As you probably know by now, the Bundesliga’s great. In fact, such is the extensive coverage it has recently received, you can probably recite off by heart all of the reasons for it being so. But, from a competitive point of view, the end of this season could be an anti-climax. The title race is over (unless Bayern Munich appoint 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:
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
|1||FC Bayern Munich||22||18||3||1||57:7||+50||57||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|
|9||FC Schalke 04||22||8||6||8||35:37||-2||30|
|11||SV Werder Bremen||22||8||4||10||38:41||-3||28|
|14||1. FC Nuremberg||22||6||8||8||22:29||-7||26|
Table thanks to official Bundesliga website