With thoroughbreds Bayern way out in front, the title race is essentially run. But the rest of the pack will be jostling hard for the other top places in the table. DW handicaps the Bundesliga at the season's restart.
Schalke or Leverkusen might be able to pull this feat, but let’s face it: there’s no realistic chance that Bayern Munich will come up lame and blow the title this season. It’s more likely that the Bavarians will become the first-ever Bundesliga team to go undefeated in a campaign.
Paradoxically, that’s good news for Bayern-haters insofar as much of the attention usually sucked up by Säbener Street will turn to those teams tracking the Bundesliga’s remaining Champions League spots. For all of them, the off-season has been a mix of clouds and silver linings.
On the plus side for second-placed Leverkusen, coach Sami Hyypiä’s taciturn Finnish-ness seems to have rubbed off on his squad in the form of work ethic and consistency. So they’re a pretty good bet to return to football’s premier club competition. On the other hand, the Pillboys somehow contrived not to score against Bremen in their last match of 2013, and the fact that rising star Sidney Sam has decided to move to Schalke in the summer suggests that not everyone is convinced in Leverkusen.
Number three Mönchengladbach have been this season’s pleasant surprises. They’ve got four major scoring threats – Kruse, Raffael, Arango and Herrmann – and are thus difficult to defend. Coach Lucien Favre is also good for regular tactical wrinkles. But one has to question whether the Foals, who finished fourth two years ago and then failed to qualify for the Champions League, are ready to join Europe’s elite. And how much of a distraction will goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Steegen’s likely move to Barcelona be?
Fourth-placed Dortmund definitely deserve to be among Europe’s elite, and coach Jürgen Klopp will be relieved to get a number of players back from a surreally long injury list. But teams may be figuring out that the way to deal with Dortmund’s pressing game is to thump long balls over it. And nerves are frayed. Two days before the Bundesliga resumed, Bayern-bound striker Robert Lewandowski jumped out of his Porsche to confront a young Dortmund fan who’d given him the finger – not exactly the sort of swaggering cool Dortmund displayed over the past three seasons.
Horses dark and darker
Of those not in the top four at the restart, Wolfsburg and Schalke probably have the best chances to launch a CL homestretch run. And Wolves signaled that they going for it with the biggest transfer of the winter – a 22-million-euro deal for young Belgium forward Kevin de Bruyne from Chelsea.
De Bruyne looks the French comic book character Tintin, but the 22-year-old is a polish performer who promises immediate improvement to Wolfsburg’s mediocre offense. The Wolves finished 2013 with an undefeated streak, and it would be no huge surprise to see them start another and push their way into the top four.
That’s something Schalke have had a historic knack for doing, and the Sam transfer has to buoy their spirits. But this is a team of question marks. How long will coach Jens Keller last? Will prodigy Julian Draxler stay or go? How much can Kevin-Prince Boateng’s gimpy knee take? Which one of Schalke’s good-but-not-great goalkeepers will start between the sticks?
Schalke also have to deal with the double burden of playing in this year’s Champions League, although with their next opponents being Real Madrid that distraction may not last long. And that kind of sums up where the Royal Blues are at. They’re good enough (usually) to sneak into the tail end of Europe’s elite but a fair few lengths from the true top.
Hertha Berlin are a much darker horse, but the capital club are very difficult to beat and have a hot striker in Colombian Adrian Ramos. If Brazilian midfielder Ronny can overcome for fondness for late-night trips to Burger King, the Old Lady could be in it with a shout. Overachievers Augsburg and Mainz are probably too far back to be anything but spoilers, but they’re still well ahead of the rest of the league.
The Grand National of Relegation Battles
Over the winter break, seven points were all that separated last-placed Braunschweig from Stuttgart in tenth. The last time there was a similar spread, two seasons ago, the tenth and eleventh placed teams (Cologne and Hertha) ended up going down. So fans can look forward to another wild and woolly relegation dogfight with a huge field.
Braunschweig are the absolute underdogs, but they have fanatical supporters and have nothing to lose, so they may put up stiffer resistance than expected. Nuremberg and Freiburg both played better than their records in the first season half, and they could well overtake some of the bigger clubs just ahead of them in the table.
Hanover slumped badly at the end of 2013 and new coach Tayfun Korkut is completely untested in the Bundesliga. Hamburg are putting their faith in a pair of imported young attacking talents, Ouasim Bouy and Ola John, who failed to break through at Juventus and Benfica respectively. That’s vaguely reminiscent of the “Chelsea overstocks” strategy that nearly got the northern Germans relegated two years ago.
Frankfurt need to balance their campaign in the Europa League with the need to accrue enough domestic points to stay up. And their dismal goal difference suggests that Werder Bremen were nowhere near as good as their record in the first half of the season.
Even merely mediocre Stuttgart could find themselves getting pipped at the post, if they think they’re safe and let up too soon. So while there’s little doubt as to who will be parading around the winners circle come May, it will be very interesting to see who will end up in the money – and who will get sent to the glue factory.