Voronin could be the difference for Hertha

Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Soccer fans who are looking for a real title race to follow during the final few months of the season may have to look a bit harder this year.

The English Premiership title will remain in Manchester for a third straight year, as Manchester United owns a seven-point lead on its closest rivals with a game in hand.

Serie A also looks to be just about locked up, with Inter Milan poised to claim a fourth successive Scudetto as they also carry a seven-point lead down the home stretch.

La Liga got a bit more interesting when Real Madrid rattled off 10 straight wins to get to within four points of Barcelona, but they gave two back this past weekend and it is hard to believe that Barca - which snapped a three-game winless skid on Saturday - will continue to struggle.

That leaves us with the Bundesliga.

Germany's top-flight has been extremely unpredictable from the start, and the top five teams in the table are separated by only four points.

Bayern Munich has won three of the last four league titles and is clearly the most talented team, but they have been incredibly inconsistent this season and seem to lack a killer instinct.

Promoted side Hoffenheim was the story of the first half, leading the league at the winter break but losing star striker Vedad Ibisevic to a season-ending injury.

Hamburg and Wolfsburg are also right in the mix, but Hamburg has been unable to put together a winning streak of longer than three games, while Wolfsburg has just recently joined the race on the heels of a five-game winning streak.

All four of those teams are level on 42 points, but all four are chasing Hertha Berlin, a team that last won the league in 1931.

Hertha enters the final 11 games of the season with a four-point lead, and outside of Wolfsburg, they have been the best team since the winter break.

Andriy Voronin's seven goals in the last five games are the main reason that Hertha has risen to the top of the table.
The club has put together a 4-1-1 record since the league resumed play at the end of January, and much of that success can be attributed to an unlikely source, Andriy Voronin.

The on-loan striker joined Hertha from Liverpool on a season-long loan over the summer, and his seven goals in the last five games are the main reason that Hertha has risen to the top of the table.

There was cause for concern when the team's leading scorer at the time, Marko Pantelic, went down with a knee injury in early February, but all Voronin has done is put the team on his back since.

The Ukrainian scored both goals in Hertha's 2-1 win over Bayern Munich, while he helped salvage a 1-1 draw with Arminia Bielefeld by scoring the lone goal.

He added another tally in a 2-1 win over Monchengladbach, and he saved his best performance for Saturday, scoring a hat trick in Hertha's 3-1 triumph over Energie.

Despite sitting atop the league, Hertha ranks only seventh in goals scored with 38 in 23 games. Because of their overall lack of firepower, the team has become accustomed to winning close games, with 10 of its 14 wins being decided by one goal, making Voronin's recent scoring prowess even more important.

Bayern Munich, on the other hand, has won 12 games, with only four being decided by a single goal.

The fact that Voronin is on such a good run is probably a surprise to Liverpool fans, who watched the striker struggle in his lone season at Anfield with six goals in 27 appearances.

Voronin had trouble cracking a starting lineup that included world-class striker Fernando Torres as well as Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel.

When Robbie Keane was brought to Liverpool over the summer from Tottenham, the writing was on the wall for Voronin, who returned to Germany on loan.

It may have been the best thing for the 29-year-old Voronin, who spent most of his professional career in Germany prior to his move to England.

He began his pro career with Monchengladbach as a teenager before spending time with Mainz, Cologne and then Bayer Leverkusen.

After scoring 21 goals in 71 league games for Bayer, he made the move to Liverpool, but was slowed by an ankle injury in addition to a lack of first- team appearances.

His recent success in the Bundesliga has led to talk of Hertha seeking a permanent transfer from Liverpool at the end of the season, something that Voronin seems to be confident of.

"I'm getting along fine at Hertha," he told Bild. "I've been well received by the players and there are no problems with the coaching staff and the manager.

"Things are also going well with the football.

"The most important thing is what Hertha want. If the club really are interested in me staying, I'm sure we'll be able to find a way."

Hertha are keen to tie up the deal as soon as possible, and club general manager Dieter Hoeness is confident a new deal will go through.

"Both parties are willing to continue. We really appreciate Andriy's performances," he said.

"His goals, his experience and his demeanor...And he has also said Hertha is a priority for him, because he likes the club and the city very much."

His love of the club would increase even more, you would think, if Hertha is able to hold onto the top spot, an idea that Hoeness entertained after Saturday's win.

"Everyone saw today that we have the quality to match the top sides and stay at the top," Hoeness said. "Today it was the turn of Andriy Voronin to show his individual class. Next week it could be someone else."

Hertha will be hoping that someone else emerges to give Voronin a hand with the scoring duties, and that person will likely be Pantelic, who led the club with 13 goals last season.

He returned from injury on Saturday to make a late substitute appearance, but once he rounds back into form, he will join Voronin to give Hertha one of the best strike partnerships in Germany.

So far, this is the best season at Hertha since a fourth-place finish in 2004-05, but defender Josip Simunic is keeping everything in perspective.

"We have not achieved anything yet," Simunic said. "We still have 11 tough games to play. But we have played ourselves into a good position and anything is possible from now on."

Simunic is right about the club not achieving anything yet, but he is also correct that anything is possible...even an on-loan striker leading a club to its first title in almost 80 years.



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Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com

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