Those two, and Bayer 04 Leverkusen, it would seem, already have their tickets booked for next season’s premier club competition, but there is still one more place up for grabs, with a host of clubs chasing it. bundesliga.com assesses the contenders...
Of the five hopefuls, Schalke are the team with the most experience of Champions League football, and currently occupy fourth position. The Royal Blues also did the Bundesliga proud in the competition this season, winning a group that included 2006 finalists Arsenal FC before falling to a narrow defeat against Galatasaray SK in the last 16. Encouragingly for them, they are third in the Bundesliga form table in 2013 and could welcome back star striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar this weekend. “We have four games left and three of those are against our rivals”, said the 29-year-old, adding, “I’ll have to see whether the knee holds up.”
Regardless of whether they finish in fourth place, this will still have been an excellent season for die Breisgauer. In the Bundesliga, Christian Streich’s men have produced some of the most exciting football that fans of the club will have seen in years, and even made it to the semi-finals of the DFB Cup before a fortnight ago. A second defeat to the Swabians in the space of four days prevented them from assuming fourth place last Sunday, but with their propensity to go the extra mile (with 118km per game, Freiburg have covered more ground than any other side in the league this season), nobody can write off Max Kruse & Co.
After occupying fourth for much of the Hinrunde, a patchy 2013 has seen Eintracht drop to sixth. However, with head coach Armin Veh committing to another season in charge, Takashi Inui and his teammates have since won two of their last four games, including a crucial encounter against Schalke on Matchday 30. Goalkeeper Kevin Trapp’s injury has been well compensated for by the good form of veteran Oka Nikolov, and the emergence of 17-year-old midfielder Mark Stendera, who set up the winning goal against the Royal Blues, is further proof that the mood in Frankfurt is extremely positive going into the final four games of the campaign.
More than anything, Gladbach will feel they have unfinished business in the Champions League. They finished fourth last season after their stunning Bundesliga campaign, but never made it to the group stages after losing their play-off with Dynamo Kyiv. The Foals have spent much of this season under the radar, with their eleven draws representing the joint-highest number in the division this season. However, they have also only been beaten on eight occasions and have Dutch striker Luuk de Jong back to fitness at the business end of the season. Lucien Favre’s men know what it takes to finish fourth, and that may be their biggest advantage.
Finally, we have the Bundesliga's only remaining ever-present club. Should HSV seal a first return to the Champions League since 2006/07, much of that will, as it was then, be down to the form of talismanic midfielder and recently-appointed captain Rafael van der Vaart. The 30-year-old Dutchman has been skipper for their last two games, both of which have produced victories, and he also scored a brace last time out against Düsseldorf. “It’s still all to play for”, said the Netherlands international. “We have to focus on Schalke. If we beat them, we can over take them in the standings.”
Incredibly, just two points separate Schalke in fourth and Hamburg in eighth ahead of their clash at the Veltins Arena on Sunday evening. Indeed, Schalke also still have to play Freiburg and Mönchengladbach before the season’s end. It seems fair to say that one of the tightest races for fourth spot in recent seasons will produce plenty more twists and turns before the final ball is kicked on May 18.