Michael Skibbe) and at the bottom, it’s just a case of Hoffenheim, Augsburg and Greuther Fürth sorting out who plays in the promotion/relegation play off.

Fortunately, the battle for the final Champions League spot, known more dourly as fourth place, looks intriguing as we enter the final 12 games of the season. Seven points separate seven teams, though there’s a few who are unlikely to make it such as Gladbach, Hannover and Schalke.

Borussia Mönchengladbach may have done it last season but Lucien Favre’s team haven’t quite recovered from losing players like Marco Reus and Dante, who have been brilliant since moving on to Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich respectively. Losing to Hamburg this weekend leaves them seven adrift of fourth but playing in the Europa League has been a bit of a hindrance as Hannover can perhaps testify too.

The 96’s main problems though are away from home. Mirko Slomka’s side only won twice on the road last season and whilst they’ve matched the total this time around, Hannover had lost their previous four away games before drawing at lowly Nuremberg. That result may sound encouraging but Slomka saw his team lose the lead twice on Sunday, including a 91st minute equaliser from the home side’s Sebastian Polter. Still, Hannover are 8th meaning they’re above Schalke.

And when it comes to surprises, the Royal Blues’s capitulation ranks alongside the resignation of a certain German holy figure in the last week. Because much like the Pope, thousands gather to watch Schalke each week but in contrast, those decked in blue have been leaving bitterly disappointed. They’ve witnessed just one win in their last 11 games, yet new signing Michel Bastos seems to be on a solo crusade to drag Schalke forward. He scored twice in the weekend’s draw against Mainz, however, after little impact from new coach Jens Keller, fourth place looks very unlikely given their recent form.

Their opponents on Saturday, seventh placed Mainz, aren’t exactly front runners either but they are not a team to be underestimated. In Thomas Tuchel, they have one of the best, if not the best, young coaches in the country. He’s had relative success on a small budget and the fact that they are even close to a Champions League place is testament to Tuchel and Mainz as a club. Even so, the lack of a clinical touch at the weekend, against a weak Schalke side, showed why fourth may be beyond them for now.

For Hamburg, Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt though, the Champions League spot is a realistic possibility – and that’s surprising in each case. Hamburg finished fourth from bottom last season and have recovered from a nightmarish start this time around. Freiburg, like Mainz, are the provincial low budget outsiders who are overachieving spectacularly under Christian Streich. A year ago, they were bottom of the Bundesliga but Streich guided them to safety and even greater heights this season. Meanwhile, the current occupants of fourth place, Eintracht Frankfurt weren’t even in the Bundesliga last season. Since their promotion from the second tier though, they’ve looked very comfortable in the higher echelons of the top flight.

And from an unbiased viewpoint, what’s not to like about seeing three teams who would have been considered unlikely candidates at the start of the season all with genuine chances of reaching at least the qualification stage of the Champions League. Which team that will be is difficult to judge especially due to the lack of consistency each has shown. Still,  it was unsurprising to see Eintracht Frankfurt defeated comprehensively at Borussia Dortmund this weekend (and more specifically, by the magnificent Marco Reus who netted a hat-trick). That allowed Hamburg and Freiburg to close in on the Eagles.

Rafael van der Vaart, a player who has been a significant catalyst in Hamburg’s charge up the table, swerved a spectacular effort into the top corner to defeat Borussia Mönchengladbach in an otherwise dull affair. In contrast, Freiburg won an entertaining five goal thriller away at Werder Bremen in a game characterised by suspect defending. That’s not been typical of Freiburg this season, with only Bayern Munich conceding less goals. However, Streich’s team showed their character, having been pegged back twice after taking the lead, by scoring a third and decisive goal through Mathias Ginter. With Freiburg taking on Eintracht Frankfurt this Friday night, the race for that final Champions League spot could be even tighter come next Saturday.

But who will make it to fourth? Well, where’s the excitement in football when you know what’s going to happen. The fact each team has its flaws is part of what will make the race for fourth the most exciting aspect of the final games of the Bundesliga’s 50th season.

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga:

  • Bayern shaped up for their Champions League trip to London with a win at Wolfsburg on Friday night. The leaders weren’t as free flowing as they have been for most of the season, but the discipline they displayed showed why the Bavarians will be Bundesliga Champions come May. There were flashes of brilliance from Jupp Heynckes’s side too with Mario Mandzukic’s overhead kick the undoubted highlight of his return to former club Wolfsburg.
  • At the bottom of the table, Augsburg suffered their first defeat of 2013 at the BayArena with Bayer Leverkusen inspired by Stefan Kiessling. The joint top-scorer in the division headed in the first before setting up the second. Augsburg scored a late consolation through Sascha Mölders. The result didn’t affect Augsburg’s predicament at the bottom though as the side below them, Greuther Fürth, lost away at Fortuna Düsseldorf and the team above them, Hoffenheim, were beaten at home by Stuttgart.

Matchday 22 Results:

Wolfsburg 0-2 Bayern Munich

Bayer Leverkusen 2-1 Augsburg

Fortuna Düsseldorf 1-0 Fürth

Hamburg 1-0 Gladbach

Mainz 2-2 Schalke

Werder Bremen 2-3 Freiburg

Borussia Dortmund 3-0 Eintracht Frankfurt

Nuremberg 2-2 Hannover

Hoffenheim 0-1 Stuttgart

Table:

Rank Club Matches W* D* L* G* GD* Pts.*
1 FC Bayern Munich 22 18 3 1 57:7 +50 57 CL*
2 Borussia Dortmund 22 12 6 4 50:26 +24 42 CL*
3 Bayer 04 Leverkusen 22 12 5 5 43:30 +13 41 CL*
4 Eintracht Frankfurt 22 11 4 7 38:34 +4 37 CL* Qual.
5 SC Freiburg 22 9 7 6 29:22 +7 34 EL* Qual.
6 Hamburger SV 22 10 4 8 27:27 0 34 EL* Qual.
7 1. FSV Mainz 05 22 9 5 8 30:27 +3 32
8 Hannover 96 22 9 3 10 41:41 0 30
9 FC Schalke 04 22 8 6 8 35:37 -2 30
10 Borussia Mönchengladbach 22 7 9 6 31:33 -2 30
11 SV Werder Bremen 22 8 4 10 38:41 -3 28
12 VfB Stuttgart 22 8 4 10 24:39 -15 28
13 Fortuna Düsseldorf 22 7 6 9 27:29 -2 27
14 1. FC Nuremberg 22 6 8 8 22:29 -7 26
15 VfL Wolfsburg 22 7 5 10 22:32 -10 26
16 1899 Hoffenheim 22 4 4 14 26:46 -20 16 Play-offs
17 FC Augsburg 22 2 9 11 18:35 -17 15 Relegation
18 Greuther Fürth 22 2 6 14 13:36 -23 12 Relegation

Table thanks to official Bundesliga website

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