Oh, relegation battle, how I love thee.
I suppose it’s thrilling in all the wrong ways if your club is actually in the middle of it. For the rest of us, though, it’s as sure a sign of spring as cherry blossoms and tulips and you needing to tend to your garden.
Two of the 18 Bundesliga clubs will be weeded from the top flight by the end of May. A 3rd club will have the chance to defend its standing in the Bundesliga, but will be facing, as is usual in the relegation play-off, a highly motivated side.
With five match days remaining, fifteen points lay available to all clubs to make end-of-season runs. Of course, were the clubs facing the stark reality of taking the plunge capable of stringing together five victories, they likely would have their eyes on a prize larger than “don’t go down!”
But math is math, and with the way things can happen at the end of a Bundesliga season (right, Fortuna Düsseldorf?), few sides will feel entirely comfortable with their lot until they see the final margin above the bottom three secured.
As it stands, everyone not currently sitting in one of the top six spots remains (technically) eligible for the direct relegation. VfB Stuttgart, currently 17th, would have 41 points after a season-ending run of five consecutive three-point days. Werder Bremen, currently 7th with 38 points, would have to play along, of course, dropping all but three points from here on out, while also perhaps allowing Stuttgart to close an eight-point gap in goal differential in case of this most-improbably leveling of points.
But we can also “just say no” to this absurdity and leave it to others to spout the coach-speak about how the goal of class-retention is clinched only once it’s clinched. Let us non-motivator types speak instead of the more-realistic races and ignore the whole “but, mathematically speaking . . .”
The table has three fairly distinct territories right now. First, the clubs currently in the European spots have been the same since the end of match day 13. The points between sixth and seventh has fluctuated over time, as has the identity of the club appearing to be preparing a bid to overcome it, but even with Augsburg and Schalke flailing for much of 2015, none have managed to fully take advantage.
When Schalke ascended into the top six back in November, the club they displaced was Hannover 96, which has since gone from European hopeful to a plump target for those in the bottom three.
The five points Hannover has mustered in 2015 have come through five draws. While every other club has won at least twice in the Rückrunde, Hannover continues to sport a goose egg in the second-half table’s “wins” column.
Last weekend’s 4:0 loss in Leverkusen became the last match of Tayfun Korkut’s run as head coach, and now Michael Frontzeck is tasked with getting enough from the remaining five matches to drop no further down the table than their current placement at 15th.
Hannover has trips to Wolfsburg and Augsburg remaining on their schedule. Their next two home matches are against Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen, two clubs retaining a realistic chance of making a run into Europe. The season finale brings a visit from current fellow competitor against relegation, SC Freiburg.
Christian Streich’s club has a recent reputation for being fairly stubborn in the face of a relegation threat. Sitting 15th a year ago at this point in the season, Freiburg used a pair of back-to-back victories over Eintracht Braunschweig and Borussia Mönchengladbach and a draw at VfL Wolfsburg to assure their season-ending pair of losses would not threaten their Bundesliga placement.
Instead of one club already on their way down and a pair on their way to Europa League, this year Freiburg counts among their final five opponents the table’s current bottom four and a Bayern München club likely to have already clinched a the league title.
SCF easily has the most-enviable remaining schedule of any club in the league. Despite the look of a soft finish, Freiburg took just three points from those five opponents at the end of the Hinrunde. Currently sitting on 29 points, another three would give them the same 32 that spared VfB Stuttgart last season and appears as if it might be enough again this season to avoid a bottom-three finish, but expect Freiburg to seek better from their quartet of six-point matches.
If Freiburg was blessed with their schedule finish, VfB Stuttgart was lite-blessed. If the Swabians can simply duplicate their first-leg result against Freiburg this weekend, they’d enjoy a 4:1 victory that would lift them out of a direct-relegation spot for the first time in months.
That match, however, was the first for Huub Stevens after the departure of Armin Veh. At a minimum, Stuttgart will be absent that added bounce a team tends to experience upon a coaching change.
After hosting Freiburg, Stuttgart has an away match at Schalke and a home match against Mainz before finishing with two more relegation competitors, at home to Hamburg and a season-ending match at Paderborn that could be a do-or-drop battle for both clubs.
Hamburg and Paderborn have much in common at this point in the season. In addition to aforementioned battles with both Freiburg and Stuttgart on the horizon, they each must also yet face Schalke.
Though, the real problem for either club has as much to do with an inability to score as it does with their opposition. The duo have paired for just eleven goals total in the Rückrunde, while compiling an aggregated goal differential of minus-44!
The HSV’s scoring woes are well-worn territory by now. The Bundesliga dinosaurs posted just nine goals in the Hinrunde. After scoring five times in their first three matches of the Rückrunde, it seemed as if Hamburg would at least easily eclipse that mark, but in the nine matches since, there have been only two goals to be had, earning the club two points over that stretch which has landed them in last place.
Before they can get to their head-to-head battles with Freiburg and Stuttgart, the HSV must deal with an Augsburg side looking for some points to keep them top six and a Mainz side who’ve lost just one of their last six in separating themselves from the relegation fight.
Of course, if they can’t find a source of goals, the opposition will hardly make a difference.
As poor as Hamburg has been, Paderborn has easily been worse.
After match day four, the SCP were the darlings of the league, having risen to the top of the table through scrappy performances the likes of which were quite refreshing coming from a promoted side.
Unfortunately, match day five was English week and send the league leaders to Bayern, so Paderborn were able to celebrate their Spitzenreiter status until Mario Götze got a goal in the eighth minute of a Tuesday night match, which started Paderborn’s slow but steady descent back toward the second division.
Since the new year, Paderborn have managed eight points despite scoring just four goals in 2015. Wins over both Hannover and Augsburg have come with a 2:1 margin, but Paderborn has been otherwise held scoreless in their ten other matches of the Rückrunde. Paired with a league-worst second-round goal differential of minus-30, and you have the recipe for relegation.
But the genius of the relegation race is that it is always so fragile. Any single match featuring any of the contestants threatens to grossly upset its tenuous balance at any given moment. A Saturday evening result might put added pressure on a Saturday afternoon contestant. Even an in-stadium goal announcement might cause players to briefly cringe.
Or, conversely, those same circumstances might tell a club they have a huge opportunity to be the winners of the match day.
The league title and vice-champion could be clinched as early as Sunday. The race for third looks as if it might go down to the wire. The Europa spots have potential to do the same.
But, reliably as ever, the relegation race remains the most-compelling story of the late season, and if history is a teacher, you won’t want to stop watching it until the final whistle.
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