In recent weeks, a whole host of teams have been doing their utmost to avoid making fourth spot in the Bundesliga, and the accompanying place in the Champions League qualifying round, their own. Here’s a look at each of the main contenders.
It says it all about the indifferent form of the challengers that, despite not winning any of their last six matches, Eintracht are still leading the chase for fourth spot.
Having only just returned to the top level, Armin Veh’s side were the surprise package of the Hinrunde. Sebastian Rode and Pirmin Schwegler repeatedly outperformed bigger-name opposite numbers in the early fixtures and the Eagles went into October unbeaten and in second place. Just as crucial as that midfield spine were the exciting Takashi Inui, the free-scoring Alex Meier, and the eye-catching performances of the team’s two gallivanting full backs, Sebastian Jung and Bastian Oczipka, with the latter providing seven assists in the first half of the season.
There was no shame in defeat to high-flying Leverkusen after the winter break, and wins against Hoffenheim and HSV suggested Frankfurt’s good form would continue, but a run of six games without a win, in five of which they didn’t even score, have jeopardised hopes of a first season in the Champions League. When Stefan Aigner finally did hit the net against Stuttgart to cap off a lovely move, Eintracht managed to throw away the points with an uncharacteristically rash challenge from their captain, Schwegler, and equally unusual sloppy marking from a set piece. Overall, however, there seems not too much to worry about at the back.
Or that was at least the case until goalkeeper Kevin Trapp recently broke his hand in a bizarre accident while filming an advert. Trapp had saved more clear goalscoring chances than any other Bundesliga goalkeeper this season (18), and only 20-year-old Aykut Özer or 38-year-old Oka Nikolov are in the squad to replace the former under-21 international. Peruvian defender Carlos Zambrano has now also picked up a knock, further weakening the back line, but if they are to stay in the European driving seat, Frankfurt must first and foremost build on Aigner’s goal and win their next match, away to bottom side Greuther Fürth. It seems possible that the uncertainty surrounding Veh’s future at the club may have affected concentration and morale, so the club will hope that the manager’s decision to extend his contract, announced during the international break, will calm the waters.
Alexander Meier (or anyone who can hit the net): Compiling the stats from those five goalless games, Frankfurt put in an incredible 78 crosses (their opponents managed 42), had only two shots fewer than the opposition and controlled 56% of possession, but without an end product, their work literally came to nil. Die Adler badly need Meier to start adding to his 12 goals for the season again, 11 of which came in the Hinrunde.
Schalke have squeezed about three seasons’ worth of peaks and troughs into this campaign already, which doesn’t make their form for the remainder any easier to predict. In the opening match days, Huub Stevens seemed to have successfully combined the defensive stability he hardwires into all his teams with the exciting creative outlets of Lewis Holtby and two out of Julian Draxler, Jefferson Farfan and Ibrahim Afellay, and even without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar firing on all cylinders, the Königsblauen looked potentially the likeliest to push Bayern for the title. But somewhere along the line things went wrong, and after Stevens was unceremoniously removed, Schalke initially looked set for a Europa League place at best under Jens Keller. However, a confidence-boosting 1-1 Champions League draw in Turkey sparked a mini revival, culminating in a second Revierderby win of the season against Dortmund. That joy was quickly tempered by defeat in the return leg against Galatasaray and a hugely disappointing loss against Nürnberg, however, leaving everything open for the remainder of the campaign.
Without doubt Schalke have the most-talented playing personnel of any of the contenders for fourth spot, so the task now is to prove Nürnberg was only a blip, regain momentum and avoid another collapse between now and the end of the season. Many claimed the upturn in recent weeks came about despite, rather than because of, Jens Keller’s presence in the dugout, and it still seems almost certain he’ll be replaced in summer whatever happens. But if he can guide a team that were seventh and in a downward spiral when he took over to another year among Europe’s big boys, he’ll have at least earned some credit and an opportunity elsewhere. Like Frankfurt, Schalke’s first game after the international break (at home vs Hoffenheim) looks eminently winnable, and that’s something they’ll surely have to achieve if they are to keep pace with their rivals.
Julian Draxler: Rafael seemed a second-rate replacement when Tottenham took up their option to sign Lewis Holtby in January. In fact, he’s been unnecessary, as, despite being a very different player to the previous incumbent, Draxler has made the number-ten spot his own. With Klaas-Jan Huntelaar out for several weeks, the 19-year-old will have to recover quickly from the minor injury he picked up with Germany, keep up his club form and chip in with a few more goals to keep Schalke on track.
