We’re into the final straight in the 2020/21 Bundesliga season, and a number of clubs are jostling for position as the race for European qualification intensifies.
The top four qualify for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, while the club finishing fifth will enter the group stage of the UEFA Europa League, together with the winners of the DFB Cup. Whoever finishes sixth enters the new UEFA Europa Conference League in the play-off round, unless the cup winner is among the top six. In this case, the club finishing seventh will enter the UECL.
bundesliga.com assesses the candidates…
Goal difference: +23
Season so far: The Wolves owe much of their success this term to a well-drilled backline. They are unbeaten at home and have conceded just 26 goals after 28 rounds of matches, giving them the Bundesliga’s joint-meanest defence alongside RB Leipzig. For context, Bayern Munich have let in 36 and Borussia Dortmund have shipped 41. New signing Maxence Lacroix has been a revelation at centre-back alongside John Brooks, and the pair's no-nonsense approach to defending has helped goalkeeper Koen Casteels keep 13 clean sheets already. Oliver Glasner has rarely rotated his preferred starting line-up, a strategy that enabled his charges to get into a rhythm and go on a nine-game unbeaten run across January and February, a streak that included seven consecutive victories without conceding. Much may depend on how they fare in April, however, with tough games against Bayern, Eintracht Frankfurt and Dortmund all on the calendar.
Key man: Wout Weghorst
Wolfsburg's defensive stability has been rightly praised across Germany this season, but they’ve been pretty good at the other end of the pitch too. Weghorst has been a particularly sharp tip of their spear, registering 18 goals and seven assists after 28 matchdays, a new personal best in a single campaign. And the Dutchman is now eager to have a taste of Champions League football: "We've got to focus and think game to game, but definitely we'll fight for our place in the Champions League. To be honest, I've been saying it right from the beginning, and it's nice that it's actually possible."
Remaining fixtures: Bayern Munich (h), VfB Stuttgart (a), Borussia Dortmund (h), Union Berlin (h), RB Leipzig (a), Mainz (h)
Watch: Weghorst: "The Champions League is our goal"
Goal difference: +19
Season so far: After reaching the Europa League round of 16 last season and the semi-finals the year before that, Frankfurt board member Fredi Bobic said prior to the start of 2020/21 that "a season without European competition might not be such a bad thing for us" after they finished 2019/20 in ninth. His words have proven prescient. The Eagles' hard-running, physical game took its toll on the team in the latter stages of last season, but having played 16 games fewer by the same juncture this year compared to last, Adi Hütter's side are flying. No team has won more points than Frankfurt's (36) in 2021 and they have also scored the most goals in this calendar year with 59. Indeed, Frankfurt have only failed to find the net once this term, while they have also beaten Bayern, taken four points off Dortmund and drawn with Leipzig (twice). Hütter has found a 3-4-2-1 system to accommodate two nimble No.10s in Daichi Kamada and Amin Younes behind leading scorer Andre Silva, while Filip Kostic has been causing havoc again on the left wing since the turn of the year after recovering from injury. Luka Jovic is also back at the club on a six-month loan from Real Madrid.
Key man: Andre Silva
Kostic is a reliable weapon, but Silva is undoubtedly the main man in Frankfurt. The Portugal international's 23 goals puts him second only to Robert Lewandowski in the scoring chart this season, while his four assists mean he has been directly involved in 40 per cent of all the team’s Bundesliga goals. He's hit 14 with his right foot, three with his left and six headers, making him as unpredictable as he is deadly. They'll need him on fire in the coming weeks too, with decisive and tricky fixtures against Gladbach and Leverkusen.
