Neither Bayern nor Dortmund will play in the DfB-Pokal finals for the first time since 2011. The two German heavyweights, boasting 25 titles combined, exited the competition even before the quarterfinals.
With small margins for error and wildly varying Bundesliga standings, this season’s DfB-Pokal holds more significance. A guaranteed Europa League spot is up for grabs.
The clubs vying for this season’s cup win vary from Champions League hopefuls to clubs in 2. Bundesliga, the second tier of German soccer. With the lack of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the competitive nature of the sides adds something lost in the star-power of Bayern and Dortmund.
Bayern and Dortmund’s exit provides even field
Despite looking like the front-runner to win Meisterschale as Bundesliga winners for the 10th-straight season, 2021/22 is a down year for the German giants. Most recently, a devastating elimination from the UEFA Champions League at the hands of Villarreal cast a shadow over the Allianz Arena.
Yet, Bayern’s issues date back to much earlier in the season.
Looking at late October, a 5-0 thumping from Gladbach accentuated Bayern’s struggles. Although holding 62% of possession in the match with eight shots on target, a near-perfect Jann Sommer held the club scoreless. In Bayern’s first round tie, it dispatched fifth tier Bremer SV, 12-0. However, Bayern could not maintain its dominance after two months away in the cup competition.
Der Klassiker rivals Dortmund also faced an untimely exit in the competition. Like Bayern, Borussia Dortmund saw off a pair of lower-league opponents. Then, in the round of 16, a somewhat fortunate FC St. Pauli, a 2. Bundesliga side, caused Dortmund to slip.
The omission of Bayern and Dortmund sets the stage for what will be a significant conclusion to the DfB-Pokal. Moreover, the jumble of the semi-finalists across the Bundesliga and 2. Bundesliga means the potential rewards provide extra significance. Given the surprises of the competition this season, the sterling silver trophy is anyone’s to take.
Surprise semifinalists of the German Cup
The face of RB Leipzig is Christopher Nkunku. The Frenchman is an agile, talented, explosive midfielder. With nearly 50 goal contributions in 44 games in all competitions, several of Europe’s elite sides keep tabs on the playmaker. Carrying unbounding potential, no one should be surprised as Nkunku has three goals and two assists in four appearances in the DfB-Pokal. Goalscoring and playmaking make Nkunkuone of the biggest threats out of the remaining field.
However, do not count out the rest of the Leipzig squad. Andre Silva and Dominik Szoboszlai each helped in more than 10 goals in the Bundesliga. Plus, Peter Gulacsi is one of the Bundesliga’s best keepers. His 0.97 goals against per 90 is third best in this season’s Bundesliga. He trails only Freiburg’s Mark Flekken and the incomparable Manuel Neuer.
Recent trips to the final
Outside of talent, Leipzig’s experience could play a major role in the club’s conquest for its first DfB-Pokal. Of the remaining sides, Leipzig is perhaps the only club that is not a surprise semifinalist of the German Cup. Die Roten Bullen advanced to the finals of the DfB-Pokal last year. Then, a strong Dortmund side dismantled Leipzig. A similar fate met RB Leipzig in its first trip to the DfB-Pokal Final. Bayern Munich beat Leipzig en route to a domestic double, 3-0.
Bayern and Dortmund are out. Therefore, the 2021/22 German Cup provides the side with its most clear-cut opportunity at a major trophy.
To reach a third final in four seasons, Leipzig must get past the first Bundesliga side it faces in this season’s cup competition.
Having just jumped into third in the Bundesliga, Champions League qualification is not a guarantee. There is a chance the club saves its players for the race to the finish in league play. Still, RB Leipzig’s rapid rise to success could lead the club to seek its first trophy. Yet, Leipzig is not the only club seeking its first major success.
Union Berlin has nothing to lose and everything to gain. After an early elimination in the UEFA Europa Conference League, Union Berlin faces a steep climb in the Bundesliga to unlock European action next season. Union Berlin will want to go all-in for their first DfB-Pokal ever.
The core of an explosive Union Berlin offense and one of the best players in the Bundesliga, Taiwo Awoniyi will be central to their hunt for the trophy. This season, Awoniyi scored around a third of Berlin’s goals. The Nigerian is a constant threat in the final third. Yet, looking past the former Liverpool attacker, Union Berlin lacks a reliable star. Berlin owes its success to its innovative tactics and rock-solid defense. Pressing is common for Die Eisernen, and the backline can be quite flexible.
Like Leipzig, Union is not necessarily new to DfB-Pokal runs. A trip to the finals in 2001 springs to mind, where the side toppled Borussia Monchengladbach and Bochum, only to lose to Schalke. Ignoring a quarterfinals appearance in 2019, Berlin failed to advance to to the round of 16 since 2013.
On one hand, the side lacks experience. That being said, Union Berlin enters as a surprise semifinalist of the German Cup riding red-hot form and unique schemes.
Success against Leipzig shows why Union Berlin is on the cusp of another UECL berth. In its last two matchups, Union Berlin beat Leipzig 2-1 on both occasions. Both times, Leipzig held over 60% of the match’s possession and logged at least 10 shots. Leipzig’s offense was lethal as usual, but somehow, Berlin tamed Die Roten Bullen.
Freiburg dangerously dangles on a cliff with fingers slipping. Earlier in the season, Freiburg looked like the surprise team set for Champions League qualification.
