With New Year’s come and gone, all Bundesliga teams have ended their brief winter vacation and have traveled to training camps in much warmer climates than Germany. Many teams have already played warm-up test matches and have begun running out their newest winter signings. The second half of the season begins with match day 18 on January 20. So with a new year many teams are looking at the rest of the season with hope and optimism, while many other teams look at it with dread and consternation.
Bayern Munich are still and will continue to be the prohibitive favorites. With midfield general Bastian Schweinsteiger training again and expected to make his first team return in the next few matches, there is much to be upbeat about in Bavaria. No giant winter signings are expected, even though I would not be surprised to see a much needed top-grade central defender move to Munich before the transfer window closes this month. The key for Bayern will be staying healthy through all three of the major competitions they are still engaged in; league, cup, and Champions League. If all stay healthy then Bayern should not have too many issues regaining the league championship. However, should Robben continue to be unreliable in terms of health and Schweinsteiger suffer a setback, then the pack following Bayern will be eager to pounce.
Champions Borussia Dortmund seem to have hit their stride (in the league) prior to the break. They made headlines by announcing the signing of wunderkind Marco Reus (though only after the season). The champs too have injury concerns. Superstar Mario Götze and defender Nevan Subotic are dealing with injuries, as are captain Sebastian Kehl and German international Ilkay Gündogan. Another worry for BVB is unhappy striker Lucas Barrios. If they are unable to move him during the transfer window he could pose a potential distraction. All that being said, Dortmund are clearly Bayern’s greatest threat for the title.
Dortmund’s bitter rival FC Schalke 04 are also making a push for the top. With Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Raul in splendid form they will certainly be a menace to the afore mentioned clubs. The biggest concern for Schalke is a defense that at times has proven to be a bit shaky, especially without a top-class keeper. Their saving grace is their attack and as soon as Jefferson Farfan is back to full fitness, no team will relish the thought of facing the “blues.”
Rounding off the current Champions League spots is the surprise team of the season; Borussia Mönchengladbach. With one of the most exciting players in Europe, Marco Reus, Gladbach are always menacing on the counter attack. They sit back and wait for the opponents to over-commit and then use their incredible speed to strike. They also have the second best defense in the Bundesliga. The question remains if last year’s miracle survival team can continue to play well above their expectations. My guess is not, but I still see Gladbach as being a team for the European spots, but probably not Champions League.
Always entertaining due to their unpredictability are Werder Bremen and Bayer Leverkusen. Both teams have a shocking goal difference for teams wishing to play in Europe next season. One game they dazzle and the next they fizzle, which in Leverkusen has already led to much speculation about first year manager Robin Dutt. If Leverkusen can find an attack and any level of consistency, they are the most likely candidate to snatch the final Champions League spot. They have achieved respectable results against the other top-six teams, only losing to Bayern, but it is horrible losses to the likes of Cologne (1:4) and Nuremburg (0:3) that have many people worried. Bremen, on the other hand, have been consistently abysmal against the top clubs. They have lost against all other top-six clubs, scoring only once and conceding 17 goals. Defense has never been their strength and as such they will continue to struggle breaking into the Champions League spots, but a Europa League spot is certainly a possibility.
A surprise team from last season, Hannover 96 are making a push towards the European places again this season. With respectable outings in the Europa League, the Lower Saxony club have regained their composure and are making life difficult for their opponents. No longer the purely counter attacking side, Hannover play a swift moving, ball control style of football. Their biggest concern has to be the lack of depth at the striker positions. Moa Abdellaoue is recovering from injury, Jan Schlaudraff is still out with injury and Didie Ya Konan is heading to the Africa Cup of Nations. Hannover tried unsuccessfully to craft a loan deal with Bayern for Nils Petersen, but neither the player nor the club were interested. Should they solidify their attack, Hannover will continue to put pressure on the clubs above them, but it is very doubtful that they will have enough depth or talent to end the season in the top-six.
