Bundesliga resumes this Friday, after a three-week long winter break, when Bayer Leverkusen take on Borussia Dortmund at the Bay Arena. With favourites Bayern Munich in the 5th place, Mainz and Hannover earning 2nd and 4th place respectively and unassuming teams like Freiburg, Frankfurt and Hoffenheim threatening to breach the top five places, this Bundesliga title race could become as intriguing as ever. In the last four years, Bundesliga has had three different champions, making it one of the most competitive leagues in the world. After 8 years in hibernation, Borussia Dortmund are back in hunt for the title and are currently topping the table being ten points clear off the second placed Mainz. Let us have a look at the possible title contenders and their chances of paving their way to glory.
The current winter champions Borussia Dortmund are 10 points ahead of their nearest rivals and 14 points ahead of favorites Bayern Munich. Jurgen Klopp’s men have already been ousted from the Europa League as well as from DFB Pokal, where they lost to Offenbach in penalty shootout. In a way these failures can only work as a positive catalyst to Dortmund’s chances of reclaiming domestic glory as they can solely focus on Bundesliga now.
Klopp has again acted smartly by snapping up 17 year old hotshot Moritz Leitner. Dortmund is also rumored to be interested in signing highly rated youngster Julian Draxler from Schalke. There were countless rumors to unsettle the Dortmund outfit before the league resumed. Rumors were rife that Liverpool are after Jurgen Klopp to replace Roy Hodgson. But Klopp assured the Dortmund faithful by maintaining the stance, “There has been no approach and there’s no point talking about it”. Kagawa, Subotic, Hummels and Sahin were subject of immense speculations as well.
In the first half of the season, Dortmund were untouchable. They lost only once at home, that too in their very first game of the season, to Leverkusen. On the road they have won eight straight games before losing to Frankfurt, falling one short of creating a new Bundesliga away win record in consecutive games. They start the rückrunde against Bayer, away from home. Bayer is the only team against whom they have lost at home this season and so it adds more spice to this contest. Apart from being 10 points ahead of the closest rivals, they also have the advantage of playing one more home game than Leverkusen or Bayern in the second half of the season as they have played only 8 home games in the first half of the season. Thus, despite missing influential midfielder Kagawa for the next three Bundesliga games due to national commitment in Asia Cup, they start favorites to win the league after 8 barren years.
Bayern Munich is in 5th place in the league. Though they have proved to be the best home team in the league, their performance on the road has been devastating. In the eight away games thus far, they have won only twice and have managed to earn only nine points. They are trailing the pacesetters Dortmund by 14 points. With only 17 matches to go, it is highly unlikely that Bayern will be able to turn the tide, despite moral boosting news of Arjen Robben’s comeback from injury.
Last year Bayern were trailing the then league leaders Bayer Leverkusen after the winter break. Robben made his recovery from injury at a similar time and the rest is history. Bayern was struggling in all three competitions. Robben scored 13 goals in 14 Bundesliga games, 3 goals in 6 Champions League games and 3 goals in 3 DFB Pokal games. Bayern eventually ended up winning a domestic double, and reached the final of the champions league as well. It is a déjà vu situation for the fans as they await Robben’s comeback after the winter break to salvage their pride, just like he did a year ago. Manager Van Gaal has already spoken to the press expressing his views about Robben’s importance for Bayern Munich. Robben might feature for Bayern in the game against Wolfsburg, to play his first game since the World Cup.
Bayern have already signed holding midfielder Luis Gustavo from Hoffenheim. They are also rumored to be tracking Riverplate’s attacking talent Eric Lamela. With the return of Badstuber, their defense looks stronger. If players like Ribery, Robben, Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Badstuber stay fit for the rest half of the season, Bayern will surely mount a serious title challenge. Though a deficit of 14 points is too much to overturn, with the team they have and the history they have, they are certainly one of the biggest threats to Dortmund’s title hopes. And if not the title, odds are high that they’ll qualify for the Champions League ahead of both Leverkusen and Mainz.
