Mark Fotheringham briefly summoned Santiago Ascacibar and gave him final instructions. Then they both high-fived like good friends. You appreciate each other, you understand each other. And you’re probably not entirely wrong if you think of Fotheringham, the Scottish assistant to Hertha head coach Felix Magath, and the Argentinian Ascacibar as brothers in spirit. Two compact bundles of energy, two fearless fighters who only give up when it’s really over.

There were probably several reasons why Hertha BSC lost the first leg of the relegation against Hamburger SV on Thursday. Felix Magath, the coach of the Berlin Bundesliga team, focused primarily on Santiago Ascacibar in his analysis of the 1-0 defeat. Or better: to the fact that Ascacibar had not been able to participate. Because the 25-year-old saw his fifth yellow card in Dortmund in the last game of the season, he was suspended against HSV. Magath saw this as a point “which was quite negative for us”. Because Ascacibar is a very strong player, “who has played an important role for us the whole time”.

That has not always been the case since the defensive midfielder came from the then second division club VfB Stuttgart in winter 2020 for twelve million euros. The Argentinian was an absolute dream player for Jürgen Klinsmann, who already saw him as a regular in the Argentine national team. Ascacibar will definitely be there at the Copa America in summer 2020, predicted Hertha’s coach at the time. The prediction failed because the Copa did not take place at all due to the corona pandemic. But regardless of that: Since then, Ascacibar has been waiting in vain for another call to the national team.

Klinsmann celebrated the Argentine as a “mega talent” in his leaked squad analysis. With it, a “much higher added value can be achieved within a very short time”. So far, this prediction has not come true either. As a six, Ascacibar is not a strategist who draws the big lines in his team’s game on the lawn. On the other hand, no one throws himself into the infight with such enthusiasm as the Argentine does – regardless of his own health. “A machine,” says Kevin-Prince Boateng about Ascacibar, “on the pitch, off the pitch.” You need guys like that in the team. “There aren’t that many of those anymore.”

These qualities are particularly important in the relegation battle. Under Felix Magath, Ascacibar was in the starting XI in each of the eight games – until the duel against HSV, in which Niklas Stark took on the role of second six alongside Lucas Tousart. Hertha’s head coach was not really satisfied with this variant, also because Stark was not yet in full possession of his strength after an illness he had just overcome. “In Santi we were missing a very important mentality player,” said Magath. Stark was unable to close this gap.

“You can’t bake players,” said Magath after the defeat. “Players are who they are. There are players who are strong in tackles, like Santi for example. And then we have players who may not be strong in one-on-one combat. I can’t blame them for that.”

The hopes that Hertha can still avoid relegation from the Bundesliga have been dampened by the defeat against HSV, but above all by the performance of the team. That they still exist at all may be due to Ascacibar’s return to the starting XI. “He’s been one of the outstanding players in recent weeks and he’ll play a big role,” said Magath, looking ahead to the match in Hamburg.

With the sometimes hyperactive Argentinian, Hertha’s coach is hoping for more control in midfield and more effective prevention of Hamburg’s combination football. Magath is certain “that we will control the game more than in the first leg”. In training the day after the first leg, Ascacibar even scored a nice goal with a side kick. You shouldn’t necessarily count on him being able to do that against HSV on Monday.