A 2. Bundesliga Game of Thrones

Match day 27 has started with a narrow 1-0 win for TSV 1860 Munich over relegation strugglers Aue and a hard fought 1-1 draw between Energie Cottbus and VfR Aalen.

The unstated goal of 18 teams would be to seize all 24 points available from those remaining matches, even knowing it’s not an entirely reasonable thing to even hope.

Much like the young King Joffrey in HBO’s juggernaut program that also returns to life this weekend, FC Kaiserslautern has been the target for several factions, each of whom hope to replace them, earning a chance to play for promotion to the Königsklasse of German football in the coming season.

Every team in the second league still owns mathematical claim to the throne, if not completely realistic.

Well, that’s true for everyone except poor SSV Jahn Regensburg. Their 18 points from 26 matches has assured them they will not only not gain promotion in consecutive seasons, but, in all likelihood, are not going to be able to maintain the class.

The issue for all challengers to the throne is not so much the team they pursue, rather all their fellow contenders looking to also chase that spot, or even just to maintain the class. It is essentially crunch time for everyone in the league, with managers and players all intending to look good going into the off-season.  So while it is actually possible for SV Sandhausen and Dynamo Dresden to fight their way into third place, the help they would need from the teams in front of them make it about as likely as either of them purchasing Leonel Messi this summer, or, keeping with the theme, Ned Stark rising from the dead to become King of Winterfell.

In case you happen to live under a rock, that is simply never…going…to happen.

With Hertha BSC and Eintracht Branschweig seemingly too far ahead of the pack for even Kaiserslautern (11 points behind 2nd place) or FC Köln (12 points behind 2nd place) to truly hope for the automatic promotion that would come with finishing in the top two, the relegation playoff spot that is the third rung on the 2 Bundesliga ladder remains the last hope for teams targeting a 2013-14 place in the top flight of Bundesliga football.

And now, let’s take a look at the teams battling for third:

1. FC Kaiserslautern

The team currently holding third place has been among the top four in the league since September 16.

Such consistency would normally be a strong indicator that the red devils are the favorite for the relegation playoff spot, needing only to continue their long-established trend of being there.

The strong start, along with inconsistent results by nearly every team pursuing them, helped mask a bit of a slide in form that started with a three-match losing streak to finish the Hinrunde and, has since continued somewhat in the new year.

Just before the March international break, Kaiserslautern needed a decisive home victory over FC Ingolstadt to avoid falling out of their relegation-playoff slot after having dropped 9 of the available 12 points in the previous four match days.

Kaiserslautern were also perhaps the loudest team in the winter transfer window, adding six new players, including the highly touted Mitchell Weiser on a loan from FC Bayern München. It would be hard to argue that Kaiserslautern did not expand their talent base and depth in the face of what appeared to be setting up as a second-half cruise defending their spot, but the on-field results have been unexpectedly troubling.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlUSBQK52hU&w=560&h=315]

Now, with their lead over the team on the fourth rung down to a mere point, Kaiserslautern will hope to return to form thanks to a favorable schedule. The four remaining road matches for the Red Devils will be against teams currently residing in the bottom five spots of the table, including Sandhausen and Regensburg, who occupy both direct-relegation spots.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the return of Kaiserslautern to the top league comes in the form of…

1. FC Köln

With 19 points from their 9 matches of the Rückrunde, the Effzeh has been the top performer of 2013 to date.

Köln rode a 14-match unbeaten streak into the international break, giving them plenty of reason for confidence on the approach to the match day 28 showdown at Kaiserslautern, which could ultimately serve as the turning point in the battle for the relegation-playoff spot.

Köln’s remaining schedule lays out a lot less favorably than does that of Kaiserslautern. The battle in Kaiserslautern being sandwiched between home-turf matches with table-bottom Regensburg and Aalen, who have the second-fewest points in the Rückrunde.

After that, however, the Effzeh will travel to Duisburg and Bochum, both of whom have shown better form in 2013 than they had in the Hinrunde. They will also host 1860 München, who could still be lingering in the mix for a third-place finish, as well as Hertha BSC, who could be battling for the league championship when they visit.

While extending the unbeaten streak through the end of the season should be enough for Köln to earn third place, achieving that is going to be quite a chore.

No doubt he is tall, but will he give Cologne the lift they need to pass Kaiserslautern?

