D-Day in the Bundesliga: European Berths and the Struggle To Survive
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images
Coming off yet another exciting weekend of dramatic play in the Bundesliga, some of the most intriguing German football mysteries of the year have finally been resolved, yet some teams still face their ultimate moment of truth as we approach this season's grand finale next Saturday.
Initial sighs of relief, quickly followed by loud and self-confident pledges of even higher ambition, as well as sobs of resignation paired with the groans of disappointment all emanated from Hamburg, the distinctive sounds separated only by the thin walls of the stadium's dressing rooms.
When the one-sided game was over, Bayern Munich had finished administering one of the more painful sorts of thrashings to the city's popular club, St. Pauli, by eight goals to one.
It was Bayern's highest win ever.
In trainer-idol Holger Stanislawski's farewell appearance before the faithful home crowd, there was no happy ending for the "skulls and bones."
Bayern's players impressively proved why it will be them who are heading towards glorious Champions League competition against FC Barcelona, AC Milan or Manchester United, whilst St. Pauli will play its future matches against the likes of TSV Ingolstadt and Erzgebirge Aue in Germany's rough and ragged Second Division.
Encouraged by the outlandish result, which assured third place in the final table, and propelled by the news that Bayer 04 Leverkusen had not managed to beat Hamburger SV, Bayern players rushed to the microphones, pointing out that direct CL qualification could still be achieved were Leverkusen to lose its last road game against SC Freiburg, which still has an opportunity to reach the UEFA Europe League via the international Fair Play ranking.
What under normal circumstances would merit the attribute of mere wishful thinking does indeed have an odd scent of déjà vu, seeing that Bayer 04 has a curious history of last-minute breakdowns, the most remarkable of which came in the form of a loss against lowly SpVgg Unterhaching, which cost them a first German championship on the last day of the 2001 season.
Whereas St. Pauli peacefully accepted the sober reality of certain relegation, the pitch in Frankfurt mutated into a war zone, as angry mobs stormed the field after home team Eintracht experienced one of the darkest moments in its long and honorable footballing history—a crucial 0-2 loss to FC Cologne, which is being dubbed as "Daum's Debacle" by Germany's tabloids.
The controversial motivator Christoph Daum—once considered a potential Germany head coach before being brought down over drug abuse allegations—spectacularly returned from Turkey promising to lead Eintracht back to a top position.
Since his appointment, Frankfurt is still waiting for its first victory. And slipping to 17th place with only one match at Borussia Dortmund still in hand—the club that finished the first half of the season seventh overall—now looks realistically un-saveable, especially in view of its totally bloodless performance last weekend.
It is inconceivable that Germany's new champion, Dortmund, will allow Frankfurt to spoil the exuberant celebration party planned in front of more than 60,000 supporters in their own raucous stadium.
Which leaves VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach to decide which traditional German powerhouse will end the season in position No. 16, temporarily avoiding relegation, but only to be forced into a grueling playoff series against the third-placed Second Division club—either VfL Bochum or SpVgg Fürth—to determine the last participant in next year's Bundesliga.
Borussia Mönchengladbach—home of a successful dynasty in the 1970s and 80s which featured many German football legends such as Berti Vogts, Günter Netzer and Jupp Heynkes—has performed something of a miracle ever since their new trainer Lucien Favre took over coaching responsibilities in the club, which spent most of this season hopelessly beaten in last place.
Restoring defensive order, bringing on goalie sensation ter Stegen and patiently repeating Barack Obama's mantra of "Yes we can," the Swiss coach has quietly and pragmatically gathered 25 points since the winter break, thus rekindling hope and changing momentum in what could constitute the mother of all turnarounds if Mönchengladbach can see things through to the relieving end.
Coming off three-straight victories—among these, an impressive outing against aspiring Hannover 96—the Colts can still overtake currently 15th-placed VfL Wolfsburg by beating Hamburger SV, the last remaining Bundesliga founding member.
A mission not totally impossible, as the rebuilding Hamburg side has nothing left to do in its last match, except to hand out flowers to departing stars Zé Roberto and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
A similar constellation awaits star-studded but struggling VfL Wolfsburg—the champions of only two years ago—and their manager, Felix Magath, who must travel to TSV 1899 Hoffenheim.
The underachieving team boasting players of the calibre of Diego, Grafite and Brazilian international Josué never found its stride over the course of the season, which will probably be remembered as "The year we made millions selling Edin Dzéko to Manchester City, but didn't have a clue of how to reinvest our fortune."
Though Croatian central striker Mario Mandzukic—curiously used as a winger by former coaches Steve McClaren and Pierre Littbarski—has started to find the back of the net again after being allowed to play at his preferred position, the inconsistent and unbalanced Wolves might still have a hard time beating the young Hoffenheim side.
That is the necessary result the Volkswagen-sponsored club needs to get if Felix Magath is to be given a serious chance to resurrect the once physically robust and confident team. The club could then live up to its great expectations and salaries, eventually becoming a true contender again after having lost the past two years to inexplicable complacency.
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