Race for fourth Heats Up for the Rückrunde

At the very end of the Hinrunde, little smooth sailing was found for the league’s powerhouse clubs with the exception of Bayern Munich. Bayer Leverkusen, following an overwhelming win at Dortmund and their passage to the knockout stages of the Champions League, ended the first half of the season with back-to-back lacklustre defeats against relegation-threatened sides Eintracht Frankfurt and Werder Bremen. Their closest rivals for the second spot, Borussia Dortmund, had to deal with a miserable run of form in front of their otherwise graceful Signal Iduna Park, as they have now lost the last three league outings at home after a defeat against Hertha Berlin in the final match of the previous calendar year. These casual slips from the Champions League participants leaves plenty of rooms for a consistent Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfL Wolfsburg to close the gap on Leverkusen and Dortmund. Gladbach has been especially been successful by leapfrogging Borussia Dortmund and seizing third place just before the winter break.

Although Gladbach’s tremendous home form and the Bundesliga’s usual unpredictability might suggest there’s a good chance Gladbach can remain in the top three at the end of the season, Borussia Dortmund are expected to return to the summit after sorting out their shortcomings in the winter break and finish the season in one of the automatic qualification spots for next season’s Champions League. Still, there will be one more spot left for the ticket to European elite tournament participation, via a preliminary round, which clubs like Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg and Schalke have their sights set on.

Borussia Mönchengladbach

Why they’ll make it: if it wasn’t for Bas Dost’s equalizer for VfL with five minutes left on the very last matchday of the Hinrunde, Mönchengladbach’s hundred percent home record would have lasted for the entire first half of the season. Nevertheless, they scored a league best 25 goals in just nine home matches, with fellow Champions League berth-seekers, as both Dortmund and Schalke returned home empty-handed after visiting Borussia-Park. Overall, the Foals are unbeaten in eight consecutive league matches going into Friday’s much-anticipated home clash against Bayern. Lucien Favre is familiar with leading Die Fohlen to fourth-placed finishes, as he raised many eyebrows back in May 2012 after his first full season with the club.

Why they won’t make it: even though Favre’s insistence on fielding the same lineup every week might appear to be a key contributor for the team’s successful consistency, this same strategy might result in the team being too direct and predictable. Players like Havard Nordtveit and record signing Luuk de Jong, with only one starting nod between them this season, are forced to be content with cameo appearances coming off the bench, even though they were regular fixtures last season. Additionally, the last two away fixtures of the season will see Gladbach travel to Schalke and Wolfsburg, which might favor their rivals if a fight for the Champions League slots flares up in the last stage of the season.

VfL Wolfsburg

Why they’ll make it: Dieter Hecking and Klaus Allofs have finally built a formidable team at Wolfsburg, following the side’s below-par performances in recent years after VFL lifted the salad bowl as champs in 2009. With the acquisition of Kevin de Bruyne, Wolfsburg have further strengthened an already star-studded side with another marquee signing. Besides, the Wolves start the Rückrunde with an impressive nine-match unbeaten streak.

Why they won’t make it: it’s been a long time since Wolfsburg performed at the top level, contrasted with rivals – like Gladbach, Leverkusen, Schalke, or even Dortmund – for that coveted fourth place. Even though they got the best out of Diego during the last stage of the Hinrunde, they should resolve the Brazilian’s contracts issues in order to let the former Werder Bremen maestro focus solely on his football. Additionally, VfL failed to win both Hinrunde matches against teams in the automatic relegation places, which raises concerns over Wolfsburg’s lack of weekly consistency and triggers fears about them falling short of expectations once again.    

FC Schalke 04

Why they’ll make it: without doubt, Schalke exceed the other clubs on this of European hopefuls in terms of squad depth and quality, thanks to star players like Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfán and Kevin-Prince Boateng. On top of these three, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar returns from injury, which has sidelined him since Matchday 2. Certainly, Huntelaar adds more world-class to the squad with his scoring abilities, which should boost Schalke’s below-average shooting and goal production. Finally, don’t forget last season: at the Hinrunde’s conclusion, the Royal Blues were also seventh in the standings, only to punch their ticket to Champions League qualification on the season’s last matchday.

Why they won’t make it: it’s hard to identify Schalke’s best performance in the league this season, as they even failed to to truly dominate any single match from start to finish. For example, the sluggish draw at Nürnberg on the Hinrunde’s final match perfectly illustrates their current tepid form. Moreoever, Schalke’s back line has been one of the most porous units in the Bundesliga so far, as they recorded chaotic 3-3 draws on three occasions in just one half of the season. Finally, Jens Keller is under a lot of pressure and will see his role at the club diminished at the end of the season, even if Schalke finish in top four for the third season running.

The Rest

Hertha Berlin currently sits at sixth place, with an inferior goal difference than that of Schalke, but Jos Luhukay’s side set their expectations to a minimum in their first season of top flight football since the relegation . The capital side ended the first half of the season on a high following three wins in a row, including a stunning victory in Dortmund. Mainz 05 and FC Augsburg are enjoying a remarkable season so far, but making the Europa League berths would be a big enough surprise for either of them, never mind the fourth UCL spot. Finally, VfB Stuttgart, having spent a refreshing winter break in South Africa as the Bundesliga’s representative on the continent, have a lot of ground to cover in order to make up for lost points to even dream of another Europa League participation.

All in all, it’s highly likely to see the current consistent teams that are Borussia Monchengladbach and VfL Wolfsburg alongside Schalke fighting to finish fourth until the very last kick of the season to cement their place in next season’s Champions League. At least the fans who don’t have a title race to look forward to for another season can enjoy the treat of a three-way clash for fourth place in the Rückrunde.

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Eskender born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Despite the geographical differences, he's interested in every detail of German football, if not any kind of football. Wolfsburg's industrious away win at Hamburg started his Bundesliga obsession back in 2005. You can also follow him on Twitter @eskeBMG

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