Given that Mainz’s wage bill is equal to that of FC Augsburg and around half that of TSG Hoffenheim, Thomas Tuchel has done an incredible job building on the foundations left by Jürgen Klopp (and, less significantly, Jørn Andersen). Realistically, any European action would be a triumph. Nevertheless, a first-ever shot at the Champions League is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Tuchel has switched between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-1-2 systems, but his team never fails to show tight organisation, an ability to defend as a unit – the simultaneous migration of the defence and midfield to close down spaces when the opposition shift play is a sight to behold – and attacking guile. This can make it hard to pick out individual stars, but sometimes also leads to top performers not getting the credit they deserve: Andreas Ivanschitz’s creative contributions, whether in his preferred number-ten position or pushed out to the left, often go almost unnoticed in the media, and Nicolai Müller has been even more impressive alongside him, but has received little praise. Of course, the manager will be happy to keep things that way – like any club of their stature, the Coface Arena side face a constant battle to hang on to their better players, with Jan Kirchhoff already having been snapped up for next season by Bayern Munich.
However, the emergence of youth product Shawn Parker (whose brother Devante, a Germany under-17 international, is also at Mainz) and the arrival of the impressive Niki Zimling from Club Brugge, are evidence that the Palatinate side still have a knack for replacing those who move on to bigger and better things, as they did with the likes of Lewis Holtby and Andre Schürrle in the past. And there would be no better way to convince the last remaining Bruchweg Boy, Adam Szalai, to stick with the club than to offer him Champions League football. With home matches against Werder and three of their direct rivals in HSV, Frankfurt and Mönchengladbach remaining, their fate is in their own hands.
Adam Szalai: The 25-year-old Hungarian striker was on top form in the Hinrunde, but hasn’t scored in his last five appearances, and although Mainz are unbeaten in that run, four of the games ended in draws. They will need Szalai to start converting those single points into wins again if they are to end the campaign in what would be a season-high fourth place.
The jelly of the Bundesliga: very enjoyable at their most solid, but always liable to wobble and when the heat is on they tend to fall apart completely. Inconsistency has been the downfall of the Rothosen, with no more than two consecutive matches won all season. However, Thorsten Fink and Frank Arnesen would have been delighted with a Europa League spot at the start of the season, and both will deserve great credit if they do achieve even more. But with five of the teams in the top half of the table still to play, it will be no easy task.
Milan Badelj: While most of the headlines have gone to Rafael van der Vaart, Heung-min Son or, more recently, Artjoms Rudnevs, the Croatian international has quietly kept HSV ticking over all season. His ability to simultaneously protect the back four, open up space for the more advanced van der Vaart and play a killer pass himself will be what make the difference if the Bundesliga Dino do grab fourth spot.
Christian Streich has achieved remarkable things in his 15 months at the helm in Freiburg, but with a high-tempo style and a small squad, cracks have started to show in recent weeks. Streich has also expressed his disgust at the question marks hanging over the heads of many players’ futures, and with Jan Rosenthal’s departure to Frankfurt confirmed and potentially more to follow, any Champions League campaign that did materialise might be destined to end in tears.
Jonathan Schmid: Freiburg base their play on the power of the collective probably more than any other side in the Bundesliga, so, in a similar vein to Mainz, picking out any individual is slightly redundant. But Schmid has surprised many with his consistent displays in midfield, and the way his introduction changed Freiburg’s DFB Pokal quarter-final tie (against Mainz, interestingly enough), reiterated how important he is to Streich’s Freiburg, making him a worthy selection.
If form turns out to be the decisive factor in the battle for fourth spot, it may well be won again by last year’s victors. That would be an even more amazing achievement for Lucien Favre than last time around, having lost the Bundesliga’s player of the year for 2011/12, Marco Reus, and one of the absolute favourites for this year’s crown, Dante, last summer. It’s been an up-and-down campaign for die Fohlen, but they are unbeaten in four matches since exiting the Europa League and are a decent outside bet to make at least the Champions League qualifying round for the second year in a row. Their next match, in Freiburg, will be crucial.
Patrick Herrmann: The incredible exploits of Juan Arango have carried Gladbach for much of the campaign, but it’s been a long season for the 32-year-old, and his far-younger fellow midfielder has come into form at just the right time to potentially drag Borussia over the line, especially with Luuk de Jong finally having found his scoring boots in front of the creative duo.
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