“Because of the other results on this matchday, we had to find an answer. We did that. How we went about the game shows an extreme mental strength” opined Bundesliga basement club Eintracht Braunschweig’s head coach Torsten Lieberknecht following a famous 3-0 drubbing of local rivals and similarly relegation-threatened Hannover 96. With wins for the entire bottom three at the start of play of matchday 29 – with the three teams above them all losing, too – the battle to retain Bundesliga status for another season has turned on its head. With five games left, Braunschweig, Hamburg and Stuttgart all have a reasonable chance of survival – if they manage to make winning a semi-regular habit, at least.
The upshot of the weekend that was is that we have a weekend that could, come May, truly define the relegation battle, and with the bottom half being so tight, four points separating Braunschweig in 18th and Hannover in 13th, consign some of the clubs stricken by poor form to second tier football in 2014/2015. How do each team’s prospects look with five games to go?
13th: Hannover 96, 29 points, -18 goal difference
Tayfun Korkut’s Hannover side started 2014 well, with the Turkish manager replacing the outgoing Mirko Slomka, who somehow contrived to lose every single Hinrunde away game. Two 3-1 victories to kick off 2014 – against Champions League contenders Wolfsburg and Mönchengladbach – made their Rückrunde look prematurely bright, with Korkut’s side dropping off like a stone when it comes to form. Reasonably comfortable in mid-table at Christmas, the Northern club have amassed a mere 5 points since those two victories at the start of 2014, which has pulled them back into the relegation fight. In terrible form, Hannover are in real danger of making the drop to the 2. Bundesliga this season, thanks to the lack of real quality in their squad. Bright sparks have been Leonardo Bittencourt, who joined from Dortmund in the summer, and as ever Szabolcs Hustzi – but the club relied on Mame Biram Diouf’s goals in the Hinrunde, and with the Senegalese hitman out, their forward line has been impotent, with the rearguard action being nothing short of leaky.
14th: SC Freiburg, 29 points, -19 goal difference
Despite a decent run of form in recent weeks – picking up ten points from their last possible fifteen – Freiburg still remain in real danger of the drop, having failed to capitalise on a chance to give their Bundesliga status a massive boost in the weekend’s local derby with VfB Stuttgart. Fortunately for die Breisgauer, Freiburg’s squad is probably good enough to edge out enough games to collect all-important points between now and the end of the season. Points against Braunschweig and Hannover – the former their next game, the latter their final of the season – should hopefully give Christian Streich’s men another crack at the league they finished 5th in last season in significant style, but points elsewhere will be tough – their other games coming up against Mönchengladbach, Wolfsburg and Schalke. That said, with the likes of Admir Mehmedi, Matthias Ginter and Oliver Baumann, Freiburg have the calibre of player to take the lead in this sort of relegation battle, and the team has come together on the pitch in recent weeks, with even the gangly Karim Guede putting in some good performances.
15th: VfB Stuttgart: 27 points, -13 goal difference
2007’s Bundesliga Champions have fallen upon hard times, with a team unable to close out games and a backroom unable to pick the right manager. Going into the season with the perennially tactically-suspect Bruno Labbadia, Stuttgart quickly cut their losses, replacing the former Hamburg striker with youth team manager Thomas Schneider. Despite a decent start, drubbing Hoffenheim 4-1, punters quickly found out that the only really good thing about Schneider’s management was that he lives in the same village as potential manager of the season Markus Weinzierl. The hapless Schneider was replaced with ex-Schalke manager Huub Stevens, a defensively focussed coach. It’s worked out reasonably for Stuttgart so far – six points from a possible twelve under the Dutchman – but they need more yet to stay up, having been left in dire straits by Schneider. Stuttgart have a torrid run-in ahead, too, so the future’s not bright yet – but they’re not entirely consigned to second tier football, either.
16th: Hamburger SV, 27 points, -15 goal difference
How Hamburg are still potentially going to stay up is a wonder. Like Stuttgart, they’re historically a massive club – they’re indeed the only club to play in all 51 Bundesliga seasons – but have fallen upon hard times, going through three managers this season. Having put up with defensive dross under Thorsten Fink, fans of Hamburg then had to put up with ex-Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk, who, despite being somehow highly rated and heralded upon arrival, earned the club less than a point per game on average. This wasn’t good enough, and Hamburg, in turmoil, turned to Mirko Slomka to keep them safe. It must be said, Slomka’s Hamburg are a lot better – they don’t concede pathetic goals, and they actually put up a fight in matches – but even so, they’re not a consistent team and could have a great run in or an awful one. It’s hard to tell which side will turn up. The goals of Pierre-Michel Lasogga this season have been vital for Hamburg, but with him injured, they’ll essentially have to rely on 19 year old Hakan Calhanoglu to keep them up. That says a lot about their predicament.
17th: 1.FC Nürnberg, 26 points, -20 goal difference
Another team who it’s difficult to tell which side of their game will show up on any given matchday is Franconian outfit, Nürnberg. Another Traditionsverein, being one of the original powerhouses of German football in the 1920s, Nürnberg have flitted between Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga in recent years, and despite the best efforts of manager Gertjan Verbeek, as well as the highly rated pairing of Josip Drmic and Hiroshi Kiyotake, there’s a very good chance they could do that again this season. Drawing eleven games in the Hinrunde and winning none, Nürnberg were a safe bet for relegation and also a dull game at Christmas – but that’s all gone out the window. 5 wins since then have given “der Club” a fighting chance, and they’re often actually interesting to watch nowadays. Four of their final five games come to teams with European aspirations, though, so things could get messy for them – even with Swiss striker Drmic’s excellent goalscoring form, scoring ten since Christmas and five in his last five.
18th: Eintracht Braunschweig, 25 points, -22 goal difference
Nobody gave Eintracht a hope in hell of survival at the top end of the season, and as such it’s excellent that Torsten Lieberknecht has kept them alive for this long. Last season’s bottom club, Greuther Fürth, went down with a whimper and without a home win, but in contrast, Braunschweig’s Bundesliga status, if retained, will have been forged at home; 18 points from 45 isn’t a great total by any means, but for a club in their position, it’s a massive one. Braunschweig have one of the better run-ins of the relegation-threatened teams, but it’s not really a massive loss for them to go down – a club of their size rarely survives a season in the Bundesliga. Lieberknecht has worked wonders, and that aforementioned derby day drubbing of Hannover will provide vital morale for him to rally the troops entering the final stretch of the season. What was an outside shot at survival a few weeks ago is now a very real chance.