It's pretty clear that nobody is going to challenge Bayern for the title this season (with Dortmund's draw, they're 17 points off the pace). But there are very interesting races shaping up elsewhere, as well as some interesting rumors and stories regarding the league. By my calculations, of the 18 spots in the 1. Bundesliga table, there are 5 spots that teams are targeting as the subject of somewhat serious battles. Let me know if you agree/disagree:
Germany has 4 spots the in UEFA Champions League this year, but there's a big difference between the 3d and 4th spot in the table. The 3d-place finisher gets a straight shot into the CL Group stage, while the 4th-place finisher will have to go through the final play-in stage. For some of the teams in contention, that last play-in is no gimme, so 3d-place is a definite big-money shot, while 4th is a question mark.
As of now, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen have those spots in hand - BVB on 43 points, Leverkusen on 42. I was almost ready to declare this race over, with the top 3 spots cemented in place, before today's joint stink-fest between both of these clubs: Leverkusen was held to scoreless draw vs. SpVgg, and Dortmund allowed BMG to come back to draw (and even could have lost, if not for a good play from Weidenfeller late). Even with these results, though, the talent of these sides, combined with the fact that they both have a decent lead over their chasers, leads me to think our 3 German CL-Group-auto-qualifiers are set. Leaving a wild fight for ...
Even bigger drama here: while there may be a big difference between 3 and 4, there's an even bigger gap between 4 and 5. The 5th-place finisher heads off to Thursday ball in the Europa league; for many of the teams in contention, the prestige and money involved from even a shot at CL Group Stage ball could change the course of the club. Here's a look at this portion of the table (starting directly below the two moderately-heavy-hitters mentioned above).
A lot of clubs in the running for a single spot, with the losers consigned to the Europe League (at best). Eintracht currently has the inside track. Deservedly so, after several big wins over the first half of the season ... and yet, I'm not sure they're CL material. Since the January restart, Frankfurt has won only twice out of 6, and they've been held scoreless in 3 straight. Freiburg missed out on a chance to pass them yesterday when the 2 teams fought to a scoreless draw; Hannover 96 (5 points back, but coming off a huge win over HSV yesterday) might be a good bet to pass them.
My earlier pick to make noise in this race, FSV Mainz, played to a draw yesterday despite Wolfsburg playing a man down for much of the match. With Fortnuna D on tap, Mainz really, really needs a win next week to stay in contention.
Depending upon results of the Pokal, the Bundesliga will probably have 3 teams in Europa League play. While nowhere near the prize of the CL, this is still a decent chunk of money and something for some of these teams to get excited about. In fact, some of teams in contention (Eintracht Frankfurt, for instance), the Europa League would have been an amazing achievement at the start of the season.
This race is currently centered around the 3 clubs level on 33 points above (with Hannover currently in that spot thanks to better goal differential). Below them, Monchengladbach (31 points) and VfB Stuttgart (29) are also in the Europa League conversation.
Next week, a few big matches that will have a bearing on all of the above races:
Eintracht vs. Monchengladbach (Friday)
Dortmund vs. Hannover 96 (Saturday early)
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Stuttgart (Saturday late)
Duesseldorf vs. Mainz (Sunday)
The race for 5th through 7th is the most unpredictable off all - anyone from Eintracht (currently on 38 points) down to Stuttgart (currently on 29) could end up in those Europa spots. In fact, even Werder - sitting on 28 - can't be entirely rules out. One more prediction: despite a really poor run, I still think Schalke can make a run at one of the CL spots, if they get some breaks, or certainly find themselves in a Europa place.
More straightforward: the bottom 3 are at risk of relegation, Spot 14 and above are safe. This one is barely still a race; the current bottom 3 need winning streaks to get anywhere near safety. As of now, a trio of clubs are on 27 points, 9 ahead of Augsburg's 18 (with TSG and SpVgg sitting at the very bottom).
I'd be willing to call this race and say the bottom 3 are already set, except 2 of the bottom 3 put in some decent performances this week (more on this below). So where going to give these guys a couple more weeks to make this a race. But without a collapse from one of those low-middle teams or a winning streak from one of these current bums, our bottom 3 are finally set. But, that doesn't mean there's no more drama ...
Because finishing 16th is much, much better than finishing 17th. The 16th-place finisher gets a 2-legged play-off to stay alive, while 17th and 18th go straight down. Exciting, no? Here's a look at the current bottom 3:
|SpVgg Greuther Fuerth||13||-23|
Augsburg's decisive win over TSG yesterday was a huge boost for The Clowns of the League. Augsburg now has a pair of winnable matches coming up, too: at Bremen, home vs. Nuernberg. Hoffenheim has lost 3 straight, and they host FC Bayern this coming week. This looks good for Augsburg's survival, though their performance this year has been weak enough that they should never feel safe.
News and Rumors
So, aside from these races, what else is going on in the league?
- Several sources are reporting that the Özil-to-Bayern plot could be gaining steam. In fact, there may or may not have been contact between the Bayern board and Mesut's agents. I guess it's hypocritical of me to say "we don't want him!" with respect to Lewandowki but to be so excited about the possibility of getting Özil ... so I'll just agree to report the news as it becomes available. Mostly.
- Even the New York Times is starting to take note of the strength of the Bundesliga: they have an article this week about the performance of the 3 German teams remaining in the CL. With draws by Schalke and BVB and a big win from Bayern, things do look good, but anything can change when they restart in early March. Also, Yahoo! EuroSport has a post about the strength of the German game in relation to England.
- For those who had the Gol! TV feed yesterday, the commentator designated Arjen Robben as "The Balding Baller" when he blasted that opening goal from the Lahm cross. That used to be MY nickname on the basketball court, but ... fine. I can share it. Barring any objections, Robben will now be known as The Balding Baller.
Any other stories I'm missing? If you have thoughts on any of the races mentioned above, on Bayern's big win yesterday, or on the upcoming Dortmund match, leave them below. We'll be back by tomorrow night with the preview. Thanks for reading.
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From Anton, in the comment section: Mats Hummels left the Dortmund match early. On Twitter, retweets from Simon Baystead (of Libero Football) and Ryan Schumman (of the amazingly-still-active Hamburg Offside blog) say that it was a bruised thigh, and he will "hopefully" be ready for the midweek Pokal match. But we'll definitely post any info if he's forced to miss practice, etc.
Graham, Kevin - any chance Ryan and the Hamburg guys can get a blog over here?