Following Wednesday evening's Champions League Round of 16 matches, the last eight contestants in the tournament have been decided. Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Dortmund, Galatasaray, Juventus, Malaga, PSG and Real Madrid now remain in contention for the title of Europe's strongest club of 2012-13.
It's been a particularly unique and interesting Champions League campaign thus far. No English clubs remain in the competition, and the only undefeated sides are Dortmund and Juventus. One of the more compelling narratives of this season's competition has been the rise of Bundesliga teams. Although Schalke were eliminated on Tuesday, they were one of three German clubs to advance as group winners. Bayern and Dortmund, meanwhile, are both among the favorites to win the tournament.
Yet, for all the good things Bundesliga teams have done this season, the league is by no means at its peak. Actually, there's a very good chance that four German sides will advance to the knockout rounds next season.
It should be noted that there are a lot of variables that will come into play in the next 12 months. Transfers, though somewhat predictable, are sometimes uncertain. Injuries and draws for the playoffs and group stage are purely lottery.
Still, it is possible to reasonably predict that the top four finishers in the Bundesliga this season will proceed to the 2013-14 quarterfinals, provided they face circumstances similar to those experienced by the German league's representatives in the current season.
The first question to address is which teams will finish in the top four. Bayern, with a 20-point lead, can wrap up the title by month's end. The next teams are Dortmund and Leverkusen, who are respectively seven and six points clear of Schalke and Frankfurt and can feel very confident in their chances of finishing second and third in either order.
Fourth remains up for grabs, with Schalke, Frankfurt and Hamburg separated by one point, and the likes of Mainz, Freiburg and Gladbach not far behind. The momentum now is with Schalke, who have won three consecutive Bundesliga matches. Despite being without the injured Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for the next month or so, the class of their squad is vastly superior to that of any of the contenders, barring the extremely volatile HSV. For the purposes of this article, we will assume that Schalke finish fourth.
Looking ahead to next season, it's hard to imagine Schalke being weaker than they currently are. Huntelaar and Benedikt Howedes have both extended their contracts this season, and no key player has a deal that will expire either this summer or the next. Ibrahim Afellay is expected to return to Barcelona following his loan spell, but injuries have limited the talented winger to just 15 appearances this season: Assuming he does go, his loss will not be greatly felt.
Huntelaar turns 30 in August but will hardly be on the decline, especially given that pace and power were never cornerstones of his game. The rest of the squad remains quite young: Julian Draxler, Sead Kolasinac (both 19) and Max Meyer (17) can only get better with age, and the same can be said, albeit to a lesser extent, of Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Joel Matip (both 21).
Schalke are somewhat affected by debt, but their revenue (€174.5 million in 2012, when they went without income from the Champions League) is sizable: They will have money to make a couple considered transfers.
Critically, Schalke can expect to have a qualified coach next season. Keeping Jens Keller on the books has been a bit of a risk, but if they finish fourth or better it will pay off: The market is always better for signing coaches in the summer than it is in midseason.
Assuming a negotiable opponent in the Champions League playoffs, Schalke's experience should see them through to the group stage and Round of 16. From there, if they face a team in the league of Galatasaray, Porto, Malaga, Celtic or Valencia, they will have fair odds: Two seasons ago, they eliminated Valencia and Inter en route to the quarterfinals, and this season beat Arsenal in the group stage.
Looking onward, Leverkusen are perhaps a bit of a wild card. There is a chance Gonzalo Castro will be sold this summer, and the likes of Andre Schurrle and Lars Bender are certainly hot items in the transfer market. There is also the possibility of Real Madrid exercising a buyback option to re-sign Daniel Carvajal, although there has been no official word on whether this option takes effect in 2013, 2014 or otherwise, or whether it exists at all.
The good news for Leverkusen is that both Schurrle and Bender are valued in the €20-25 million region, meaning the club will have substantial funds to spend on replacements if necessary. And if they finish third, Leverkusen will not be pressed to integrate any newcomers ahead of a playoff as Gladbach had to do this season.
Financially backed in part by the Bayer company, Leverkusen will have a modest transfer kitty available in the summer. However, the club's primary focus for improvement seems to be within the youth ranks. Arkadiusz Milik, Dominik Kohr and Okan Aydin are all excellent prospects born in 1994: All three have played in the Bundesliga, and each stands a good chance of earning considerable minutes off the bench.
Leverkusen have improved their squad slightly in the last year, with Carvajal and Philipp Wollscheid adding quality to the defense. In last year's Champions League, they were utterly outclassed by Barcelona in the Round of 16, but beat eventual winners Chelsea and drew on aggregate in the group stage against Valencia.
Looking forward to next season, Leverkusen are perhaps the Bundesliga's biggest question mark. Although volatile, they've proven to be in a league with the types of teams they may well be drawn against in not only the group stage, but also the knockout rounds.
The final two Bundesliga teams to consider are Bayern and Dortmund. For Bayern, there is little to say. No player in his right mind would leave the Bavarians, who currently look to be the strongest club in Europe. No key player will be sufficiently past his prime in 12 months, and the summer arrival of Pep Guardiola (plus at least one or two good reinforcements) may make them favorites to win the Champions League final. It's very hard imagining a scenario in which they are eliminated even in the Round of 16, let alone before it.
Dortmund may well lose key striker Robert Lewandowski this summer, but if history is an indicator, they will retain all their other stars. CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke has pledged to spend heavily in the summer, and with the club having earned a record profit of €17.5 million in the second half of 2012, it seems they will have sufficient funds. Both Edin Dzeko and Mame Biram Diouf have been linked with moves to the Ruhr area.
Whether or not Lewandowski leaves, it's hard to imagine Dortmund being eliminated before the quarterfinals next season, and certainly not in the group stage. Mario Gotze gets better with every passing game, and the whole squad will benefit from this year's experience. With the depth that will be added this summer, they can expect to have a better squad in 2013-14—with or without Lewandowski.
As well as German teams have fared this in the Champions League this season, there is a real possibility that in 12 months' time they will be in even better standing. Luck will certainly play a role, and football can be a fickle thing at times.
Nonetheless, the league and its players and clubs continue to grow. As things stand now, it appears that four qualified candidates, no weaker than they currently are, will represent the German top flight in next season's Champions League. Provided none are forced to punch above their weight class, there is a good chance there will be four Bundesliga representatives in the last eight of the Champions League.
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