Things are so tight in the lower half of the Bundesliga this season that any three of the bottom eight teams could go down. However, some are in better shape than others to avoid the drop.
Waving goodbye? Gladbach are leading candidates for the drop
The top of the Bundesliga has been something of a procession for most of the season. Borussia Dortmund has inhabited first place for the past 17 weeks and Bayer Leverkusen has now been second the last nine. The bottom rungs of the league, though, have been in flux all season.
At one time or another, 11 of the Bundesliga's 18 teams have found themselves in the relegation zone. Of course, it makes a big difference if you are in the bottom three at the start of the season rather than at the end of it; Dortmund were third from bottom after their opening week loss and haven't looked back, whereas St. Pauli were in a Champions League place at the same point and they're now in a staring contest with the drop.
The clubs which have spent time in the relegation zone have wanted to move clear but the threat of the drop remains a distinct possibility for most of them. Taking into consideration the amount of points still to play for, and the close proximity between 10th place and the relegation playoff spot in 16th, no team in the Bundesliga’s bottom half can consider itself safe from the drop.
By the same token, it’s still mathematically possible that the woeful Borussia Mönchengladbach, who have been bottom of the league for sixteen of the last 27 games, can escape relegation this year. But considering they’ve been either last or thereabouts since match day ten, their survival seems unlikely. With all apologies to Gladbach fans and their very capable coach Lucien Favre, let's assume that they're history.
Stuttgart are short of quality and have suffered accordingly
That leaves two places in the drop zone up for grabs, and eight teams in with a shout to take them. Let’s look them over.
Gladbach aside, the team which has spent the most time in the bottom three this season has been VfB Stuttgart. Three coaches have tried to remedy the situation and apart from brief moments of respite - Stuttgart have only spent a total of six weeks out of the bottom three - the Swabian club cannot seem to find the consistency or form to pull away to safety.
Compared to the Stuttgart squad that won the title four years ago, the current group lacks quality. Key men from that campaign like Sami Khedira, Mario Gomez, and Thomas Hitzlsperger have moved on, others who have remained have regressed (this means you, Serdar Tasci), and big-sticker buys like Ciprian Marica and Pavel Pogrebnyak have failed to deliver. With ongoing financial problems and poor long term planning from upper management thrown in to the mix, it’s easy to see why the team plays with so little spirit.
But still, for all its shortcomings. Stuttgart’s squad is better than most of its relegation rivals, and they have shown brief flashes of being able to haul themselves out of danger.
Wolfsburg running out of time
Wolfsburg, meanwhile, have been tumbling down the league since match day six. The ill-thought out tactics of coach Steve McClaren and his dedication to variations on a 4-2-3-1 tactical theme - one which plainly failed to play to the squad’s strengths - got the Wolves into deep trouble and they haven't been able to haul themselves out.
McClaren's tactics confused his players and led to the sack
The mental fragility of the players under McClaren, perhaps arising from the distrust they had for the coach and his strategies, continued after Pierre Littbarski took over and the former German international looked out of his depth. He soon went the same way as McClaren, failing to rally a team which looked to have lost all confidence as it slid into the bottom three.
Hiring Felix Magath, however, was a splendid move. He built a championship-winning side at Wolfsburg in his first tenure at the club, of course, but more importantly he has taken over relegation-threatened clubs four times before in his career - and has never gone down. It must be said, though, that the time he has to save Wolfsburg in is much more limited. If he doesn’t whip them into quick shape, the Wolves could definitely be at the door come the season's end - the one that leads to the second division.
St. Pauli left behind
It was a long time ago that St. Pauli were second in the league, but while it would have been foolish to believe that they could stay there for the whole season, there have been moments when a mid-table finish did not seem beyond them.
As one of the promoted sides this season, it was always going to be a challenge to stay up for St. Pauli. A mini-revival in February briefly saw them climb out of danger but that effort seems to have eaten up the last of St. Pauli's reserves, and the club’s thin squad is being worn still thinner through injuries. It will be a tough task for the Kiez-Club to stay in the league, and if Stuttgart do manage to stay clear, St. Pauli are likely be the team to suffer in their place.
St. Pauli remain in trouble while Cologne have pulled away
Perhaps ominously, rumors that longtime coach Holger Stanislawski will be moving on at season’s end have been gathering enough steam to power a locomotive.
Eintracht, 'Lautern, Cologne still in danger
Frankfurt and Kaiserslautern look to be among the weakest teams hovering over the relegation places but with mad genius Christoph Daum taking the reins from Michael Skibbe at Frankfurt and Kaiserslautern beginning to put together an unbeaten run in recent weeks, their potential turnarounds look to have come at just the right time. Both will have to maintain vigilance, but with others below them increasingly sapped of belief as time runs out, the odds for survival could tip in their favor.
Things also look a little brighter for Cologne, who spent 14 weeks in the relegation zone before their form took a turn for the better after match day 21. After their surprising come-from-behind win over Bayern Munich, Cologne moved out of the bottom three and climbed as high as 11th in the subsequent weeks under their popular home-grown coach Frank Schaefer. Still, the 6-2 pasting they took in Hamburg on match day 27 should serve as a warning that they are not too good to go down.
Sleeping giants finally wake up
Things will have to go very wrong - again - for the likes of Schalke and Werder Bremen to slip back into trouble. Both looked to be sleepwalking toward the second division at times with Schalke unable to climb out of danger until their performances drastically improved after match day 15 while Werder were locked in a slide to 15th in the league from week ten on before beginning their recovery about a month ago.
Bremen were sliding towards relegation but have recovered
That doesn’t mean either club is safe, however - and each has taken steps to safeguard its future. Schalke, despite success in the Champions League and the German Cup, decided for shock treatment, firing Felix Magath and installing Ralf Rangnick, whose positive thinking has his team talking up a chase for the Europa league.
Meanwhile Werder, a club that values continuity above all (their coach and sporting director duo of Thomas Schaaf and Klaus Allofs have been in the saddle since 1999), have stood by their men, and hired a new sport psychologist. Both moves appear to have paid off - boosting morale through the squad, and giving youngsters like Sandro Wagner and Florian Trinks the confidence to make their case for bigger roles next season.
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann