Bundesliga: Hoffenheim face ′final′ against RB Leipzig in Champions League race | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 19.04.2018
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Bundesliga: Hoffenheim face 'final' against RB Leipzig in Champions League race

After struggling to balance their European and domestic commitments early in the season, Hoffenheim now have the Champions League in their sights again. At the bottom, it could finally be the end for Cologne and HSV.

After losing just one of their last ten games, Julian Nagelsmann's team have propelled themselves back up to sixth, just one point behind Saturday's opponents RB Leipzig, who they could leapfrog with a win.

Nagelsmann has never been one to get carried away but did admit that "fourth is certainly an interesting place" ahead of a game which he described as having "the characteristics of a final."

Whoever finishes fourth in this season's Bundesliga will qualify directly for the Champions League without having to negotiate a the qualifying round, which can prove tricky – as Hoffenheim found out to their cost against Liverpool earlier this season.

That defeat saw them drop into the Europa League – which is where their problems began. The Kraichgauer only won one of the six games which followed their Europa League excursions, losing three and drawing two, a poor record for which Nagelsmann blames the intense schedule.

"We were practically unable to train properly for half a year," the 30-year-old told Kicker magazine. "The focus was all on recovery when in fact we need competitive training for our game."

Free of their European obligations and out of the German Cup too, Nagelsmann has now had the time to conduct his intensive, carefully-planned training sessions and the benefits have been clear to see.

"Now you can see how well-practiced and flexible we are again, and the sort of power we can produce," said director of football Alexander Rosen. "It was always the small things but now they're bearing fruit."

Serenity in Sinsheim

Other nagging distractions have also been cleared up in Sinsheim.

On matchday 17 in Dortmund, new BVB coach Peter Stöger joked to his younger counterpart about making sure he sat on the right bench - a reference to speculation around the Dortmund job. But Nagelsmann's assertion that he will "definitely be staying until 2019" has restored serenity in the coaching department.

The absence of regular training sessions also made life difficult for new signings such as Niko Schulz and Florian Grillitsch, recruited to help fill the substantial void left by the departures of Niklas Süle, Sebastian Rudy and, in January, Sandro Wagner.

"We've always said that it's easier to integrate new signings in training and that the squad would develop more stability with more training sessions," continued Rosen. "But we didn't have time for that before Christmas; it was a new experience for us."

Stability is a clearly a key factor in Hoffenheim, especially at the back. On average, Nagelsmann made 4.73 personnel changes per game in the first half of the season, compared with just 2.08 changes per game since January. Four clean sheets in the last six and a goal ratio of 17:4 are testament to the importance of a settled starting eleven.

Blow for Geiger

One player who won't feature on Saturday however is midfield starlet Dennis Geiger. The 19-year-old has proved himself to be a more-than-adequate replacement for the departed Rudy but has been out since March with a thigh injury. Nagelsmann confirmed that it could be the "second or third game of next season" before he plays again.

Opponents RB Leipzig have had a similar post-European experience this season and were able to train at full intensity this week for the first time since February. "It's been good to finally work on our automatisms again," said coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, echoing Nagelsmann. "But we know we'll need a perfect performance to get a result this weekend."

After dropping points against Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen, a win is essential in RB's own quest for a second season in the Champions League, but they could be without midfielder Naby Keita (back) and Dayot Upamecano (thigh). "They both trained individually this week," said Hasenhüttl. "It's still unclear whether they'll be fit for Saturday."

Elsewhere on Matchday 31:

— Borussia Dortmund are looking to bounce back from their derby defeat to Schalke with a win over Bayer Leverkusen. Champions League qualification is the minimum requirement for Peter Stöger (above) but a series of uninspiring performances have seen the Black and Yellows slip to fourth. For Leverkusen, it's their third consecutive league meeting with direct top four opponents. After beating both RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt 4-1, Heiko Herrlich's team will travel to Dortmund with confidence as they look to put Tuesday's cup semifinal defeat to Bayern Munich behind them.

— Bottom clubs Cologne and Hamburg could finally be relegated this weekend if results don't go their way. Hamburg will be relegated IF: They lose against Freiburg and Wolfsburg (away at Borussia Mönchengladbach) and Mainz (away at Augsburg) both win. A draw or a win for Hamburg will see them live to fight another day. Cologne will be relegated IF: They lose at home to Schalke on Sunday and Wolfsburg, Hamburg and Mainz all get at least a point. They draw at home to Schalke and Wolfsburg, Hamburg and Mainz all win. A win for Cologne will postpone what is surely inevitable. 

Matchday 31 fixtures:

Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. VfL Wolfsburg (Friday, 20:30 CEST)

RB Leipzig vs. Hoffenheim (Saturday, 15:30 CEST)
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Hertha Berlin
Hamburg vs. Freiburg
Hannover 96 vs. Bayern Munich
VfB Stuttgart vs. Werder Bremen
Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayer Leverkusen (Saturday, 18:30 CEST)

Augsburg vs. Mainz (Sunday, 15:30 CEST)
Cologne vs. Schalke (Sunday, 18:00 CEST)

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