himself as his country’s number-one left-back, and skipper David Jarolim is hugely influential in the midfield. And, of course, they have their boss, Martin Jol, the former Tottenham manager who knows City pretty well (including former Hamburg players Vincent Kompany and Nigel De Jong). If the good Hamburg shows up, then they can certainly play with anyone in the world, especially Manchester City. If the bad Hamburg shows up, then it’s a different story.