The league reboots on Friday, Jan.30, when Hamburg host Bayern. With only three points separating the top five, the second half of the season will feature a lot of flux. DW predicts who will end up on top and on bottom.
Will Bayern celebrate again this year?
The Title Contenders
At league leaders Hoffenheim, their worst-case scenario became reality when league-leading striker Vedad Ibisevic suffered a season-ending knee injury. Boubacar Sanogo, who's been brought in on loan from Bremen, is probably the best replacement Hoffenheim could find on short notice, but they still start 2009 with personnel problems. A realistic aim for them would be to stay in the top five, but they'll need to hit the ground running against Cottbus on Saturday to have a chance.
The main profiteers from Hoffenheim's bad luck are, of course, Bayern Munich. With by far and away the deepest squad in the league, Bayern should cruise to yet another title -- especially as their form improved consistently throughout the first half of the season. The only potential roadblock would be an injury to playmaker and sole source of midfield genius Franck Ribery. Without him in the starting line-up, Munich have sputtered.
Cicero is the anchor of Berlin's efficient midfield
Is it luck or efficiency? Hertha Berlin begin in third after pulling out a number of tight wins in 2008. Most commentators think they're ready for a precipitous fall, but coach Lucien Favre has assembled a deep and unpredictable squad -- especially in midfield. Veteran fullback-midfielder Marko Babic should also fill an offensive hole on the left side so Hertha will stay in the hunt for the top five.
Fourth-placed Hamburg turned the biggest deal of the winter break, selling midfielder Nigel de Jong to Premiership side Manchester City for a jaw-dropping 20 million euros ($26.5 million). With money like that on the table, the Northern German club had no choice, but they may have mortgaged their chances of qualifying for international competition this season. A last-minute investment, though, could put them back in the picture.
Leverkusen look like a good bet to improve
Leverkusen probably spent the break asking themselves how they ended up as low as fifth. Next to Hoffenheim, coach Bruno Labbadia's side played the most attractive football of the season's first half. But they foolishly squandered points against sides (Hertha, Karlsruhe, Cottbus), they had on the ropes. If Leverkusen learns to put matches away, they're the only side with the talent to mount a credible challenge to Bayern.
Teams on the Cusp
Dortmund have only lost one of their last 10 league games, which would seem to suggest they're on a roll. But they also had five draws in that period, and their schedule is seriously front-loaded. They play Leverkusen, Bayern, Schalke, Hoffenheim, Stuttgart and Bremen before the end of March. Still, if Dortmund can survive those foes, and new addition Kevin-Prince Boateng provides some needed midfield creativity, this once great club could return to the top five.
Schalke's Kuranyi is slowly imploding
Logic would dictate that Schalke, which spent the most money putting together their 2008-9 squad, should be a lot better than seventh. But what's ever logical about Schalke? The team lacks leadership, and its scattershot offense is too dependent on Kevin Kuranyi, who's rapidly becoming a basket case. Solid defense keeps Schalke competitive against most opponents, and an early winning streak could see them challenge for the top three. But it's equally likely that things will get very, very ugly in Gelsenkirchen.
One golden rule of the Bundesliga is: never count out Werder Bremen. Coach Thomas Schaaf's all-or-nothing offensive approach means that the team came go on a tear at any point. But this season, Bremen have torn themselves apart with suspensions and defensive lapses -- their longest league winning streak is two games. Werder being Werder, expect them either to storm back and claim a Champions League spot or flail their way down to the bottom half of the table.
Team chemistry is fine at Wolfsburg
With solid and occasionally inspired players from front to back, Wolfsburg have all the pieces needed to establish themselves in the top five and begin pressuring the top three. Their shortcoming this season has been their inability to come up with the goods away from home -- they're still searching for their first away win. If they can get that monkey off their back against Cologne on Saturday, the Wolves will begin a steady rise.
Stuttgart have one main reason for optimism. Striker Mario Gomez has reconciled himself to the idea of staying with the club after a long flirtation with Bayern, during which he appeared to be playing only to avoid injury. But the 2006-7 champs are seven points adrift of fifth place, so everything would have to break their way for them to qualify for the UEFA Cup. And 2009 didn't start well. Stuttgart got hammered 5-1 at home by Bayern in the German Cup.
The Relegation Candidates
Bielefeld should win the relegation fight against teams like gladbach
Of the five teams in the most acute danger of going down, Bielefeld and Karlsruhe have done just enough this winter to survive in the spring. Vlad Munteanu should take some of the offensive pressure off striker Artur Wichniarek at Bielefeld, while Giovanni Federico is likely to help Karlsruhe's midfield cohere. So the bottom three are…
Cottbus have done nothing to address their biggest flaw, the league's worst offense. Chemistry is also poor, with the team's most talented striker Dimitar Rangelov wanting out and badly. Still, the tiny Eastern German club may be able to claw its way into the relegation play-off.
Meanwhile , Bochum remain weak at the back, and their only big signing as of this writing, over-the-hill striker Diego Klimowicz, isn't likely to help that department much. But who could? According to a recent poll, Bochum's fans opined that even Lionel Messi wouldn't be enough to keep the club, which has only one win this season, in the first division. They probably weren't joking.
Mönchengladbach, on the other hand, have replaced half their squad. The problem is that the new additions -- most notably Paul Stalteri and Tomas Galasek -- are long in the tooth, and they won't have much time to gel. Gladbach's first three matches are against tough opponents, and by the time they get some easier foes, they'll probably be too far behind to rescue themselves.