Remaining fixtures: Borussia Mönchengladbach (a), Augsburg (h), Bayer Leverkusen (a), Mainz (h), Schalke (a), Freiburg (h)
Watch: The best of Andre Silva
Goal difference: +17
Season so far: Dortmund have recorded some big wins this season, beating Schalke (4-0 and 3-0), Leipzig (3-1), Hertha (5-2) and Freiburg (4-0) by eye-catching scorelines, but they have also had a decidedly soft underbelly, suffering defeats to the likes of Augsburg, Cologne and Freiburg, while the 5-1 thumping at home to VfB Stuttgart in December spelled the end of Lucien Favre’s reign as head coach. BVB wobbled in the first few weeks under interim boss Edin Terzic, taking just 14 of a possible 30 points across his first 10 games at the helm. However, they have improved recently, winning four of their last five Bundesliga outings and progressing to the Champions League quarter-finals. Defeat to Frankfurt on Matchday 27 has left them seven points adrift of the top four, though, with games against Leipzig, Wolfsburg and Leverkusen still to come.
Key man: Erling Haaland
It's hard to believe that Erling Haaland is still only 20 considering his record and importance to Dortmund. The Norwegian has hit 21 goals in just 23 league outings this term at a clip of one every 95 minutes on average, while he also has 10 in just six Champions League games, and recently became the youngest and quickest player to reach the 20-goal milestone in the competition’s history. Tall, powerful, quick and absolutely lethal in front of goal, Haaland is one of the main reasons why Dortmund won't have given up hope of reeling in Frankfurt.
Remaining fixtures: Werder Bremen (h), Union Berlin (h), Wolfsburg (a), Leipzig (h), Mainz (a), Leverkusen (h)
Watch: All of Haaland's Bundesliga goals (prior to Matchday 26)
Goal difference: +13
Season so far: Leverkusen were second in the standings at the turn of the year, having only relinquished top spot to Bayern after a last-minute defeat to the defending champions just before Christmas. That game was the tipping point for Peter Bosz, who was dismissed during the March international break following a run of three wins in 13 Bundesliga assignments since the turn of the year. Hannes Wolf has been brought in, the former VfB Stuttgart and Hamburg tactician getting his tenure off to a winning start against rock-bottom Schalke on Matchday 27.
Key man: Leon Bailey
It was always going to be a tough campaign for Die Werkself after the departures of Kai Havertz and Kevin Volland last summer, but they have coped well and only scored seven goals fewer than at the same stage last term (45 compared to 52). Leon Bailey has been a big reason for that, and the Jamaican has shown increasing consistency out on the pitch, contributing a team-best six goals and six assists so far. The 23-year-old’s continued threat in the final third will be needed if Leverkusen are to qualify for European competition again.
Remaining fixtures: Hoffenheim (a), Cologne (h), Bayern (a), Frankfurt (h), Bremen (a), Union Berlin (h), Dortmund (a)
Watch: Bailey back to his best for Leverkusen
Goal difference: +8
Season so far: Union looked very much at home in their maiden Bundesliga campaign in 2019/20, comfortably finishing in 11th place. Any thoughts of the dreaded second-season syndrome were dispelled early on, with Urs Fischer's side as high as sixth after the first third of 2020/21. Draws with Bayern and Gladbach and a victory over Dortmund proved they were no one-hit wonder, and they have continued to pick up points consistently ever since. Particularly dangerous at set-pieces from Christopher Trimmel's (six assists) teasing deliveries, Union are the hardest workers in the league, covering more ground (2021 miles after MD27) than anyone else. Trimmel has insisted the club's aim remains reaching the 40-point mark that usually guarantees top-flight survival, but admitted that "we might need to adjust our objectives after that". Union lost to Frankfurt on Matchday 26 and were held by rivals Hertha in the Berlin derby a week later. They still face five sides currently above them in the table before the season is over, giving them arguably the most difficult run-in of all teams.
Key man: Max Kruse
The 32-year-old missed several weeks with injury earlier this season, but remains the team’s most potent attacker with 10 goals and five assists to his name in his first year at the club. Experienced, a penalty expert and with a wand of a left boot, the former Germany international could well be the difference between qualifying for Europe or not.