VfB Stuttgart, on the other hand, do have the depth and talent to make it to European qualification. Rumor has it that they are interested in acquiring Srdjan Lakic from Wolfsburg. This would be an inspired signing for the attack, with a player that has proven his worth in the past with Kaiserslautern, even though Felix Magath never gave him a chance in Wolfsburg. Stuttgart’s greatest liability is on the bench in the form of manager Bruno Labbadia. Though he did an outstanding job in rescuing what was left of Stuttgart’s season last year, he does not have the track record to push highly talented teams beyond mediocre and inconsistent play. That being said, the talent is too good for Stuttgart not to at least contend for a top-six finish.
Hoffenheim, Cologne and Berlin are teams of inconsistency and potential turmoil. These clubs could either stay right where they are or make a disastrous run for relegation. Hoffenheim is the least likely to fall, but manager Stanislawski seems to be losing his St. Pauli magic and his team is reflecting his uncertainties by delivering too many uninspired performances for a squad full of talent.
Cologne and Berlin, though filled with young talent, as well as relegation battle veterans have off-the-pitch issues to worry about derailing their seasons. The transfer saga surrounding Cologne’s star Lukas Podolski will likely drag on through the rest of the season and could pose a major distraction for both club and player. The sooner this gets resolved, the better for all parties. Hertha Berlin have dealt with their soap opera involving the unseemly departure of Markus Babbel. All will now hinge upon the new manager’s (Michael Skibbe) ability to not sink the ship, like he managed in previous stints at Frankfurt and Leverkusen. In all likelihood, both Cologne and Berlin will be fighting off relegation for the rest of the season, but I doubt that even Skibbe will be able to drive Hertha back into the second division.
Following this group in the table are two clubs that I predict will finish much higher than their current positions; VfL Wolfsburg and Hamburg SV. Felix Magath, the king of transfers, is already adding (and subtracting) to his squad. This go-around though, he is adding more talent and lesser known commodities rather than just big name stars. His best signing (talent wise) has got to be 19-year-old Swiss left-back Ricardo Rodriguez from FC Zurich. If Magath can will his talent laden squad to actually play up to their potential and deliver better results than in the first half of the season, Wolfsburg should begin to overtake the clubs currently still positioned above them and make a push for the European spots.
Hamburg, after a disastrous start to the season seem to have steadied the ship. New manager Thorsten Fink came from Basel and instilled tactics and confidence in a side far too talented to be facing relegation. Bit by bit the team came together and began accumulating positive results and more importantly, points. Given a full training camp and more time with his squad, Hamburg fans should be confident that Fink will have their team well out of the relegation battle soon enough. Top-six might be too much to ask for, but finishing the season in the top half of the table should be in the cards.
Mainz and Nuremburg will be battling for survival for the rest of the season. Mainz probably has the best shot to stay up, but the antics of manager Thomas Tuchel are starting to wear thin and he is not getting the same results out of his players as he did last season. Granted, he does not have Holtby, Fuchs or Schürrle this year, but this season’s biggest disappointment team still has a strong core of players. Tuchel needs to find the right recipe fast; otherwise Mainz will be in a dog fight for survival. Nuremburg too has lost many key players from their surprise squad of last season. The big question is whether Dieter Hecking can save another Nuremburg season as he did in 2010, and I have my doubts. Down the stretch, when things were very tough at Hannover and Aachen, Hecking could not survive. This time though he has much more talent at his disposal. Nuremburg will be in survival mode for the rest of the season, but should narrowly escape the drop, especially if they can achieve results like the 3:0 win against Leverkusen.
The bottom three you see now (Kaiserslautern, Augsburg, and Freiburg) will most likely be there after the last match day. None of these clubs have the resources to truly bolster their squads in the transfer window and due to a lack of strong overall talent none of these teams should be able to pull off the same miracle Mönchengladbach did last season. Kaiserslautern just always seem to find a way to lose matches, Augsburg are content with their tour of top flight stadiums and Freiburg is in complete disarray. Having sacked their manager, ostracized many of their players and sporting the worst defense in the league, Freiburg is almost certain to finish the season in an automatic relegation spot. Their only glimmer of hope is striker Papiss Demba Cisse. But the Senegalese star is off to the Africa Cup of Nations and also does not want to be in Freiburg much longer, which will once again pose a certain distraction.