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Pretenders wanted below Bundesliga's top trio

Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich rule the roost, with Bayer Leverkusen clinging to their coattails. But below third place in the Bundesliga table, chaos reigns. We try to identify this season's genuine dark horses.

Bundesliga season predictions are a dangerous business. Few had Frankfurt or Freiburg on their European radars last season, but both sides made the grade. The year before that, Borussia Mönchengladbach went from relegation candidates to Champions League qualifiers in 18 months.

The general mantra that one should expect the unexpected in the Bundesliga midfield, often starting as high as third place in the table, is only reinforced by the league standings after seven sets of fixtures.

Four points separate fourth from 14th in the table, three European qualifiers from last season are in the bottom six, and newly-promoted Hertha Berlin might well be suffering from altitude sickness up in fifth.

Allow us, in a move we'll likely regret next May when looking at the final standings, to suggest four sides capable of mounting a season-long challenge behind the obvious Bundesliga frontrunners.

Slow-starters Schalke

On paper, the Royal Blues were a clear candidate to fight for the top four even before signing Kevin-Prince Boateng from AC Milan. Put simply, anything worse than fifth should be unacceptable for head coach Jens Keller's side.

Kevin-Prince Boateng, celebrating his goal for Schalke against Hoffenheim, 28.09.2013. (Photo: Uwe Anspach/dpa )(Wichtiger Hinweis: Aufgrund der Akkreditierungsbestimmungen der DFL ist die Publikation und Weiterverwertung im Internet und in Online-Medien während des Spiels auf insgesamt fünfzehn Bilder pro Spiel begrenzt.) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Boateng has had a dream start, but still Schalke stutter

Yet Schalke currently reside in 14th, after conceding 16 times in seven games. That included three goals in their draw against Hoffenheim this weekend. Boateng, who scored the opener in a game Schalke twice led by two goals, was "furious" with the performance dip in the second half.

"Some [players] started thinking it was easy and began trying a back-heel here and a flick there. You just can't do that," Boateng said of a Schalke showing that drew even stronger criticism from manager Horst Heldt.

The Royal Blues started their season with a 3-3 draw against Hamburg - currently the Bundesliga's leakiest defense of all - and have also faced a humbling 4-0 defeat to Bayern and a humiliating 4-0 loss in Wolfsburg. Yet Schalke remain the favorite to bag Germany's fourth Champions League berth, and that's why their goal difference - the fourth-worst in the league - is so baffling.

Can these Foals learn to gallop?

If Schalke were to slip up, Borussia Mönchengladbach might now have the tools to return to Champions League football.

Gladbach's Max Kruse (l-r), Juan Arango und Raffael celebrate a goal for Borussia Mönchengladbach against Bayer Leverkusen - 24.08.2013. (Photo: Marius Becker/dpa)

The Foals really need two wins on the trot

Summer signing Max Kruse has four goals and five assists from his first seven Bundesliga games, while Brazilian acquisition Raffael has added the creative spark long lacking for "the Foals."

That spark left with Borussia Dortmund star Marco Reus in the summer of 2012 - the moment when Gladbach's rebuilding project began. And if coach Lucien Favre is planning on a European return, another record from the post-Reus era must be broken.

Since that transfer over a season (or 41 league matches) ago, Gladbach have never won back-to-back Bundesliga games. Friday's game in Augsburg was a golden chance to do so but, to Max Kruse's dismay, they conceded a last-gasp equalizer.

"If you're leading 2-1, you have to bring it home," Kruse, who was reportedly overheard cursing in the dressing room, said after the game. "If you harbor the sort of ambitions we do, then you have to win games like this."

Kruse was likely doubly disappointed as the draw means Gladbach are winless on the road after four away games this season - a predicament that's all too familiar to another European aspirant.

Hanover, if only in Hanover

Mirko Slomka's Hanover, no strangers to European competition in recent years, currently sit fourth in the table.

Szabolcs Huszti of Hanover 96 celebrates after the opening goal during the UEFA Europa League soccer match between Anzhi Makhachkala and Hanover 96 at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, 14 February 2013. (Photo via EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV)

With Huszti's left boot, nothing's impossible

Hanover's home record is perfect, four wins in four, but the side has yet to score even a point on the road. And this problem is no short-term aberration, Hanover were the fourth-worst team in the Bundesliga away from home last season.

Leverkusen made short work of Slomka's side on home soil this weekend, and Hanover's next road opponents Borussia Dortmund offer little hope for an immediate turnaround.

Key midfielders Leon Andreasen and Szabolcs Huszti are both in good health, for a change, and the whole squad has recent experience fighting towards the sharp end. As such, Hanover's chances are probably better than other fast-starting teams around them like Hertha Berlin, Stuttgart and Augsburg.

The riskiest gamble, Hoffenheim

Considering that recent Bundesliga history suggests this author could rue all four of these choices anyway, let's include at least one team truly worthy of the term "dark horse."

KAISERSLAUTERN, GERMANY - MAY 27: Head coach Markus Gisdol of Hoffenheim celebrates his team's first goal during the Bundesliga Playoff Second Leg match between 1. FC Kaiserslautern and 1899 Hoffenheim at Fritz-Walter-Stadion on May 27, 2013 in Kaiserslautern, Germany. (Photo by Simon Hofmann/Bongarts/Getty Images)

First Favre, then Streich, now Gisdol?

Having escaped relegation only in the end-of-season playoff, Hoffenheim's credentials are similar to former fairytale successes Gladbach and Freiburg. And the club's turnaround under coach Marcus Gisdol is reminiscent of the arrivals of Lucien Favre at Gladbach and Christian Streich at Freiburg, albeit stopping well short of the major defensive improvements notable under Favre and Streich.

Hoffenheim have conceded 18 goals, eclipsed only by Hamburg, in their opening seven league games. But the difference this season is that Gisdol's side has also scored 18, more than anybody except top-of-the-table Dortmund.

"We're going to have to add some kind of supplemental 'excitement fee' to our ticket prices," Gisdol joked after the draw with Schalke. His quip suggested that the club's management might have noticed that gate receipts are up by more than 1,000 tickets per game compared to the last campaign. Attendance is a sore topic for the corporate-backed outfit referred to as a "plastic club" (be sure to spit the words out with contempt) by many fans in Germany.

This season's standouts are all offensive players: New forward Anthony Modeste is the league's joint-top scorer with six goals from his first seven games, while 21-year-old winger Kevin Volland might already be in the Germany squad if he played for a higher-profile club. Brazilian playmaker Roberto Firmino finally appears focused on his football, too. Furthermore, SAP software mogul and club owner Dietmar Hopp could likely make funds available this January if needed.

Should the "plastic club" whip out the credit card in the winter window, might DW humbly suggest focusing on defensive reinforcements? Although perhaps avoiding capped Germany goalkeepers with something of an attitude might be a sage move, considering last season's Tim Wiese saga.

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