Fifth place in the Bundesliga means a spot in international competition. Hoffenheim, so strong in the season's first half would settle for fifth now, but a charging Stuttgart might well feel they can snatch it away.
Stuttgart have had plenty of reasons to celebrate in the second half of the season
For VfB Stuttgart, the low point of the season came in late November. They'd just lost 4-0 to Wolfsburg and sat in 11th place in the table, a long fall from their last two seasons, in which they finished first and sixth, respectively. Hoping to shake things up, they fired their coach Armin Veh. The outlook was bleak, but in the meantime things have changed drastically.
Coach Markus Babbel has turned things around since taking over from Armin Veh
Under the leadership of new trainer Markus Babbel, Stuttgart are sitting pretty in fifth thanks to a steady climb up the table that may not yet have reached its peak. Babbel's squad have suffered just one loss since he took over the club in the season's 15th week.
The Swabians are currently coming off a clutch victory over Hamburg that came on Mario Gomez's second chance goal late in extra time. The win meant the Bundesliga lead pack is now within reach of the surging Stuttgart.
Champions League possible
Stuttgart have every reason to be drooling over their prospects in the last seven weeks of the season. They trail Hertha Berlin by one, and are three behind Hamburg and Bayern Munich, who are tied on points at 51. The top of the table is a little more distant for Stuttgart - six points to be exact - and league leaders Wolfsburg are clutching dearly to the summit. Even if the title remains a lofty ambition, Suttgart's situation could still improve. While fifth place would guarantee Stuttgart a spot in next year's Europa League (the newly re-named successor to the UEFA Cup), third place would put them in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League.
Gomez is Stuttgart's top scorer with 15 goals
Stuttgart square off this weekend with Cologne, a team that's been out-of-sorts as of late, and the critical set of games for Stuttgart won't come until next month. They host Wolfsburg four weeks before the end of the season, and then travel to Bayern Munich for what could be a very decisive final game of the Bundesliga campaign.
Hoffenheim falls from the top
Meanwhile, TSG Hoffenheim's season is headed precisely in the opposite direction. In the first half of the season, Hoffenheim were the team to beat. They started the season in first place, and after a couple of stumbles early on, found their form. By week nine, they regained control of the table and hardly looked back going into the winter break.
Now Hoffenheim can't seem to win a match, and have seen their dreams of a German title shrink to a struggle to salvage a UEFA Cup spot. Hoffenheim are in sixth place, four points behind Stuttgart, and with three ambitious clubs - Schalke, Dortmund, and Leverkusen - nipping at their heels. To fend them off, Hoffenheim will have to snap its streak of nine winless matches - and soon.
Ibisevic, left, is still the league's No. 2 scorer
Injuries and red cards
Perhaps Hoffenheim's biggest problem has been injuries. Especially painful was the loss of Vedad Ibisevic, who tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in a practice match in January. Ibisevic's role in the team's first half success is best appreciated by looking at the current Bundesliga top scorers list. Nearly four months after scoring his last league goal, Ibisevic is still second on the list with 18 goals. It's a hole Hoffenheim have been unable to fill.
Discipline, too, has been a problem for Hoffenheim. The worst offender is midfielder Carlos Eduardo, who is second on the team behind Ibisevic in goals with 11. In last weekend's match against Bochum, Eduardo was given a red card for throwing an elbow at Bochum's Philipp Boenig. That made two red cards this season for Eduardo, who was handed a five-match suspension from the German Football Federation (DFB). He won't be available until Hoffenheim's penultimate game, against Bayern Munich. Hoffenheim's goalie, Daniel Haas, was sent off shortly after Eduardo against Bochum for unsportsmanlike conduct and faces a three game suspension from the DFB.
After last weekend's red card, Carlos Eduardo, right, is out for five matches
Hoffenheim needs a win to stop their free-fall in the table, and they won't get a better chance than this weekend against last-place Karlsruhe. After that, they'll host Hertha Berlin and then face a steep uphill battle on the road against Wolfsburg. Both matches provide good opportunities gain ground in the table, but the Hoffenheim of the second half of the season doesn't seem up to the challenge.
A spot in international competition seemed like a sure thing at the season's midpoint, but with the way into the top five now solidly blocked by the streaking Stuttgart, Hoffenheim could find themselves out in the cold.
Author: Matt Zuvela
Editor: Nancy Isenson