That kind of form in a competitive Bundesliga was always going to be challenging to maintain. As the Bundesliga inches to an end, Freiburg sits in fifth. Just one point behind Bayer Leverkusen, the Champions League is within reach with four games to play. As the race to enter the upper echelons of the Bundesliga intensifies, Freiburg faces a decision based on which competition it prioritizes.
Freiburg’s success in the German Cup and the Bundesliga stems from the back. Goalkeeper Mark Flekken and his solid defensive corps allowed just 34 goals in 30 games, second fewest in the league. Center-back duo Nico Schlotterbeck and Phillip Lienhart grind out points thanks via gritty determination in defense.
While goal-scoring does not pop out for Freiburg, flashy play down the flanks steps in when called upon. Left-winger Vincenzo Grifo and striker Lucas Holer supply most of the Breisgau-Brasilianer’s goals.
Culmination of success
For years, goals failed to flow for Freiburg. Despite taking the 2. Bundesliga title four times, Freiburg found little to no success in the top flight. While a surprise semifinalist in the German Cup, Freiburg is not immune to success. Over a 28-year span, the club reached the quarterfinals six times. Not a bad ratio from a side bouncing between the first and second divisions.
With relative stability in the Bundesliga at five years now, this season is one to remember. Now, the side has a chance to capitalize on a strong league finish with its first major trophy. However, Freiburg fans may want to guarantee their entrance into Europe for the first time in almost a decade. As things stand, Freiburg would qualify for the Europa League via league finish. Of course, Champions League qualification is well-within the realm of possibility.
Facing Hamburg, Freiburg carries a good chance at advancing to the finals and locking in the Europa League qualification. Freiburg relies on solid defense and confidence to win in the finals.
The surprise semifinalist in this season’s German Cup is also the most fascinating team to watch. Hamburger SV is truly a wild card for the DfB-Pokal.
The 2. Bundesliga side faces currently sits in sixth, five points adrift of St. Pauli, which is in the third-place playoff spot.
Conversely to the other semifinalists, Hamburg boasts a proud history of Bundesliga, DfB-Pokal and European Cup titles. In fact, Hamburger SV has three DfB-Pokal wins and three runner-up finishes.
To boot, HSV also has bright talents waiting in the wake to carry the side back to the top flight. Still, this is a second division side battling teams in the top half of the Bundesliga. There is reason to believe this disadvantage is too much to overcome.
Past glory and recent struggles
The most recent of those trophies was in 1987. Since then, Hamburger fell into a slow spiral that culminated in its first relegation in 2017/18. Long past their European Cup-winning heydays in the 1980s thanks to financial trouble, Hamburger experienced relative stability in Germany’s second-tier. Even then, fans of the club surely believe their club deserves to be back in the Bundesliga. After all, up until relegation, Hamburger was the only founding side of the Bundesliga to never be relegated.
Young prospects could return Hamburg to European action and eventually the Bundesliga.
Robert Glatzel and Sonny Kittel, both vetted attackers in their prime, form one of the most lethal attacking duos in the 2. Bundesliga. Glatzel’s solid physique and Kittel’s impressive playmaking lift Der Dino towards the top of the table. Behind them, some of the younger talents attract bigger clubs. Former Barcelona B prospect Ludovit Reis proves essential to Hamburg’s midfield. Also, Hajduk Split loanee Mario Vuskovic is a brick wall for the backline. Hamburg’s youth products, contrasted with HSV’s dynasties of old, make them a confusing side to pin down.
As Hamburger looks to line up in its usual 4-3-3, the club loos to reassert itself among Germany’s storied clubs with a DfB-Pokal victory. A rare domestic cup victory for a team outside the top flight will undoubtedly attract viewers and signal a new era beginning for Der Dino.
Season outlook and European qualification
Leipzig, Berlin and Freiburg all jostle for a respectable finish in the Bundesliga with the added benefit of European qualification. Still, Bundesliga sides eliminated from the cup may see next season affected by the DfB-Pokal.
Take Bayer Leverkusen. After losing to Leipzig in a crucial battle, Leverkusen sits sandwiched between Leipzig and Freiburg. They trail third-place Leipzig by two points, while holding a one-point edge over Freiburg. Leverkusen hopes for both teams to attach focus to the cup competition, not the league. With fatigue playing a major role, Leverkusen may be able to hold on to its Champions League spot. Or, the club could even bump itself up to third. Leipzig’s reliance on Nkunku for goals could cause the higher-ups at Red Bull Arena to give the Frenchman a game off from starting, which would serve Leverkusen well.
Trophy vs. League finish
Hamburg and Freiburg, although in different divisions face a similar dilemma. Both sides desperately seek a trophy, but both have higher aspirations in league play. For Freiburg, a strong closing four games could launch the side to the Champions League for the first time. Remember that Freiburg’s current position, fifth in the Bundesliga, would warrant the same Europa League qualification as winning the DfB-Pokal. For Freiburg, it is surely about the trophy more so than the following season’s benefits.
In HSV’s case, third place in the league, and a chance to get back to the Bundesliga, is not out of the question. Frankly speaking, it would be challenging for the club to manage either a DfB-Pokal or finishing top three, let alone accomplishing both. Still, there are always slivers of opportunity.
When it all is said and done, each team has some important decisions to make. With no margin of error allowed for any of the semifinalists in each club’s league season, the DfB-Pokal, offering a guaranteed European spot, will be more interesting than anyone can imagine.
- Christopher Nkunku: Picture alliance / Contributor
- Robert Glatzel: Cathrin Mueller/Getty Images
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