There has suddenly been an awakening for the sides loitering at the foot of the Bundesliga table. Just a few months ago, games against the league’s bottom five were considered a perfect opportunity for those higher in the table to increase their goal difference in an attempt to gain the upper hand over league rivals. While Schalke conceded six, Hertha Berlin conceded five on matchday 17 to sides chasing European places; they simultaneously put their own future in the Bundesliga into question.
However, fast-forward 14 matches later and Schalke have only lost three times as they look to turn their once bleak-looking fortunes around. As for Hertha, they have reignited their survival bid with a vital win at home to Stuttgart in a game that could have all but relegated Die Alte Dame if they had lost.
With the confidence growing in the sides at the bottom and of the table, the Bundesliga has one of the closest relegation battles the league has witnessed for some time, therefore, who are fighting and who seem to be destined for the drop?
Hertha Berlin – 18th (25pts)
Die Alte Dame have managed to spark some life into their survival hopes, however, they do still find themselves cut adrift at the bottom of the table. They have only taken 11 points since the beginning of the Rückrunde, which is the lowest return in the league and they have failed to win away from home since September 4. With three games left to save their season, two fixtures will be played away from the Olympiastadion. This means that with them being five points away from safety, they will need to break their habit of collapsing on the road.
Away visits to FC Köln and Wolfsburg do not look to be inspiring for Hertha with Köln finding their form again, while Wolfsburg are battling out for a spot in Europe. Nevertheless, their positive display at home to Stuttgart on matchday 31 would have undoubtedly restored belief within the Hertha camp. A first win in 10 league matches, however, does shine a light on why they sit afoot of the Bundesliga table, destined for the 2. Bundesliga. It has been a long time coming for the capital club, but their exit from the Bundesliga is edging ever nearer.
VfL Bochum – 17th (28pts)
After a defeat away at Borussia Mönchengladbach on matchday 31, VfL Bochum sit level on points with Stuttgart – who occupy the relegation play-off spot. However, the picture looked significantly different for Der Blau just a few weeks ago. Thomas Letsch’s side were able to pick up two wins on the bounce on matchday 24 and 25, which saw them fly up to 14th and seemingly far away from danger. Nevertheless, they have not tasted victory since. Unlike those around them, Bochum have slipped up towards the end of the season which has left concern ringing around the Vonovia Ruhrstadion.
Thomas Letsch will be looking for his side to find some desire with just three games remaining, however, whether that will be enough is not known. Only Schalke have scored fewer goals than The Blues this campaign. Additionally, they can boast the unwanted record of conceding 69 goals, the most in the Bundesliga. The quality in the side is concerningly low, and that was on display away at Borussia Mönchengladbach on the weekend. Despite The Foals’ lacklustre performances this campaign, they comfortably dealt with Bochum in a game where they could have scored four or five. Bochum will need to find at least four points if they are to save their season. Games against Augsburg and Hertha Berlin in the next two matchdays look to be season-defining.
VfB Stuttgart – 16th (28pts)
VfB Stuttgart were a side spiralling out of control just a few matchdays ago. From matchday 18 until matchday 26, the Swabian outfit had only managed to return four points. This saw them rooted to the foot of the table and five points away from safety. Under firefighter Bruno Labbadia, their race had looked all but run and only their miraculous form in the DFB-Pokal had been keeping their season alive. However, Labbadia was sacked and Sebastian Hoeneß was hired. The young coach – formally of Hoffenheim – had little time to inspire a young side that had once been disregarded by Labbadia.
However, Hoeneß’s side quickly adapted to his ideas and believed he would mend their sinking ship. Hoeneß has been able to do that… to some extent. Eight points out of a possible 15 has resurrected a Stuttgart side that were on its knees just a matter of weeks ago. Defeat away at Hertha Berlin on matchday 31 would have taken Hoeneß by surprise no matter how hard he expected Die Alte Dame to make it for them. Despite this, Stuttgart created enough to warrant at least a point and it will not deter them on their voyage to safety. They will look at top goalscorer Serhou Guirassy (9) as the man to save their season, with a final matchday meeting against neighbours Hoffenheim looking to be an appropriate climax to the campaign.
Schalke 04 – 15th (30pts)
Schalke find themselves in a position that many would be concerned about. However, while the concerns are there, it is a position they would have dreamed of at the beginning of the Rückrunde. Since matchday 17, Die Knappen have been transformed under head coach Thomas Reis. They were seemingly cut adrift halfway through the season when they found themselves on nine points – seven away from safety. However, Reis has changed the complexion of a side that looked out of their depth under Frank Kramer.
They have proven to be competitive in the Bundesliga taking points away from bitter rivals Borussia Dortmund in their plea to stay up. This was during an eight-game unbeaten run that heralded 12 points, while only four goals were conceded. This has put Schalke on course to navigate their way out of a relegation battle they should have never been able to escape. Despite a lack of consistency in recent weeks, two wins on the bounce – with both containing 90+ minute winners – would have installed that extra degree of confidence that could be pivotal on this final straight. Difficult trips to Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig sandwich Schalke’s most realistic route to safety. A home game against a hapless Eintracht Frankfurt on matchday 33 is a must-win.
TSG Hoffenheim – 14th (32pts)
The club that is controversially kept afloat financially through benefactor Dietmar Hopp looked to be challenging for a spot in the Champions League earlier on in the season. On matchday 10 they sat fourth in the Bundesliga with five wins to their name. However, 21 games and four wins later they sit precariously above the relegation zone. André Breitenreiter would be relieved of his duties in early February and Pellegrino Matarazzo would take over. The former Stuttgart boss quickly realised the job at hand and after five defeats in his opening five games, the writing seemed to be on the wall. Nevertheless, like the clubs below them – or at the time, the sides above them – they decided to wake up.
Three wins on the bounce and two against direct relegation rivals in Hertha Berlin and Schalke saw the side retreat to safety. Despite a run of three games without victory, they took all three points against an out-of-form Eintracht Frankfurt on matchday 31, which looks to have salvaged their season with tough games to follow. Wolfsburg and Union Berlin are the two games prior to their clash with Stuttgart. The belief generated in the Hoffenheim camp is clear to see and there is no reason to believe that they will not be a Bundesliga team next season.
All five sides have crucial games remaining and while some look more doomed than others – mainly Hertha – the Bundesliga loves to offer drama with unparalleled storylines. It could go right to the wire and with many sides so closely packed together, we could see a final day as intriguing as that of the 1998/99 campaign. Who stays up and who goes down is up for debate, but this is why we love the Bundesliga.
GGFN | Will Shopland