Apr 02 2013

Peter Pekarik in Berlin

Published by at 1:15 pm under Uncategorized

Easter is time for a break – from work, from familiar surroundings and from Žilina’s abject failure to score goals. And there are few better cities than Berlin, even in the unseasonable cold. Football-wise in Berlin, my natural inclination would probably be towards Union but Hertha v Bochum at the Olympiastadion is definitely not to be sniffed at.

Hertha have a mixed history, so the inconsistency of their last few years shouldn’t be much of a surprise. A Bundesliga title challenge (and ultimate fourth-placed finish) in 2008/2009 was followed by relegation in 2009/2010, a season in which the Alte Dame failed to win a home game after the opening day. They bounced straight back up a year later, only to go down again last season, this time after a controversial play-off with Dusseldorf. This season, though, Bundesliga II is again holding few terrors. Hertha now look like promotion certainties, and the main question appears to be whether they or Eintracht Braunschweig will go up as champions.

A date at a Hertha game also means a reunion with right-back Peter Pekarík, one of Žilina’s best players of the last decade. As soon as he broke into the MŠK side in 2005/2006, it was obvious that Pekarík was destined for bigger things. He was decisive in the tackle, had pace going forward and, most importantly, was intensely focused and dedicated to improving. He was a near ever-present in Pavel Vrba’s 2006/2007 title-winning team, and played every game of the 2008/2009 UEFA Cup group-stage adventure.

A move to Wolfsburg that winter looked just perfect initially but, as his team-mates closed inon the Bundesliga title in the spring of 2009, Pekarík fell out of favour with coach Felix Magath. He was in and out of the side over the following two years before going on loan to Turkish club Kayserispor and then, at the start of this season, being transferred to Hertha.

His international career takes in 44 appearances since his debut in 2006 and he was Slovakia’susual first-choice at right-back between 2009 and late 2012. However, he appears to have been made the principle scapegoat for his country’s non-performance in the 3-0 defeat away to the Czech Republic last November. Substituted after just 17 nightmarish minutes of that game, he hasn’t been picked for the squad since.

Pekarík’s club career, though, seems to be looking tentatively upwards again. He has been playing regularly for Hertha this spring, putting in performances more reminiscent of hisŽilina days, and saying in interviews that he appreciates the atmosphere created by the fans who, he maintains, are ‘far more passionate’ than Wolfsburg’s ever were.

The Hertha support is certainly impressive, averaging 37,000+ for this season’s second-tier home games. The figure is skewed somewhat by the turnouts for the Union and DynamoDresden fixtures (74,000 and 47,000 respectively) and the Olympiastadion is, of course, a huge venue, providing more than enough room for most of the events it stages. As a first-time visitor there, your ticket isn’t only admission to a game of football. It also lets you into a vast open-air museum. Everywhere there are sights worth lingering over, and information boards telling the story of the infamous 1936 Olympic Games. At the western end of the ground, you can stand next to the ‘horse tamer’ sculptures and look across the Maifeld to the bell tower and Fuhrer’s grandstand, before turning back and reading the Olympic honours boards. These flank the torch platform, from where you have perhaps the best view of both the arena and itsmost impressive modern addition ; the roof added for the 2006 World Cup. Simply put, this is one stadium you really should enter the minute the gates open.

There’s not much to say about the game itself. Whatever plans the relegation-threatened visitors from the Ruhr had arrived with were rendered irrelevant by Ronny’s beautifully-struck free-kick for the hosts after just four minutes. Seconds after half-time, Nico Schulz added a second goal after the Bochum defence had basically waved him through to a one-on-one with their goalkeeper. 2-0, and that, effectively, was that. Several Hertha players, most notably the scorers, centre-back Fabian Lustenberger and captain Peter Niermayer, looked way too good for second-tier football. Generally, in fact, you sensed that the home team wasin economy mode. They could have scored more goals if they’d really wanted to, but they seemed more concerned to save energy for next week’s potential title showdown with Braunschweig.

Once the final whistle had gone, it became clear that the Olympiastadion is also a place to linger after the game, to clap the players on their celebratory tour of the pitch (even after a routine win) and then to analyse the 90 minutes over a couple of pints at the refreshment stands. I don’t suppose Pekarík’s performance was the hottest of topics as the beers slipped down, but he’d acquitted himself well, always offering an outlet when Hertha moved forward down the right. He also foiled one of Bochum’s more dangerous forays when he bravely got in the way of a second-half effort from Yusuke Tasaka. When (I don’t think it’s an ‘if’) Hertha get promoted, they and Pekarík will have the same aims for next season ; to reconsolidate at the top level. Hopefully, they’ll succeed together.

James Baxter

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