• Friday, 11 May 2012

    The most curious of play-offs

    Play-offs have come to dominate the end-of-season over the years. Most of them are for positive outcomes - deciding who gets promoted, gets one of the Europa League spots, things like that - and they're going on all over the place.

    England has them for promotion places in all the leagues, right through the system. Turkey has the top four playing off for the championship and fifth through eighth going for the final Europa League spot. But it's northern Europe where they really go mad for a play-off, and it's not always a positive thing to be involved.

    In the Eredivisie, the top two get Champions League football, third and fourth go into the Europa League. The final Europa spot is played for between the sides finishing fifth to eighth. At the bottom, only one club is relegated automatically. The next two go into an eight-team competition along with the teams finishing second through to seventh in the Eerste Divisie. In Belgium, they play off for everything - the championship, a Europa League place and relegation. The relegation play-off consists of a five-match series between the bottom two, the loser of which is relegated, the winner of which goes into a further four-game series with the clubs finishing second to fourth in the second division.

    But the real killer is the Bundesliga relegation play-off. The bottom two in the German top flight are relegated. The team finishing sixteenth goes into a one-off two-legged tie with the side finishing third in 2.Bundesliga. Really, it should be stacked in favour of the top-flight side. They've got the better paid and - so it should follow - better standard of player. They've been playing better quality opposition all season long. On the flip-side, you have a team from the second tier that, by defnition, have been winning more often than their first division rivals and therefore carry more momentum and positivity into the end-of-season showdown. Whichever is the case - if either are at all - there is no room for error.

    What happened in this year's German league was that Hertha BSC - thanks largely to FC Koln's incompetence - dragged themselves up into sixteenth on the final day. Fortuna Dusseldorf needed a draw in the last round of fixtures to make it to third in a highly competitive 2.Bundesliga. Fortuna were one of six clubs who, with just a month or so remaining in the league, had a real chance of winning the division. Barely a handful of points separated the front-runners all season until that final month when Greuther Furth and Eintracht Frankfurt pulled away and each of them drove the others on in a gripping contest.

    And so to the Olympiastadion in the German capital on Thursday night. It was clear which of the scenarios described above was in effect. Fortuna were bright, breezy and created plenty. Hertha's additional quality came to the fore briefly when Roman Hubnik put them ahead in the 19th minute, but the unease, the lack of confidence and the just plain brittle defence that haunted them all season soon came back. First, they stood and watched as Thomas Broker swept through to equalise and were similarly static as Adrian Ramos got in the way of another swift attacking move and turned the ball into his own net. It remained 2-1 to full-time and it's back to Dusseldorf on Tuesday for the return leg. Hertha are in a huge hole and with the away goals rule in effect they have to score at least twice - something they've done just 12 times in all competitions this season. Fortuna are favourites from here and should they complete the job, Germany will stand alone in Europe as having a league not featuring a club from the capital.

    It's a cruel game sometimes, and the German relegation play-off is perhaps the cruellest of them all.

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