The addition of the famously tall Stefan Maierhofer is not as important for his talent as it is as a signal that manager Holger Stanislawski is ready to put a second striker on the field after sticking with Anthony Ujah as the lone man going forward. The payoff has been eight goals in the last four matches and a rosier overall outlook for a squad that lingered in the relegation zone for most of the early part of the season, while the team struggled to put the ball in the net.

1. FC Union Berlin

Much like FC Köln, Union Berlin have recovered from a disastrously slow start to climb back into contention for promotion. Union lost four consecutive matches after an opening weekend draw with Kaiserslautern. Since then, the ‘Iron Ones’ have steadily climbed up the 2. Bundesliga table to their current seat on the fifth rung.

Union certainly have the firepower to blast their way into the Bundesliga. Their 44 goals on the year is second only to their fellow Berliners at BSC. Defending, however, is another matter, with their 37 goals conceded making their defense, by far, the least stout among contending teams. In all likelihood, Union will need a sincere re-devotion to defending before achieving their first ascension into the top league.

Will the top-notch atmosphere propel Union Berlin into the top league?

Roster-wise, nothing was really done to address the issue during the winter break. In fact, one of the team’s more-promising defensive midfielders, Markus Karl, was sold to Kaiserslautern. By way of replacement, Union signed Baris Özbek on a free transfer, after he played his way onto the bench at Trabzonspor. The gamble has seemed to pay off a bit, at least on the offensive side, as Özbek scored in his debut with Union and has also provided a pair of assists in six appearances. The continued surrender of goals at a fairly quick pace, however, leaves the question as to whether the move was a net gain unanswered.

TSV 1860 München

Die Löwen have been consistent presence in the upper-third of the table, which puts them necessarily in the conversation at this point. Needing to make up a six-point deficit in the remaining eight match days, however, means the Bavarians will need a good deal of help to reach promotion.

After taking just four points in six games, Alexander Schmidt took over as manager from Reiner Maurer in mid-November. Since the leadership change, the Lions have lost only two matches, but have otherwise seen fairly pedestrian results, keeping them within sight of third place, but far from threatening it.

Largely at issue has been goal scoring. Only two teams in 2. Bundesliga have found the back of the net fewer times than München’s 25. To address the lack of offensive punch, the Lions added a pair of strikers in the winter break, rescuing Canadian Rob Friend off Eintracht Frankfurt’s bench and talented young Norwegian Ola Kamara from Stromsgodset. The pair connected for the first goal in Cottbus’ upset victory over Braunschweig, but with just the one score between them in their first seven matches with their new club, it would be a stretch to say they’ve provided the added firepower required to make a late surge. However, Friend might be able to change that in the not distant future, his goal against Aue tonight was certainly a good start to do just that.

Can these two help München make a final push into third?

FC Energie Cottbus

Because Cottbus are even on points with TSV München and Union Berlin, it seems prudent to include them here.

Because the squad has been so woefully inconsistent as of late, it would have been very easy to leave them outside the discussion of true threats to make the move to third.

For much of the first half of the season, the east German squad appeared poised to contend. Cottbus sat no lower than fourth for match days 2 through 19. This was despite losing three of their last four matches in that run among the top four.

Over the winter break, Cottbus added defender Michael Schulze from Wolfsburg and midfielder Andre Fomitschow from Düsseldorf, both of whom have become immediate regulars for manager Rudi Bommer. Another newcomer, former Union Berlin forward John Jairo Mosquero, has returned to Germany from a short stint in China to become a regular offensive option off the bench. Whether there is enough time remaining for these squad alterations to create the right chemistry for a late-season charge remains to be seen.

Does Energie manager Rudi Bommer have a few tricks remaining for the home stretch?

At issue the last eight weeks of the season will be the difference in form between home and road matches. Cottbus has taken all three points only once in their last ten ventures to other stadiums. With road trips to München, Braunschweig, and Hertha remaining, not to mention to Dresden to face a team fighting to stay out of the relegation zone, a return to the Bundesliga in 2013 seems a bit out of their reach.

Ultimately, the race for the seemingly last remaining shot at promotion currently appears to be a two-team race. Yet, as fans of the sport know, it takes only a team to catch fire for a few weeks to re-insert themselves into the equation. However things play out from here, it will be worth the effort of Bundesliga followers to keep an eye on the zweite Liga the next few months.

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Randall Hauk is a freelance writer living in the United States while covering German football. He is currently the publisher of Planet Effzeh, an English-language site covering 1. FC Köln. He wrote about the German national team for the Telegraph as part of their World Cup Nation coverage.

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