When Hoffenheim received their first penalty in Sinsheim, the TSG players were not unreservedly happy. Some looked down, saying: I hope I don’t have to shoot now. But then Andrej Kramaric tapped his chest with his index finger: Don’t worry – I’ll take care of it. And so Kramaric, who had already failed with two penalties this season, put the ball on the spot. The Croatian striker started up, irritated Hertha’s keeper Oliver Christensen with a delay – and scored to make it 1-0.

The game repeated itself thirteen minutes later: Referee Frank Willenborg pointed to the spot again and Kramaric took action again. He also converted the second penalty. With that the game was decided. In the end, TSG Hoffenheim, who had previously lost seven games in a row, won 3-1 (2-0) against a desolate Hertha from Berlin. There it was at last, the long-awaited liberation for the people of Kraichgau.

In the relegation battle, the wheat is separated from the chaff. “You need an asbestos suit, otherwise you won’t survive,” Jörg Berger once said. The coach, who died in 2010, was familiar with the toxic atmosphere that prevails around a team struggling to survive – that mixture of uncertainty and pressure that can lead to even good players suddenly not being able to do anything anymore.

Berger had saved teams from almost hopeless situations three times: Eintracht Frankfurt in 1989, 1. FC Köln in 1992, Schalke in 1994 and finally Frankfurt again in 1999 – in the most dramatic finish in the history of the Bundesliga. Back then, five teams had to decide who would be relegated on the last matchday. Bergers Eintracht was in a relegation zone three times during their last game – but not in the end. “Jörg Berger would have saved the Titanic,” said Eintracht striker Jan-Aage Fjörtoft at the time.

It could be that a comparable drama will be performed again. After the 25th matchday, the table-15 separate. (Hoffenheim) and the tail light (Stuttgart) two points. Before that, there are still three clubs within reach: Bochum (14th/25 points), Cologne (13th/27th) and Augsburg (12th/28th). For weeks, there has been a new table picture from game day to game day: teams that seem to be on the right track suddenly look into the abyss again – others suddenly draw new hope.

Hoffenheim, of all people, made the biggest leap, although they seemed to be heading for their negative culmination point. If there hadn’t been a win against the Berliners – Pellegrino Matarazzo, who had only been signed at the beginning of February, would probably have been gone by now. Soccer is a “result sport,” sporting director Alexander Rosen said before kick-off when asked about the coach’s half-life. After the final whistle it sounded very different. There would have been “no ultimatum,” Rosen asserted. Not everyone believes him.

Because TSG, the supposedly most tranquil club in the Bundesliga, has been in turmoil for months. There are different currents behind the scenes – which made it even more difficult for Matarazzo to get the team on track. There were always new rumors that made it difficult for the coach to develop authority. Shortly before the game against Hertha, the “kicker” reported that the players’ agent Roger Wittmann, an influential confidante of Dietmar Hopp, had recommended another coach to the club’s patron: Kenan Kocak, the former coach of the second division club SV Sandhausen. “Disempower Wittmann in the club” was written on a banner that the fans had unrolled on Saturday.

Matarazzo was well aware of the dangerous situation. The 45-year-old, who was only released from duty at VfB Stuttgart on October 10, had sought to team up with the team – especially with players who he believes have the quality and mental robustness to deliver in pressure situations to be able to So he relied on Kramaric again, whom he had given a pause to think about in the previous week at 1: 2 in Freiburg. The 31-year-old veteran had let himself down in training. “Andrej is a player who can shoot us to stay up,” said Matarazzo now.

In any case, the coach managed to get the team behind him again. “The Matarazzo-out issue gave us another push. No player would have been okay with having to leave. He’s doing sensationally well,” said midfielder Christoph Baumgartner. It could be that Hoffenheim found unity in a difficult situation.

Oddly enough, the Berliners had to be reminded of this by their own supporters. The Hertha professionals could hardly believe their ears and eyes when they stepped in front of the guest fan block after their disastrous performance. Instead of the expected ritual of abuse, they were greeted with encouragement. “That’s not something to be taken for granted,” said Kevin-Prince Boateng, who otherwise had a hard time with the performance of his team-mates. “It’s not acceptable, it just wasn’t enough,” he said. “We all have to question ourselves, look in the mirror and otherwise just shut up and work.”

Personalities matter in the relegation battle. Kramaric could be one – Boateng, on the other hand, only to a limited extent. He knows what is important, but his radius of action is limited at 36 years of age. Often he can only give courage from the outside. “The only positive thing is that it’s all very close together,” he explained. A specific advantage could be that the club has its own expertise. “Who are in a shitty situation. But that’s what we were last year,” said Boateng.

But Saturday’s performance increases doubts about coach Sandro Schwarz. The many mistakes and above all the almost complete lack of efforts to catch up in the second half make him increasingly at a loss. “Being like that – it’s a waste of time,” he said of the team, which he had often defended after poor performances. The Berliners haven’t changed coaches yet.

A new one might help. No one knew that better than Jörg Berger, who had often benefited when clubs became restless. “My guiding principle was: Resignation is the alibi of the weak,” he said a year before his death in the WELT talk. This mental orientation must be in the foreground in the relegation battle: “If you are not mentally strong, you have no chance.”