Thursday 14 May 2020

The Bundesliga is Back! A look ahead to the remainder of the football season in Germany

With nine games left to play and the pair still to meet for a second time, the title race is certainly not done and dusted yet. But, having won the previous seven championships and currently having a four point lead over nearest contenders Borussia Dortmund (BVB), FC Bayern München are definitely the favourites to win the Bundesliga when it resumes this weekend. Meanwhile, to make life even more difficult for said challengers there is the small matter of a Revierderby derby against hated regional rivals Schalke 04 on Saturday, never an easy proposition. Not only that but BVB have several clubs hot on their heels.

After a break of over two months in response to COVID-19, the top two tiers of German football finally get back underway on Saturday with all 36 clubs set to take the field over the course of the weekend in matches played behind closed doors (although at the time of writing, Hannover 96 v SG Dynamo Dresen is under threat with the whole Dynamo squad in quarantine after two players recently tested positive for coronavirus). This restart of all things fussball is highly anticipated with many issues still to be decided at both ends of the tables. 

Of course, the main question on everyone's lips is can FC Bayern make it eight in a row? But although BVB in second are their closest challengers on 51 points, RasenBallsport Leipzig on 50, Borussia Mönchengladbach on 49, and even Bayer 04 Leverkusen on 47, could all still pip Bayern to the crown. However, even if the title race comes to a premature end, as could be the case if Bayern continue the form that's seen them pick up 31 points out of a possible 33 in their previous 11 leagues matches, those four challengers could still be fighting it out right to the death for Champions League qualification. The losers in that battle for one of the four Champions League spots, along with one of any number of teams below them, will have to settle for a Europa League place instead. Sixth placed Schalke, some ten points behind Leverkusen one place above them, are best placed to pick up the second league spot for Europe's secondary competition. VfL Wolfsburg and Sport-Club Freiburg, both sitting a point behind Schalke, and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim a point further back again, however, are just some of the clubs who could pip the Gelsenkirchen based side to a European place.

Having lost only league four games last season, to have lost the same number even before the halfway point this time around put FC Bayern's title credentials in doubt but their form since then has been almost impeccable. The club have been scoring goals for fun and star striker Robert Lewandowski with 25 goals to his name is the league's top goalscorer ahead of RB Leipzig's Timo Werner on 21, but equally as important has been their defence. 

Since they last lost a league match on 7 December, the club have went on to concede only six league goals in 11 games before the COVID-19 enforced suspension. Mostly used as a full back despite many assuming he would be back up for the centre halves, Benjamin Pavard, signed before the season started for £31.4m from VfB Stuttgart, has featured in 23 of FC Bayern's 25 league games this season and been a revelation, particularly from December onwards. Club president Uli Hoeneß predicted Pavard would be one of Bayern's best ever signings and although it's still early days many would find his assertation so far difficult to argue with. With Joshua Kimmich having been moved into his preferred position in the centre of midfield, Pavard has shown a defensive stability at right back which Kimmich was never able to reach. 

Another team with a solid defence has been RB Leipzig where stability has been the key. Dayot Upamecano, Lukas Klostermann, Marcel Halstenberg, and Konrad Laimer have all been ever presents as the club have conceded just 26 goals in league which has generally been a high scoring one, a feat only matched by FC Bayern.

BVB, in second, have conceded more goals than anyone else in the top five but will be hoping they have enough firepower to keep them in the hunt for the title. 19-year-old Norwegian Erling Braut Håland, who has scored nine goals in eight Bundesliga matches since joining from Red Bull Salzburg in January, will be keen to help them achieve this by featuring highly in the scoring charts alongside teammate Jordan Sancho. A potential continuation of his meteoric rise will be watched with intrigue by many. 

