Rock-bottom Mönchengladbach’s hellish run-in means they look doomed, but real fireworks can be expected in the scramble to avoid joining them in the second division next season with the whole bottom half of the Bundesliga table – more or less – still staring into the abyss.
The second half of the German season is an exact mirror image of the first, and if the teams from Schalke in tenth to Mönchengladbach repeat the results of the final seven games of 2010 in the remaining fixtures now left, their points tallies would be these come May 14.
St Pauli 32
Sadly, there are only three things – to paraphrase Winston Churchill – that are certain in life: Death, taxes and the unpredictability of football results.
Let’s start with who will go down. When you look at the Bundesliga’s official press kit for Gladbach’s recent game against Kaiserslautern, under ‘defensive strengths’, there is just a blank space. That says it all. No team since 1987/88 has conceded as many goals after 27 games, and though recent improvement under Lucien Favre suggests they may better the tally of four points they took from their last seven matches of last year, nothing will save them from the second division given they have a run-in so fiendish it is in contention for a part as the arch-villain in the next James Bond film. All the current top four as well as Freiburg and Hamburg have to be faced before this excruciating season lurches to a stop. On the ropes before Kaiserslautern came to town, Logan Bailly’s erratic fist delivered the knockout blow.
Who’ll join them?
Having won the second division title last season, Kaiserslautern know all about the rigours of trying to achieve promotion, and will be doubly keen not to make an immediate return. The win over Gladbach, although handed to them – quite literally – was massively important, keeping that helpful three-point cushion between them and the bottom three. They now face Stuttgart, St Pauli, Wolfsburg and Bremen – the last three to finish the season – as well as Leverkusen, Nuremberg and Schalke, who were thrashed 5-0 in the opening part of the campaign as FCK racked up 11 points from those fixtures. They are unlikely to do that again with Srdjan Lakic, still their top scorer with 11, not having found the net in 2011, and his head – if not his body – already in Wolfsburg, and they will do well to avoid the relegation play-off spot.
Kaiserslautern’s lack of goals – just eight in nine matches since the winter break – is echoed by that of Eintracht Frankfurt and St Pauli, who somehow managed to conjure three between them last time out with Frankfurt picking up their first win of the new year. It remains to be seen what effect – if any – Christoph Daum will have on the Eagles, who were serious European contenders before Christmas. They took ten points from their final seven games prior to the break, including a 1-0 defeat of Dortmund – feats they almost certainly will not repeat. With just three goals since the turn of the year, their fate could well be sealed in the next two games as they face Wolfsburg away and Bremen at home. Lose those and even the relegation play-off berth will look welcoming.
St Pauli may not have the luxury of being able to play for their top-flight skins. Defeat to Frankfurt was a huge blow, and with Moritz Volz making it five front-line defenders now out for the season, everyone’s ‘favourite other club’ is in trouble. They may argue that they have their destiny in their own hands with games against Wolfsburg (away), Bremen (home) and Kaiserslautern (away). However, they picked up just four points in their run of fixtures before the winter break, and with Schalke, Leverkusen, Bayern and Mainz all to be faced before the season’s end and all with something still to play for, St Pauli will not escape. Given that coach Holger Stanislawski, who has devoted his entire professional career to the club, appears set to walk away in the summer, the players are unlikely to be wholeheartedly committed to the cause.
Down the road from Hamburg in Bremen, Thomas Schaaf has proven an even more stoic servant of Werder, and his last act as coach – with him surely moving upstairs in the summer – will see him keep the side up. They are a perilous four points above the bottom three, but are unbeaten in their last four, scoring three times in each of the two wins in that series. They only picked up four points in their last seven matches of 2010 and scored four goals – three of which came from the now-departed Hugo Almeida – but Sandro Wagner looks to be coming into form, and with Dortmund the only team from the top half of the table they will face between now and the end of the season, they will be able to save themselves while condemning others.
When Bremen met Stuttgart earlier in the season, they were trounced 6-0, and while the scoreline is likely to be different at the Weserstadion this weekend, the ability of Bruno Labbadia’s men to find the net will surely keep them in the top division. Only the top two and fourth-placed Bayern have scored more goals than Stuttgart, and they have picked up momentum – a key component of any survival bid. They are unbeaten in four with Georg Niedermeier’s last-gasp leveller at Wolfsburg having the triple benefit of earning his team a precious point and keeping their heads above water while rooting their opponents in the drop zone. They have a tricky run-in with Werder (away), Kaiserslautern (home) and Cologne (away) next up, and it would be better for them to take a healthy dollop of points from those fixtures to make life easier for the rest of the season. Though Hamburg and Hoffenheim may provide some respite, the final two games at home to Hannover and at Bayern will be tough if both those sides are still battling for a top-three finish.
A couple of weeks ago, Wolfsburg had far more to worry about than Stuttgart. Now, even though they lie second from bottom – two points adrift of safety – you just feel that Felix Magath is going to get them out of it. Already against Stuttgart there was more craft and graft than has been seen in the entire rest of the season, and though they were pegged back within sight of the final whistle, you would expect them to finish the season strongly, especially given the medicine balls have been given a thorough workout during the international break. The bulk of the squad were brought to the club by Magath during his first spell, and they clearly played heart and soul for him before. Magath turned the VW Arena into an unwelcoming place for visiting teams on his way to the Bundesliga title, and they have four key home fixtures – Frankfurt, Pauli, Cologne and Kaiserslautern – and only one away – Bremen – in the run-in, which should see them stay up. Magath was initially renowned as ‘a fireman’ before becoming an all-round coaching genius – he now has the chance to be both.
The team Magath left, Schalke, are only five points off the drop zone, but it would take a collapse of catastrophic proportions – and god-like form from the teams below them – for them to go down. They play St Pauli (away), Wolfsburg (home), Bremen (away) and Kaiserslautern (home) before Bayern (away), Mainz (home) and Cologne (away) to round out the season. That run of fixtures yielded an impressive 16 points in the first half of the campaign, and though they may not match that, the desire of the players to convince new boss Ralf Rangnick they are worth a place in the side for the Champions League quarter-final and German Cup final should be enough to ensure Schalke stay up.
Cologne are only a point worse off than Schalke, and alarm bells were probably ringing after Hamburg trounced them last time out. However, with Lukas Podolski in imperious form and the side generally solid of late, their run-in – which includes five of the bottom half – does not look particularly daunting, especially as they scored 11 goals in three wins over Mainz, Bayern and Hannover recently.
My bottom three
16 Eintracht Frankfurt /Kaiserslautern
17 St Pauli
Eurosport 2 Bundesliga commentator
St Pauli v Schalke gets Week 28 underway LIVE from 20:30CET on Friday night before league leaders Dortmund face a tricky home tie with Hannover on Saturday (LIVE 15:30CET). Extended highlights of Bayern Munich v Mönchengladbach (17:30CET) will keep things ticking over until Hoffenheim meet Hamburg (LIVE 18:30CET). Sunday sees Cologne take on Nuremberg (LIVE 15:30CET) before Wolfsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt’s relegation six-pointer rounds off the weekend’s action (LIVE 17:30CET).