With match day 21 on the horizon,the second half of the season is well underway, as is the fascinating scramble for 3rd and 4th places and the possibility of Champions League football.
The past few seasons have seen four or five of Deutschland’s finest become custodians of the coveted top four positions in the Bundesliga, similar to the Premier League. This season however, the Champions League door is ajar for some new potential suitors.
Dortmund’s absence from the top half of the Bundesliga has allowed the race for Champions League positions to become a lot more open. Schalke and/or Leverkusen may also be dethroned, as one of this season’s new occupants, Wolfsburg, will be playing Champions League football with Bayern next season, barring a sensational dip in form. Two other serious contenders are; once giant, Borussia Mönchengladbach and this season’s surprise package, Bavarian side, FC Augsburg. Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen, both eight points behind Augsburg in 4th will claim they are also in with a chance, albeit a very small one.
Despite both failing to register a win on the second match day after Winterpause, Augsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach are looking to continue their impressive campaigns and their fight for Champions League places.
Gladbach’s defeat to fellow challengers Schalke on match day 20 may fill Die Fohlen with an all too familiar dread after last season’s frustrating Ruckrunde, where they were unable to hold on to the top four spot they held going into the 2013/14 Winterpause. Borussia are no strangers to heartbreak in their European conquests. The Champions League or its equivalent has been elusive since their glory days in the 80’s. Losing a qualifying round to Dynamo Kiev in 2012 is the closest the club has come to reaching the group stages of the competition they were once finalists in.
Unlike Gladbach, the top four is unchartered territory for Augsburg, who are looking for their highest ever Bundesliga finish. Even considering last season’s very respectable top half finish, the usual relegation candidates are performing miracles by even being in contention for Europe, much to the credit of their adored boss, Markus Weinzierl.
Both sides have relied on outstanding team displays, neither possessing a massively prolific goalscorer, Augsburg’s Raul Bobadila and Gladbach’s Max Kruse both have seven goals each. Respectable totals, but the goals in both sides have been pretty shared out.
Augsburg’s 20 year old left back; Rahman Baba has been one of the many in sensational form this season, attracting the attention of Real Madrid, Chelsea and the likes, if you are to believe recent reports. Champions League football may be key to keeping hold of the Ghanaian and give them the financial clout to add the high-profile star quality that the squad lacks, though one could argue that perhaps the key to FCA’s success has been their lack of “star” players that engenders a real team sense of purpose.
The current 4th place occupants have been dealt a hammer blow with the injury of their captain and second leading goalscorer, Paul Verhaegh, who is set to miss several weeks after the defender sustained an injury in the disappointing 2-2 draw with Frankfurt on match day 20. Verhaegh’s leadership qualities will be missed, but with team packed with experience. They may well be able to pull youngsters like Domink Kohr and Rahman Baba, who returns from the AFCON championship finals, through the crunch.
Gladbach have also relied heavily on their defenders, but have a far better defensive record, boasting the second stingiest in the league (behind Bayern). This has been no small part due to the centre half pairing of Álvaro Domínguez and Tony Jantscke, who have helped their side keep eight clean sheets in the league this season. World Cup winner, Chrisoph Kramer has been instrumental in the Gladbach midfield. Lucien Favre will want to make full use of him in the remaining months of his two-year loan from Leverkusen.
So can they do it? Gladbach seemed to regain some form going into the winter-break after three straight defeats in November which seemed to somewhat derail their challenge. Their defensive steel means they have conceded just seventeen goals, giving them the foundation to grind out results. Favre’s men have certainly demonstrated character so far this season, but for their sake they cannot afford another slip in the second half of the season to further delay their climb back up the footballing ladder.
Whatever happens to FC Augsburg in Ruckrunde, Weinzierl deserves all the credit coming his way. After taking them from relegation dogfighters to 4th in the Bundesliga in two years, the workmen-like yet highly-effective endeavour of his ageing team has won him and Augsburg many admirers across German football. Match day 19’s saw Augsburg snatch an impressive victory at Dortmund, but their success in the Rhineland triggered headlines across Europe of; ‘disaster for Dortmund’ (which it was) rather than ‘adulation for Augsburg’. On a negative note, their lack of goals away from home is a concern and one gets the sense that it may bite them as their rivals start to put form together. You can smell a dip in form around the corner, especially after surrendering a two goal lead against Frankfurt last weekend, but the Bavarians are used to defying the odds.
The climax of the 2014/15 season is sure to be as thrilling as what has preceded it. The final matchday sees Gladbach and Augsburg face off at Borussia Park. What an end to the race that could be.
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