At the top of the table, FC Bayern's lead looks solid. We can't take anything for granted, but a 9 point lead is pretty safe for a club that has been playing as well as we have. Absent a true slump, the more interesting battles will take place a little lower down the table: fighting for places in the Champions League, the Europa League, and for continued survival in the 1. Bundesliga
BATTLE FOR THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SPOTS
The Bundesliga has 4 Champions League places, with the top 3 finishers going straight to Group Stage play and the 4th place finisher getting thrown into the final playoff stage. This year, the battle for those spots looks pretty damn enticing. Here's how spots 2 through 7 look right now:
In a way, this was the opposite of last season. At this time last year, there was a crazy 4-way race for the Bundesliga title, but none of the clubs below the top 4 were doing anything very interesting. This season, FC Bayern is the clear favorite at the top (though, again, anything could still happen), but there's a very exciting race for those other 3 CL spots. The contenders:
- Bayer Leverkusen: as the only opponent to beat Bayern in league play this season, and with a respectable 36 points after 18 matches, Bayern Levs appear to be in good shape for a CL spot. They had a vital battle with (previously) 3d-place Eintracht Frankfurt this weekend that they won comprehensively. Road form is a concern, with 13 points from 9 away matches and a dead-even GD, but overall these guys have a great chance to get back to the Champions League.
- Borussia Dortmund: last year's champs have been struggling a bit. They've dropped points in half of their 18 matches, and are currently 12 behind us. And with their Champions League obligations this year, their depth will be tested.
Still, it would be a huge shock if BVB failed to finish in one of those CL spots. Their 46 goals scored in league play are second only to Bayern's, and the return of Nuri Sahin gives them a big boost. To judge by their form yesterday, in which they controlled only 42 percent of the ball but created 9 shots on goal and cruised to a 5-0 win, Dortmund will be able to keep themselves in the top 4.
- Eintracht Frankfurt: Die Adler were the story of the early season, as new the promotees won their first 4 and scored multiple goals in their first 6. When they were toppled in early October by BMG, it set off a run where they dropped down the table a bit. But Frankfurt recovered and finished the first half with 2 straight decisive wins.
Can they stay in the top 4 and get a shot at the Champions League? Maybe. Alexander Meier, the lumbering midfielder, has been a revelation, and they pass the ball well. But their defensive record leaves a lot to be desired (30 goals allowed, only 2 clean sheets all season). I'd be inclined to predict that they fall outside of the top 4, except none of the followers are inspiring a lot of confidence.
- Schalke 04: Die Blau und Scheiss have had a tough go of it, especially over the past couple months. Their long winless streak was broken on Friday with a dramatic 5-4 victory over H96. A lot of roster turnover is in store, as Christoph Moritz, Ibie Afellay and KJH were all out of the recent win with injury, but Holtby (soon on his way out) and Draxler looked good. If they can hang in there until the Spring until Afellay returns, and maybe make a move over the next week to add a piece, S04 is still in the discussion for a CL spot.
- SC Freiburg: hanging in there in the battle for a spot, thanks to the league's 2d-best defense (behind only Bayern) and the lack of dynamic strength in the 2 teams right above. Next week's home match vs. Bayer Levs will be a huge test. In the Freis can earn a win here, they could conceivably be in a top 4 spot, and they follow have 3 straight against bottom half teams.
- Mainz: in the race for the Champions League? Believe it or not, I really think they have a shot. For years, Adam Szalai was the talented kid with all the tools who couldn't quite put it together. But he's finally turned the corner and become very, very hard to defend: he's tall and strong, and can fight through markers effectively, but also has a soft and accurate touch on the ball. Behind him, Ivanschitz and Nicolai Müller are both solid middies who can at least control the ball.
Their road form has been woeful, though: Mainz has only 8 points from 9 matches away from the Coface Arena. How's this for a tonic, though: their next 5 road matches are against the 5 bottom teams in the league. If they can get 3 or 4 wins from those 5 and keep their solid home form, Mainz could have a chance at their first Champions League berth ever.
BATTLE FOR THE EUROPA LEAGUE SPOTS
After the top 4, the Bundesliga has 3 Europa League spots: 2 for the teams who finish in 5th and 6th places, plus another for the winner of the Pokal. But, since the Pokal final often features 2 teams who are already qualified for European play, the 7th place team frequently gets to play Europa ball as well. Here's a look at the current 5 through 11 teams:
The top 3, Schalke, Freiburg, and Mainz are described above, and they would all prefer to find a way to snag a Champions League spot. But if they can't get into the top 4, they currently have the inside track on the Europa League spaces. Here's a look at the team's following them:
- Borussia Monchengladbach: the Foals have fallen pretty hard after last year's big season. The losses of several key players proved tough to get over, and opponents have wised up to their counter-punch strategy a bit. Still, I think there's a chance they could be playing European ball next year. 'Gladbach is currently on a 6-game unbeaten streak (although this weekend's scoreless draw vs. lowly Hoffenheim has to go down as a missed chance). Their next 2 are also against eminently beatable opposition: home vs. Fortuna D, then at Nuernberg. If they can get 4 or 6 points from those, their subsequent match vs. Leverkusen would be a chance to get back into the picture.
- Hamburg: the most anonymous team on the list - I can recall seeing these guys play, like, twice over the whole first half. But Rafa van der Vaart finally returned in their recent 1-1 draw with FCN, and if he can stay healthy, they have a shot. 4 of their next 5 are against other teams noted in this article; that means more dangerous opposition, but also a chance to pick up points and inflicting damage on their competition in the same time. Hmmm ...
- VfB Stuttgart: a season of wild swings for VfB. They started off very poorly, then went on a good run to climb the table in November and December. Just when they appeared to be in a position to make a run at the top 7, they turned around and lost 2 straight in ugly fashion. The most recent was this weekend's 2-0 loss to Wolfsburg, as suspended lead scorer Vedad Ibisevic was sorely missed. I have a hunch VfB will have trouble maintaining a threat at even a Europa League spot, but who knows.
- Hannover 96: the Other Reds are a long shot, sitting in 11th place and with several rungs to climb before getting close to a European spot. Nonetheless, I've been talking them up all year, so I won't jump of the bandwagon yet. They have several threatening scorers and win the battle for possession most of the time; defensive problems continue to plague them, though. Their recent 5-4 loss to Schalke, in a thrilling match that swung back and forth, was a perfect example, as they fought back several times, only to have defensive lapses doom them again.
BATTLE FOR 1. BUNDESLIGA SURVIVAL
I was going to do a similar one for the bottom 5 or 6 teams. But, I'll be honest: it's getting late and I have to work tomorrow. Later this week, I promise. Sorry, guys.