Remaining fixtures: Stuttgart (h), Dortmund (a), Bremen (h), Wolfsburg (a), Leverkusen (a), Leipzig (h)
Watch: Kruse: "Europe a dream, but we're under no illusions"
Goal difference: +5
Season so far: Gladbach went fifth on Matchday 18 as they demolished Dortmund 5-2 and their sights were, at the time, set on grabbing a top-four slot. Less than a month later, however, they were rocked by the news that coach Marco Rose will instead be in the BVB dugout next term and his team's form declined shortly after the news broke. Whether a coincidence or not, the results were hard to ignore as Gladbach went seven games without a win (D2, L5) following that victory over Dortmund.
They have recovered in recent weeks, though. Rose's side have notched up back-to-back league wins over Schalke and Freiburg to put themselves back into contention for the European places. The 2-1 victory at home to Freiburg was particularly important as it saw the Foals leapfrog their visitors into ninth place, just four points off sixth-place's Europa League spot. Matches with Frankfurt, Bayern and Stuttgart stand out in their run-in, but there are plenty of opportunities to pick up points if they can continue recovering their best form across the final weeks.
Key man: Lars Stindl
The Gladbach captain has been at his talismanic best again in 2020/21, chalking up 12 league goals to lead the way in the club's scoring charts. Stindl has also laid on six goals for his teammates, a number only Jonas Hofmann (10) can better at Borussia Park this term. The 32-year-old has already scored against three of the remaining seven teams earlier this season and his contribution will be significant if Gladbach are going to go out with a bang under Rose.
Remaining fixtures: Frankfurt (h), Hoffenheim (a), Bielefeld (h), Bayern (a), Stuttgart (h), Bremen (a)
Watch: Lars Stindl named December's Player of the Month
Goal difference: +6
Season so far: For Stuttgart to even be in contention for a top-six finish after earning promotion last year speaks volumes for the fearless attacking approach head coach Pellegrino Matarazzo's side have adopted. Only Bayern, Frankfurt and Dortmund have scored more than VfB's haul of 48 goals, and while other sides rely on the likes of Haaland, Silva and Weghorst to score, Stuttgart are more unpredictable: Nico Gonzalez has six, Sasa Kalajdzic 13 and Silas Wamangituka 11. Clinical on the counter-attack, Stuttgart have started addressing their previously stuttering home form and their 1-0 win over Werder Bremen was a fifth game unbeaten at the Mercedes Benz Stadium. It also moved them back up into eighth in the process.
Key man: Sasa Kalajdzic
With revelatory Congolese winger Silas sidelined for the remainder of the campaign, the onus falls on Kalajdzic to fire his team into what looked an unlikely European place at the start of the season. The Austrian scored in seven consecutive league games from Matchday 19-25 and the 23-year-old has the ability to deliver at the business end of the pitch for his time. The superb supply of Borna Sosa will also be crucial and should the left-sided Stuttgart man continue to deliver chances the way of Kalajdzic then the goals will surely follow.
Remaining fixtures: Union (a), Wolfsburg (h), Leipzig (a), Augsburg (h), Gladbach (a), Bielefeld (h)
Watch: Sasa Kalajdzic: "We're knocking on the door for Europe"
Goal difference: -2
Season so far: Christian Streich is once again performing magic with his Freiburg side in his ninth season in charge of the club. Despite losing first-choice goalkeeper Alexander Schwolow, first-choice centre-back Robin Koch and first-choice forward Luca Waldschmidt in the summer, Freiburg are on the cusp of European football once again. After a slow start to the campaign, a seven-match unbeaten run through the end of 2020 and into 2021 propelled Freiburg up the table, with the goals of Nils Petersen (7) and Vincenzo Grifo (7) leading the way. Streich's side have managed the fewest goals (40) of any top-half side through 27 matches, but a run of eight games without conceding in the first half has helped support that lack of firepower going forward with Florian Müller - on loan from Mainz - performing superbly in goal.
Key man: Vincenzo Grifo
The Italian international leads his team for goals - alongside Petersen - and assists with seven and six respectively. His creative spark either from the wing or in a central No.10 position has so often been the crucial link between midfield and attack, with Lucas Höler, Ermedin Demirovic and Petersen all profiting from his playmaking talents.
Remaining fixtures: Schalke (h), Hertha (a), Hoffenheim (h), Cologne (a), Bayern (h), Frankfurt (a)