There has also been plenty of other standout names so far this season, Philippe Coutinho and Serge Gnabry have both been in excellent form for FC Bayern, for example, whilst slightly more unexpected has been the rise of another youngster. In December Bayer Leverkusen's Kai Havertz became the youngest ever player to reach 100 appearances in Bundesliga history aged 20 years, six months, and four days old. Havertz, a versatile midfielder who is reportedly a Manchester United target, will be hoping to keep his side in the hunt for a Champions League spot by continuing the excellent form that has earned him significant praise from the likes of Dietmar Hamann who likened him to a "young Michael Ballack".

Whilst goalscoring has not been too much of a problem for many teams, Fortuna Düsseldorf and SV Werder Bremen have both certainly struggled in that department scoring only 27 goals each and it is no wonder that they sit third and second bottom respectively. Bottom club SC Paderborn 07 on 18 points sit two behind Bremen in the relegation zone with Düsseldorf sitting two points ahead again in the relegation play-off spot. Interestingly Paderborn travel to Düsseldorf this weekend in what will be considered a must win match for the visitors if they want to keep their hopes of staying up alive much longer. 1. FSV Mainz 05 four points ahead of Düsseldorf on 26, FC Augsburg on 27, and Hertha Berlin and Eintracht Frankfurt who both sit on 28, will all be hoping not to drop down into the relegation places whilst 1. FC Union Berlin on 30 points and 1. FC Köln on 32 are seemingly just about safe for another season at least. 

There was one other major talking point before the league's suspension that thankfully should not be a problem when the season restarts. The behaviour of some fans, much of it offensive and abusive in nature, towards Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp saw several games halted whilst spectators were told to calm down. But with games resuming behind closed doors for fear of the spread of Coronavirus, the fans hatred and offensive banners directed towards Hopp, who has been perceived by many to buy his teams position at the top level of German football with excessive spending, should not be an issue on matchdays.

Issues surrounding Hopp have also angered fans in the second tier 2.Bundesliga but we can again assume events on the pitch will be the main focus upon the division's resumption. DSC Arminia Bielefeld lead the table five points ahead of VfB Stuttgart with Hamburger SV a point further back again in the promotion play-off place. There is a four point gap to 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 in fourth whilst the further five point gap between them and SpVGG Greuther Fürth in fifth and SV Darmstadt 98 in sixth makes Heidenheim the only realistic challengers to the top three.

Leaders Arminia Bielefeld have not played in the top flight since 2009 whereas VfB Stuttgart in second were relegated to the second division just last season and are hoping for an immediate return to the flight just as they managed after their last relegation 2015-16. HSV in third, meanwhile, are spending a second consecutive season outside the top flight after being relegated from the Bundesliga for the very first time in their history in 2018. Heidenheim in fourth have never played in the top flight.

What will happen in terms of relegation is still not 100% clear however provisional plans to restart the third tier 3. Liga by the end of the month means relegation and promotion to and from the 2. Bundesliga will more than likely take place as normal. Below the third tier, completion of the season is rather unclear with a final outcome yet be to agreed though it is expected some leagues will be cancelled.

Assuming the third tier does resume, however, and relegation from the 2. Bundesliga does indeed take place, SC Dynamo Dresden and Karlsruher SC, both on 24 points, currently occupy the bottom two places making them most likely to go down automatically. SV Wehen Wiesbaden are a point further ahead in the relegation play-off spot but would be perhaps rock bottom if it were not for the goalscoring exploits of Manuel Schäffler who's 15 strikes so far this season puts him second only to Arminia Bielefeld's Fabian Kloss in terms of goals scored. 

VfL Bochum 1848 who with 28 points sit three ahead of Wiesbaden will be nervously looking over their shoulders as will a trio of clubs on 29 points, 1. FC Nürnberg, SV Sandhausen, and VfL Osnabrück. FC St. Pauli sit on 30 points whilst SSV Jahn 2000 Regensburg and Hannover 96 who both sit on 32 will be hoping they are just about safe. But as unlikely as it may seem even fifth placed Greuther Fürth on 36 points could still plausibly go down. As for who will replace the relegated teams in the 2. Bundesliga, unbelievably only six points separate the top ten sides in the 3. Liga making it anyone's guess who will gain promotion from that division!

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