Eight teams, four places

by Pete Sharland

Alexander Meier FrankfurtWith twenty points separating Bayern Munich and their nearest rivals, Borussia Dortmund it is safe to assume that the title is heading back to Bavaria this summer. Dortmund and third placed Bayer Leverkusen are now starting to move away from the chasing pack with a six point gap opened up between Leverkusen and 4th placed Frankfurt.

With the top three positions seemingly sown up, and with them the guaranteed Champions League spots for next season it is left to the remaining teams to battle it out for the Champions League play-off place and the Europa League spots. Incredibly with just eight games to go there are still eight teams who could realistically think about qualifying for Europe next season with just five points separating Frankfurt and 11th placed Nuremburg.

In their first full season back in the Bundesliga following relegation Eintracht Frankfurt have certainly been one of the surprise packages this year and currently sit in 4th place in the table. They opened their campaign with four straight victories, including a very impressive 2-1 home triumph over Leverkusen. Leading their charge is the 30 year old Alexander Meier who has been with the club since 2004. The big target man was the top scorer in last season’s promotion campaign for Frankfurt and he has aided his side’s cause this season with 12 goals. He has been ably supported by new arrival Bastian Oczipka. The left back, who was signed from Leverkusen has weighed in with seven assists this season. Frankfurt however haven’t won in six matches following Sunday’s shock 2-1 home loss to Stuttgart and with Bayern Munich and Schalke still to visit the Commerzbank-Arena they need to turn around their fortunes soon if they are to qualify for Europe.

Schalke’s run of three straight victories was brought to a crushing halt as they lost 3-0 away to Nuremburg and failed to move above rivals Frankfurt. When Dortmund left the Veltins-Arena with nothing a couple of weeks ago those around the club started to sense that they were in with a chance of claiming a place in next season’s Champions League, which could be key to keeping some of their stars. With Lewis Holtby already gone to join Tottenham Schalke have to be careful that talented young players like Julian Draxler stay with the club as long as possible. Those around Schalke and across Germany are extremely excited about 17 year old Max Meyer who made his club debut earlier this season and whilst it may be while before he makes his stamp on the first team there can be no doubting the future is bright for Schalke as long as they keep producing talents like him. A knee injury has ruled out main striker Klass Jan-Huntelaar but with a number of key matches coming up against clubs around them it is vital that the Dutchman returns as soon as possible.

Promoted to the top division in 2009 Mainz are one of three clubs sitting just one point behind Schalke and Frankfurt. Since their promotion Mainz have finished 9th and 5th and then a blip in 13th last season but it isn’t too surprising to see them hovering around the European places this season. This is in no small part thanks to the performances of Adam Szalai. The 6 ft 4 forward tops his club’s scoring and assists chart this season with 12 and 6 respectively. The main downside for Mainz this season is that the inspirational Jan Kirchhoff has agreed to join league leaders Bayern Munich on a free transfer this summer. The centre back has been superb this season and to lose him for nothing will irk but it is up to Mainz to prepare for his departure and make sure they come back strong next season. After their 1-0 victory over Hannover on the weekend Borussia Monchengladbach have moved up to 7th in the table and extend their unbeaten run to four matches. Losing star player Marco Reus was always going to affect last season’s surprise 4th placed finishers but this season Patrick Hermann really has come into his own and the winger has benefited from being given more of a free role.

At opposite ends of the age spectrum it’s been another good season for Venezuelan playmaker Juan Arango whilst Lucien Favre must be delighted with the recent progress of 19 year old Amin Younes. Gladbach host Bayern Munich on the final day of the season so they will hope to not need to rely on a result in a match against the champions. For Hamburg right now the real problem is consistency. A sensational 5-1 victory away at Borussia Dortmund was followed by a 1-0 victory over Gladbach before a 5-1 reverse away at Hannover. Last weekend they crashed to a disappointing 1-0 home defeat to Augsburg but the week before beat Stuttgart away by the same score. Next up they travel to Bayern Munich and at the rate they’re going it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them go there and get something. Of course if this is to happen I would fully expect them to capitulate the following week at home to Freiburg. At times this season HSV have been brilliant to watch and at others absolutely appalling, the key for Thorsten Fink if he is to secure European football is to eradicate the poor performances.

Sitting by themselves on 36 points are Freiburg who, so far look to be coping well just over a year on from Papiss Cissé’s departure to Newcastle. Coach Christian Streich must have been feeling helpless as his team took the lead last week over Dortmund only to be completely overwhelmed by five goals to one. This made it four matches without a win now and that has to change with their next three games against Gladbach, Hamburg and Hannover. Summer signing Max Kruse has been one of the stand-out performers of the season with seven goals and six assists following his move from St Pauli. He could hold the key to their push for European football.

Just below them lie Hannover 96, perhaps one of the more fascinating stories from this season’s Bundesliga. Aside from the top two no one has scored more goals in this season’s competition but, aside from 14th placed Bremen and 17th placed Hoffenheim, no one has conceded more. Three games without a win now for 96 and these are troubling times without the influential Szabolcs Huszti who has nine goals and nine assists this season. Top scorer Mame Diouf has only scored four times since the turn of the year and if Hannover are to claim a European place they need a serious up-turn in form and it needs to come soon. Last week’s remarkable 3-0 triumph over Schalke means that you have to go all the way back to January for the last time Nuremburg lost and seven points taken from the last three games means the boys from Bavaria are an outside bet to qualify for Europe this season. Their main problem in this campaign has been too many draws (10 of them, only Gladbach have more with 11) but if playmaker Hiroshi Kiyotake stays fit then I wouldn’t write them off. The Japanese international has racked up eight assists so far this season and he has settled in extremely well since his move this summer.

It is incredible to think that whilst the title has been a foregone conclusion for so long the European qualification positions can be so open. With every team facing off against teams around them at some point before the end of the season Frankfurt and Schalke will still believe they can catch Bayer Leverkusen. The teams below them meanwhile will be hot on their heels and you cannot help but feel there is still a twist or two left in this intriguing race.

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