Matchday 6 of the 2013-14 Champions League group stage is upon us, and for Bundesliga hopefuls Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen, matches this Tuesday and Wednesday will feel like an early final.
BVB currently stand second in Group F and need to match Napoli's result at home to Arsenal as they visit Marseille on Wednesday.
Schalke are third in Group E, one point behind Basel, whom they host on Wednesday: Victory would put Jens Keller's side through to the knockout rounds, but anything less would result in their elimination.
Leverkusen are the only German club without destiny in their own hands; they are third in Group A behind Shakhtar Donetsk and Manchester United, who face off at Old Trafford on Tuesday. B04 will need a better result away to Real Sociedad than the Ukrainians claim in Manchester: A draw could be enough for Leverkusen provided United take three points, but even a win may not see Sami Hyypia's men advance if Shakhtar claim victory on foreign soil.
These next two days mark a critical period in the history of the Bundesliga, as its clubs strive to gain a higher standing on the international stage.
As many as four German teams could find their way to the knockout rounds, a perfect record that, as of now, only the Premier League could match. But should Dortmund, Schalke and Leverkusen fail, Bayern Munich would be the Bundesliga's only representatives in the Round of 16.
Traditionally, the most common criticism of the Bundesliga has been its being a one-team league, with all other sides competing only for the runners-up spot behind traditional powers Bayern.
Felix Magath recently went so far as to claim the record champions should leave the German top flight in search of real competition. And if Bayern were to be the only German team in the Round of 16, it certainly would be a rather damning indictment of the league's depth.
Dortmund perhaps have the excuse of having an injury list that would cripple most clubs. This nonetheless will hardly come as consolation for a club that, with Robert Lewandowski's departure eminent and Ilkay Gundogan's future uncertain, teeters on the verge of falling back to the level of a Schalke or Leverkusen in terms of prestige.
BVB were on the rise, but failure to progress on Wednesday could diminish their run to the 2013 Champions League final, much like Schalke's progress to the 2011 semifinal, to merely a one-off in the eyes of potential star signings.
For Schalke and Leverkusen, qualification is a good start but sadly may not be enough to save face. The utter capitulation of S04 and B04 against Chelsea and Manchester United, respectively, is shameful. The German sides lost all four of their matches against English opposition by a combined margin of 15-2.
Both Schalke and Leverkusen will have to at least put up a fight in the Round of 16 in order to win back any of the respect lost in recent weeks.
That is not out of the cards, considering a weaker Schalke handily beat Arsenal 2-0 at the Emirates a year ago, and Leverkusen hammered Shakhtar 4-0 last month. But whether either club can reach previous highs in the knockout rounds is still an uncertainty. First thing's first, though, and qualification will be an uphill struggle.
Schalke will have to overcome a Basel side they narrowly beat in Switzerland, a 1-0 victory that came despite being outplayed for most of the second half. It's a winnable match, but the Swiss' two wins against Chelsea make them extremely dangerous.
Leverkusen similarly struggled against the opponents they will face this week; they beat Sociedad 1-0 following a last-gasp Jens Hegeler free-kick but were outplayed on their home turf for most of the second half. Even though their opponents will have nothing to play for, taking three points in Spain will be a very difficult task.
These next two days will be very telling for the Bundesliga as its clubs look to increase their status on the international level.
Through five matches, only Bayern have fully convinced to the point of being worthy contenders in the Round of 16. We'll soon find who are the pretenders and who are ready to take the next step.
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