Stuttgart's resounding victory over Schalke means the fight for Bundesliga survival has become a three-horse race. Hamburg, Nuremberg and Braunschweig are scrambling to avoid relegation, but two must go down.
The Bundesliga's three worst teams got exactly what they didn't want over the weekend. While Braunschweig's defeat to champions Bayern Munich was written off as a foregone conclusion, HSV and Nuremberg missed crucial opportunities to gain ground in the league survival race.
Stuttgart, meanwhile, put four points between themselves and the bottom three after a crucial win over Schalke on Sunday evening. With the relegation race effectively reduced to three, Hamburg, Nuremberg and Braunschweig have little time to right their sinking ships before the season ends on May 10.
In need of divine intervention
After their 3-1 defeat at home to Wolfsburg on Saturday, Hamburg coach Mirko Slomka admitted his staff were already scouting potential opponents in the relegation playoff.
"We have to prepare ourselves professionally," he said.
Hamburg havent spent more than 50 years in the Bundesliga, but the clock may need to be reset to zero in three weeks time
Hamburg's final three matches include away trips to Augsburg and Mainz - two clubs fighting for Europa League qualification - and the home encounter with Bayern on May 3 will have Slomka especially worried.
The HSV coach understands the need for a massive shift in attitude his side's most-important games of the season approach.
"We have to rebuild, that's obvious," he told broadcaster Sky after the Wolfsburg defeat. "We've sworn to ourselves not to give up, no matter what the score is. We're going to keep doing exactly that in the coming weeks."
HSV's sole bright spot this season, 20-year-old starlet and free kick specialist Hakan Calhanoglu, admitted it may require some divine intervention to keep alive the Hanseatic club's record as the sole Bundesliga side never to be relegated.
"I will pray to god that we stay in the league. Only god can help us now," he said.
Should Hamburg fail to retain their historic Bundesliga status outright, or fall in the relegation playoff, the eternal optimist Slomka sees opportunity even in defeat.
"If I go into the history books as the first HSV coach to be relegated, maybe I can also be the first to get promoted with HSV," he said.
It only gets worse
Nuremberg remain two points behind Hamburg following their resounding 4-1 defeat to Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday. With each successive defeat, the Franconians are watching their chances of gaining ground on their northern colleagues slip away.
"It's getting harder and harder," said coach Gertjan Verbeek.
Verbeek started the new year at Nuremburg with a bang. A 4-0 win over Hoffenheim on January 25 was Der Club's first of the season. Nuremberg went on to win four out of five before the downhill slide began.
Since a March 1 defeat to Dortmund, Verbeek's side have lost eight of nine matches, finding themselves exactly where they were when the Dutchman took over - in 17th place.
Nuremberg now face away trips to high-flying Mainz and Schalke before the season ends.
"We only have three games left and have to give our all until the final whistle," said defender Emanuel Pogatetz. "We have to put the losses behind us and address our weaknesses as quickly as possible. I'm convinced we can still do that."
"We have to seize these last three games, fight until the death and not give up," said defender Javier Pinola.
Likely down, but not out yet
And while Nuremberg's hopes look slim, Braunschweig will need a minor miracle to avoid the drop. Torsten Lieberknecht's side looked sure candidates for the drop after the first half of the season, but just when you think they're doomed, the Lions pull out a result. Wins over Hanover and Mainz, plus draws with Wolfsburg and Leverkusen, over the past month have kept the club's fading hopes alive.
Braunschweig put in a courageous performance against the mighty Bayern on Saturday. Pep Guardiola's side failed to register a single shot on target in the first 45 minutes, but the second-half introductions of Thomas Müller and Mario Mandzukic spelled the end for Lieberknecht's boys.
"We played with a lot of heart and passion until the 75th minute," the Braunschweig coach said after the 2-0 defeat to Bayern. "One the one side I'm happy we played so strongly, on the other side I'm deeply disappointed because we didn't earn any points. We have go into the next match against Hertha Berlin with optimism and good preparation."
Braunschweig may be two points behind Hamburg, but they surely have the easiest run-in of the three clubs fighting for survival. Hertha, along with their final opponent of the campaign, Hoffenheim, have little the play for - with survival assured and the Europa League out of sight.
"We're in a relegation battle and need points," said midfielder Mirko Boland. "For now, we just keep going. We still have three finals [to play]."