Currently, Bayer Leverkusen are third in the table. They are equal on points with second placed Mainz but have won two games less than the later. Leverkusen started their campaign in style, winning against eventual winter champions Dortmund at the very first game, away from home. Thereafter, they have been extremely inconsistent throughout the first half of the season.
During the winter break there were rumors that Rene Adler could be transferred to Manchester United. Of course such rumors were a far cry from reality. Adler could however be rested for the first couple of weeks to fully rcover form his knee injury. In the mean time, Leverkusen signed Hajime Hosogai on a free transfer, but the player was loaned out to Augsburg till 2012. Karim Bellarabi could be on his way to Leverkusen as well. During their preparation for rückrunde, they won two of their practice games against Oberhausen and Osnabrueck.
They start the second half of Bundesliga against Dortmund. Their home form has been a big let down thus far. In nine games they could only muster 13 points which includes only three victories. Though they are highly likely to finish ahead of Mainz at the end of the season, their inconsistence and poor home form hardly makes them a candidate for challenging the title. Their fight will be to qualify directly for the Champions League, against the likes of Bayern and Mainz.
Odd men in?
Mainz started the campaign by raising eyebrows as they raced to seven straight victories from the very first game they played. The string of victories also included a massive comeback against Wolfsburg, a game in which they were trailing by 3-0 at the break and eventually won it 4-3, that too away from home. It all looked as if Mainz was on their way to glory, at least, till the winter break. But they did a Hoffenheim much before the winter break and could only manage to win 9 points in their last 8 outings. They have been good on the road, winning 6 out of the 8 games they have played, but at home their form has not been consistent. One surprising fact is that they are yet to play out a single draw in the league.
Mainz have signed Daniel Buballa from SV Rossbach. During the winter break, the team went to Camp Nou for training. As a preparation for the second half of the season, Mainz participated in two mini tournaments. In the indoor tournament, Harder 13 at Mannheim SAP Arena, they managed to finish third after losing to FC Koeln in the semifinal. The highest scorer for the team was Adam Szalai. In the other tournament they could only manage to play out a couple of goalless draw against Bundesliga second league club Paderborn and third division club Wehen Wiesbaden at Bruchweg stadium and finished last in the round robin format.
Mainz has a very young and inexperienced team. They started off well, but lost their steam towards the end of the first half of the season. They do not look like championship material now, and are unlikely to finish ahead of Bayern or Leverkusen at the end of the season, to qualify for the Champions League. However they could be favorites to qualify for Europa if they restore the form they showed at the beginning of the season.
Hannover, Frankfurt, Hoffenheim and Freiburg have all been surprise packages of the season. All these teams have breached the top 5 spots frequently. While Hannover are still sitting on 4th place, ahead of Bayern, they are unlikely to pose a serious threat in the title race. However, it could go down the wire for the qualification of Europa League with the fourth and fifth spot being up for grabs. All these four clubs will have to slug it out with big teams like Schalke and Hamburg and who knows, maybe even with Bayern Munich!
Among the big teams, Schalke and Hamburg can still vie for the Europa League spot at the end of the season. Hamburg is currently placed at 9th place followed by Schalke on tenth. But both the teams have enough experience and depth to finish the season on a high. It will be tough for the two teams as Mainz, Hannover, Frankfurt, Hoffenheim and Freiburg has proved to be tougher nuts to crack.
Other big teams who certainly look down and out at this moment are Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg, Koeln and Stuttgart. While Stuttgart has been steadily breaching the relegation zone, Koeln has been flirting with disaster consistently. Both these teams must do better right from the start of the second half of the season to stay up. 14th placed Bremen can be said to be in a better position as compared with Koeln and Suttgart, but earning only 19 points in 17 games, does not speak highly of them either. The sale of striker Hugo Almeida to Besiktas can only make them weaker. Wolfsburg, under the tutelage of Steve Mclaren, has failed to deliver consistency or a winning mentality so far. After the departure of Dzeko, their chances of finishing in the top half of the table look jeopardized. Under current circumstances, both these teams are likely to deteriorate in the next five months.