For the second year running, the title chase has turned into something of a saunter, but that doesn't mean there is nothing else at stake in the Bundesliga. In fact, the battle to join the UEFA Champions League holders in Europe's premier club competition in 2014/15 appears to be fiercer than ever before.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund seemed odds on to snatch second and third only a few weeks ago, but now they are coming under serious pressure from both FC Schalke 04 and VfL Wolfsburg. Ruling Borussia Mönchengladbach out of that equation would be misguided too, as bundesliga.com shows in our assessment of the scramble to join Bayern at Europe's top table next term.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen have been Bayern's number one pursuers and being one of only two sides to have taken points off them this season is testament to their challenge. However, a horrific ten days have left plenty of questions unanswered: Can they bounce back? Will they sustain a challenge having thrown away such a cushion? Sami Hyypiä (pictured) remains inexperienced and this is where Leverkusen could lack an edge when push comes to shove. The goals have dried up for , and too, but with their 2013/14 Champions League campaign as good as over, once this trio kicks into gear again, optimism can be restored in Leverkusen.
Consistency has been Borussia Dortmund's achilles heel all season, but with the injury agony they have had to deal with, it is hardly surprising they have not managed to deliver the goods week in, week out. When they do have a full complement of players available, they are a match for anybody. Jürgen Klopp said to FIFA.com: "We’re strong when we have everyone fit, and even when we don’t have everyone fit we still have the desire." Striking the balance will still be important with Dortmund still in two cup competitions, even if a top-three Bundesliga finish is crucial in terms of forward planning.
Seventh place and out of the DFB Cup – going into the winter break, Gelsenkirchen was hardly a hotbed of optimism. They have emerged refreshed, revitalised and with a renewed belief from a five-week rest which not only recharged the batteries, but also reset the psyche. The Royal Blues are the form side in the Bundesliga in 2014 with the return of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar inspiring them to a rise of three positions, reducing the arrears on second spot from seven points to just two. Julian Draxler is also now back and Jens Keller has practically a full complement of players keen to sustain a challenge for elite European football again.
VfL Wolfsburg's pre-season ambition was a place in the UEFA Europa League. It was a somewhat cautiously optimistic call, considering their struggles to avoid relegation last term, but realistic for the wealth of talent they have. That talent pool has grown with the arrival of Kevin De Bruyne, and the results are leading to a minor reassessment of the club's targets. "I'm really determined to see us playing in the UEFA Champions League," said Ricardo Rodriguez (pictured). "I believe we deserve it." The 2009 Bundesliga champions are in their best form since winning the title, and their howling is certainly being heard by the current top four.
The bastion had kept Borussia Mönchengladbach's on track for a second Champions League qualification in three years, but the fortress was stormed by Wolfsburg on the final day of the first half of the season - and the Foals have failed to recover since. Three defeats and two draws later, Gladbach's lofty ambitions are being put to the test. "It's a tough time for us," admitted coach Lucien Favre. "Everything was going well for us, but now it's become more difficult." Nevertheless, with only a fine line between success and failure in recent matches, a Gladbach revival can still be expected. Every team goes through a rough patch and the sooner they can emerge from theirs, the better their chances of recovering the six points they need to throw their hat back into the ring.