While the loser of the do-or-die game could still escape via a play-off, their situation shows both sides are far from the glory of the past and paying for mistakes made over the years.
Hamburg were a founding member of the top flight back in 1963 and are now the only original Bundesliga club never to be relegated – clearly visible via the big stadium clock which will stand at 53 years 269 days 22 hours and 30 minutes when the crunch game kicks off Saturday.
They have six national titles, among them three in the Bundesliga 1979, 1982 and 1983, three German cups, and one European Champions and Cup Winners’ Cup title each.
But it has been all downhill for almost a decade and the fight against the drop a familiar scenario by now, despite big financial backing by investor Klaus-Michael Kuehne in recent years.
Hamburg, who stayed top via a play-off in 2014 and 2015, had hoped for a better season but defeats in the first five games and just two points from the first 10 made things difficult.
Even a temporary recovery under new coach Markus Gisdol hasn’t helped and they enter the showdown winless in five games.
“The start with two points from 10 games hangs like a sword of Damocles over us … The table doesn’t lie after 33 rounds, everyone is where they belong,” chairman Heribert Bruchhagen said.
Wolfsburg joined the Bundesliga 20 years ago, and won a surprise league title in 2009.
Despite massive investment by their owners, carmakers Volkswagen, they were almost relegated in 2011 and a recovery to finish second in the league 2015 and win the cup the same year turned out to be only temporary as they failed to create sustainability.
The departure of players such as Naldo, Andre Schuerrle, Bas Dost and Julian Draxler hasn’t helped Wolfsburg, and managing director Klaus Allofs also had to go.
Hamburg have their most expensive squad of all-time at 55 million euros (61.1 million dollars) which was put together by now ousted coach Bruno Labbadia and ex-chairman Dietmar Beiersdorfer. But they still lack a proper striker and stability in defence and midfield.
A lot is thus at stake in the Volksparkstadion as both sides could suffer seriously from relegation, with immediate promotion back far from guaranteed, and in that case big financial cuts looming as TV rights income alone would drop sharply.
After all, other former greats like Kaiserslautern, Nuremberg and 1860 Munich are all struggling in the wrong half of the second tier.
VW are already scaling back their past investment of around 100 million dollars per season in the wake of their emission scandal, and second-tier football could prompt them to make further cuts.
“The whole construction ‘football at Wolfsburg’ is at stake,” Kicker sports magazine said in an editorial Thursday.
In Hamburg, Bruchhagen spoke of “extreme cuts” in the worst-case scenario. It also would be unclear whether Kuehne would splash out the money as freely as in the past, and others may not necessarily help out in the wealthy mercantile northern German port city.
Some have suggested that debt-ridden Hamburg needs relegation for a fresh start instead of an annual struggle in the Bundesliga lowlands but former Hamburg volleyball team coach Olaf Kortmann, now a mental trainer, strongly disagrees.
“It is a misconception to believe that a club can consolidate when it is relegated,” the Sueddeutsche Zeitung last week quoted him as saying.