Ever since Thorsten Fink took charge at Hamburger SV last autumn, he has been trying instil former employer FC Bayern München's will to win. At times it has looked quite forced: Fink's talk of fire and brimstone was followed by some feeble performances. Last season HSV only just avoided relegation; this term started even worse.
Yet with ten points from their last five matches, Hamburg have steadily climbed the table to seventh and are now eyeing the European places – and they have done it without the injured Rafael van der Vaart. "When I came 14 months ago, some players thought they were it," said Fink. "Now everyone understands they are just part of a team and we have a chance of qualifying for Europe. When other teams falter, we will be there."
HSV have been an enigma in recent years, yet it may all be coming together for the northern German club. While Van der Vaart and goalkeeper René Adler are key pieces of the jigsaw, currently it is hard to look beyond attacker Artjoms Rudņevs, the first Latvian player in Bundesliga history. He arrived in the summer from Polish side KKS Lech Poznań, although things did not begin well for the 24-year-old. He appeared, observed the Süddeutsche Zeitung, like "a wolf that has lost his pack".
The turning point came on 29 September when he scored the only goal at home to Hannover 96, for Hamburg's second win of the campaign. He now has six top-flight strikes and three assists to his name, including a match-deciding double on 7 December against TSG 1899 Hoffenheim that prompted his name to ring out around the Hamburg Arena.
"It's becoming easier and easier for me. You need a little time to get used to everything," the 23-cap international commented. Now he is, says Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs, "showing that Latvian players can be taken seriously and perform at such a high level."
Yet it is not necessarily the forward's crisp finishing that has endeared him to the HSV faithful, rather his industry. He runs from first minute to last. It is the same in training and Adler, for one, is happy to have him on his side. "He is extremely difficult to face, because he himself doesn't know where he is going to shoot. He doesn't think, he just lets loose. Left foot, right foot – he kicks as hard as a horse."
That power belies real finesse, as exemplified by his pass for Maximilian Beister's goal at VfL Wolfsburg earlier this month. It was, the Hamburger Abendblatt noted, a ball "worthy of a place in the Louvre". From Steppenwolf to leader of the pack in the space of three months – Rudņevs is going places and taking Hamburg with him.
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