Munich - The Bundesliga often springs a surprise and 2012/13 looks set to follow in that vein with three outsiders in the hunt for a place in Europe next season.
In 2011, Hannover 96 only narrowly missed out on a place in the Champions League, falling just a point short of beating FC Bayern Munich to third. Last season, few would have reckoned with Borussia Mönchengladbach sneaking into the top six after playing in a play-off for survival eight months earlier.
This time around, Gladbach qualifying for the Europa League would be less surprising, but who would have had their money on Eintracht Frankfurt, SC Freiburg or FSV Mainz 05 rubbing their shoulders with some of Europe's greats in 2013?
With half of the season gone, those three clubs are set to leave the more seasoned European campaigners such as VfB Stuttgart, Werder Bremen, Hamburger SV and Hannover 96 with a lighter workload in the 2013/14 season. Can they hold on to their place between now and May, though? bundesliga.com takes a look at their respective chances.
Kaiserslautern stunned the footballing world in 1998 when, straight after promotion from the Bundesliga 2, they won the Bundesliga title at the first attempt. Frankfurt can therefore look back on a positive precedent which can only fuel their optimism for continued success in 2013 after adjusting supremely to top-flight football so far this season. Granted, the title is probably beyond them, as it seems beyond everybody but Bayern this season, but a place among the top six is theirs for the taking, and why should the UEFA Europa League suffice when the UEFA Champions League is within their grasp?
In Armin Veh, the Eagles have a coach who has already won the Bundesliga and, thus, knows how to deal with the pressure as it increases towards the end of the season. With prolific midfielder Alexander Meier in such a rich vein of form and young talents like Sebastian Jung and Pirmin Schwegler already picking up international calls, Frankfurt are no longer such a surprise package, but rather a confirmed reality who can justifiably aim for a top-four finish.
When Christian Streich took charge of Freiburg, reluctantly too out of fear of doing unwanted harm to his much-loved club, there appeared to be no future in the top flight for the Black Forest minnows. Think again. The charismatic coach, who has earned fans, praise and acclaim from all corners of Germany, turned Freiburg into the seventh-best team in the second half of last season, and at the midway stage of the current campaign, they are lying fifth.
If ever there were an example of how team spirit and motivation can succeed over individual talent and superstar status, it can be found in Freiburg. A team without any major household names, and with players plucked out of the youth side Streich was leading before literally hopping on his bike to take charge of the first team, manages to upset the applecart week in week out, and there is little to suggest 2013 is going to be any different as Streich creates a lasting legacy which could well convey his charisma to a wider audience - Europe-wide.
Mainz are no strangers to the UEFA Europa League, having qualified just under two years ago, but what seemed to be a one-hit wonder back then could instead prove to be the start of something big. Unsurprisingly, Thomas Tuchel’s name was one of those being linked with Bayern Munich before Pep Guardiola was appointed to replace the retiring Jupp Heynckes, such is the reputation he has built for himself in little over three years at the helm of a club who, until 2004, had never appeared in the top flight of German football.
Despite losing big names such as Andre Schürrle and Lewis Holtby, Tuchel has managed to redefine his side with an array of unconventional yet effective coaching tricks. Adam Szalai has hit top form and Jan Kirchhoff’s transfer to Bayern next season confirms that Tuchel is doing something right. So can they step onto the European stage for the second time in three seasons? Well, they do now have a home fit for European football and, similar to Freiburg, a soaring team spirit which ensures they are up for every game, no matter who the opponents.