Hamburg and Schalke face each other ready to forget recent misery | Raphael Honigstein

Hamburg were almost relegated last season while Schalke flirted with Roberto di Matteo and disaster but both are looking good again

Footballing stereotypes, positive and negative, are cherished possessions that nobody wants to part with, even if they’re long out of date like 1980s Mad magazines, five-a-side trophies and Third Reich stamps from granddad Heinrich (don’t ask) quietly gathering dust in the loft. But, as this column’s mum, Bärbl, would readily agree, from time to time, a clearout is simply unavoidable.

Early signs suggest that 2015-16 may well be the season we have to let go of a couple of well-worn tropes, axiomatic jokes that didn’t need punchlines to be funny. Seasoned readers of these lines will know that this can only refer to Hamburger SV and Schalke, of course; sides of huge possibility, history and fantastic support who have managed to fall short of their own potential with unerring, somewhat hilarious regularity for so long that the former mooted getting rid of holy cultural artefacts, such as their mascot Dino and the eternal Bundesliga clock, in an effort to exorcise their relegation-worry demons at the beginning of the season, while the latter have almost accepted they were a bit of a basket case and that was that.

But on Saturday night, when these two storied behemoths of the German top flight tussle again at the Volksparkstadion, it will be a game like no other in recent years. “An absolute top match,” as HSV’s coach, Bruno Labbadia, proudly put it. His northerners are sixth in the table after their best start since 2009 (10 points) and the Royal Blues are third following their fourth win, 2-0 over Frankfurt, in six matches under their new coach, André Breitenreiter. Yes, the table is still young and prone to mistakes but HSV and S04 do look as if they have more than some decent numbers going for them.

Ever since they opened the campaign with a customary 5-0 defeat away to Bayern, Labbadia’s Rothosen (Red Pants) have been, if not exactly on fire, then at least smouldering nicely. Despite the continued presence of Johan Djourou, Hamburg have become a team that are tough to beat, with the excellent new signing Albin Ekdal from Cagliari and the rediscovered Gojko Kacar providing ample cover in midfield. Lewis Holtby is at last growing into the player he was supposed to be and the striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga has reacted to the heartbreak of losing out on a move to Steve McClaren’s Newcastle by finding the net three times. “Labbadia has golden hands,” wrote the tabloid Morgenpost on Thursday.

It’s all relative of course – not one HSV manager has lasted an entire season since Martin Jol in 2008-09 – but the 49-year-old has already shown that he can tickle the Dino’s fancy. There’s a sense of tranquility and optimism around the place so strange and unfamiliar that the executive chairman, Dietmar Beiersdorfer, has been moved to insist that HSV “do not want to be a normal club”.

“We are a special club and I don’t believe it’s desirable to be normal. But it’s nice that we are becoming [more] stable,” he said before the 1-0 win at newly-promoted Ingolstadt on Tuesday. It’s only a question of time before the first fans will start dreaming of the Europa League – or more – but even if Labbadia’s side appear two or three players short of reaching such exalted heights, an extended period of time spent in the top half of the table should and will count as remarkable progress after two close shaves with a first-ever relegation.

Schalke, too, are getting their act together. The Royal Blues were never as bad as Hamburg have been in recent memory but in their own way, failure to properly capitalise on resources that are bettered only by Bayern and local rivals Dortmund (since they’ve started winning trophies again) has been just as embarrassing. History will be unkind to a Champions League club that thought Jens Keller and Roberto Di Matteo were the answers, whatever the questions. Time will tell whether the sale of Julian Draxler to Wolfsburg can be compensated for but in the energetic yet unshowy Breitenreiter, the sporting director Horst Heldt has at last unearthed a coach who can handle the Gelsenkirchen pressure cooker and do a bit of actual coaching, too.

The 41-year-old came to the Veltins-Arena on the back of relegation with Paderborn. Schalke commendably looked beyond that, however, and found a manager with a clear idea of proactive, pressing football, and the ability to get his side to play as a collective. It’s not exactly a revolutionary concept but one that hasn’t been tried since Ralf Rangnick took S04 to the Champions League semi-final and then resigned, citing exhaustion, in 2011. Every player looks good or indeed that little bit improved as a result, from centre-back Joël Matip to new signing Johannes Geis (holding midfielder) or 19-year-old substitute Leroy Sané who scored a great goal in the Frankfurt win and has been one of the breakout stars of the season.

The race for the Champions League places will be tough now that Dortmund have rebounded in spectacular fashion. But with a bit of luck, Breitenreiter will be allowed the time to push the team further and provide some much-needed continuity on the bench, and the same goes for Labbadia in Hamburg. The easy laughs at both their clubs’ expense will soon dry up. But in the long run, the German football gods will be smiling: it’s much more fun being seriously good than comically inept.

Talking points

• The upswing in fortunes for big(gish), traditional clubs could well turn into one of the themes of the season. Hertha – yes, Hertha – continued their surprisingly good run with a win over Köln and Stuttgart finally registered a win when they deservedly beat a pretty woeful Hannover side. Mönchengladbach were at full speed again, too, as they overcame Augsburg 4-2 under the interim coach André Schubert.

• Elsewhere, an enthralling Englische Woche (English week) of midweek fixtures brought flowers for Wolfsburg’s defender Dante (at his belated farewell at the Allianz Arena) and that familiar Belo Horizonte feeling: the former Bayern man could only stare disbelievingly as the second-half sub Robert Lewandowski scored five goals in nine minutes in the champions’ 5-1 win. “I looked at the scoreboard and couldn’t believe it myself,” said the Poland striker. The 27-year-old became the fastest hat-trick scorer in the history of the league and also the fastest scorer of a Fünferpack (five pack) but Dieter Müller (no relation to Gerd) was happy to see his six-goals-in-one-game record from 1977 (Köln’s 7-2 win over Werder in 1977) survive.

• The Lewangoalski show saw Bayern claim the No1 spot from Dortmund, who only mustered a draw, 1-1 away to Hoffenheim. “We gave away the victory, it’s frustrating,” said the captain, Mats Hummels. Their coach, Thomas Tuchel, insisted that the result shouldn’t be overdramatised, though. “It’s the first draw in six games. We shouldn’t feel as if we lost the game,” he said.

Results: Bayern 5-1 Wolfsburg; Hertha BSC 2-0 Köln; Ingolstadt 0-1 HSV; Darmstadt 2-1 Bremen; Schalke 2-0 Frankfurt; Leverkusen 1-0 Mainz; Hoffenheim 1-1 Dortmund; Hannover 1-3 Stuttgart; ‘Gladbach 4-2 Augsburg


Raphael Honigstein

The GuardianTramp

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