Union Berlin and Werder Bremen are perhaps still surprise contenders, but Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach are no strangers to Europe. - © DFL
Union Berlin and Werder Bremen are perhaps still surprise contenders, but Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach are no strangers to Europe. - © DFL
bundesliga

The Bundesliga race for Europe: Union Berlin eye hat-trick alongside established names

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When Union Berlin qualified for the UEFA Europa Conference League in 2020, a few eyebrows were raised. Those dropped after Urs Fischer led Die Eisernen into the UEFA Europa League last summer, and he is on course to complete a hat-trick of European qualifications in as many years.

With the top four teams qualifying for the UEFA Champions League, Union could even dine at European football’s top table next term, but there are a host of more established clubs joining them in the hunt for seven tickets to continental football next term. bundesliga.com keeps a close eye on the race for Europe behind the current top four of Bayern Munich, Freiburg, RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt

Union Berlin
Position: 5th (UEFA Europa League)
Points: 27
Goals: 24-20 (+4)

Pace-setters for much of the season, Union's fortunes were fading heading into the winter break. Never before have Urs Fischer’s charges led the Bundesliga at such an advanced stage of a season as they did on Matchday 12, but a 5-0 loss at Bayer Leverkusen on Matchday 13 saw them toppled from the top, and a proverbial bubble appeared to be burst.

Watch: A tactical analysis of Fischer's Union

After drawing 2-2 with Augsburg, they ended 2022 with a 4-1 loss at Freiburg. It could be said that the winter break came at a perfect time for Fischer to press the reset button. Beating Borussia Dortmund 2-0, Leipzig 2-1 and drawing 1-1 with Bayern does not happen by fluke, though, and Fischer will have spent the two-month pause reviewing what his team did so well in those games in order to restore form heading into the new year.

First and foremost, the focus will be on rehabilitating Sheraldo Becker, who scored six and set up four across the first seven games of the season, but who has scored only once since. The tricky 27-year-old Dutch forward is not the only star striker in need of a boost, with Jordan also flying out of the blocks following his summer switch from Young Boys only to stutter later on. The USMNT giant scored two and set up two more across the first four games of the season, but has just one goal and one assist since. If both prongs of the Union attack can start piercing defences again, there is no reason why Union cannot take the next step up the European ladder with Champions League football in 2023.

Borussia Dortmund
Position: 6th (UEFA Europa Conference League)
Points: 25
Goals: 25-21 (+4)

Bayern’s closest rivals for the majority of their decade-long dominance of German football, and the last team to pip them to the title in 2012, Dortmund have some ground to make up on the current league leaders, with a top-four finish the minimum aim for the black and yellows.

With a player of the calibre of Jude Bellingham on the books, anything less would be a huge disappointment. Bellingham was outstanding at the World Cup in Qatar, drawing widespread acclaim as England’s key player, even though he is still just 19 years old. He has been equally influential at the heart of Dortmund’s midfield this season, with his three goals barely scratching the surface of all he has done for BVB in over 100 competitive appearances – so much so, he has already been given the captain’s armband, more than six months before he puts his teenage years behind him.

Watch: Bellingham the complete midfielder

He has won the most challenges across the entire Bundesliga (245 – 44 more than Gladbach’s Kouadio Kone) and become the beating heart of a Dortmund side who can beat anybody on their day. However, they continue to be plagued by inconsistency, with defeats to Wolfsburg and Gladbach seeing them end 2022 two points off the top four when wins in those games would have left them in a solid second place. Head coach Edin Terzic will be keen on rekindling the Klassiker spirit which saw them grab a last-gasp draw with Bayern on Matchday 9, and to keep it burning through to the end of the season as Dortmund aim to keep their rivals on their toes.

Wolfsburg
Position: 7th
Points: 23
Goals: 24-20 (+4)

The heat was well and truly on Wolfsburg coach Niko Kovac as the Wolves struggled to find their bite in the early weeks of the season, picking up just two points from the first five games and slumping to 17th. A 1-0 win at Eintracht Frankfurt finally put a ‘1’ in the win column, though a subsequent 2-0 defeat at Union Berlin hinted that it might just have been a one-off.

Since that loss in mid-September, however, Wolfsburg are unbeaten. With five wins and three draws, they have climbed the ladder to end the year in what, just two months earlier, would have seemed like an impossible seventh place, a position which could mean qualification for Europe next season. How Kovac’s crew have turned the corner, culminating in three straight wins over Mainz, Dortmund and Hoffenheim, gives rise to plenty of hope going into the new year.

Niko Kovac oversaw a marked improvement Wolfsburg in October and November. - Lars Baron/Getty Images

He dropped his three-man defence in favour of a four-man back line, with full-backs Ridle Baku and Paulo Otavio offering plenty of attacking support. Captain Maximilian Arnold has been reined into a deeper holding midfield role and, for many, was unfortunate to miss out on a call-up to the Germany squad for the World Cup. His vision and delivery of line-breaking passes have been one of the keys to Wolfsburg’s turnaround, and put the bite back in the Wolves’ game.

Borussia Mönchengladbach
Position: 8th
Points: 22
Goals: 28-24 (+4)

Without any European distractions, Daniel Farke took charge of Gladbach in the summer with the objective of returning them to Europe next season, and the early signs were extremely promising. Two wins and two draws from the first four games of the season, including a 1-1 away at Bayern Munich, fuelled Borussia’s belief. A 1-0 defeat at home to Mainz proved to be a mere stumble, as the Foals followed it up with a respectable draw at Freiburg and impressive 3-0 win over Leipzig.

There have been four defeats since Matchday 7, though, and Farke will hope his side can kick on from the 4-2 win over Dortmund with which they concluded 2022, and hope Marcus Thuram returns from the World Cup with France in the same form he was in when he left Germany in November. He has 10 Bundesliga goals this season and is benefitting from the creativity and support of Lars Stindl and Jonas Hofmann, who have five and four assists respectively.

Watch: All of Thuram's Bundesliga goals this season

With the fourth best attack in the league after 15 games (28 goals), Gladbach can be confident of a return to Europe next season, with their options still wide open as to which competition it will be.

Werder Bremen
Position: 9th
Points: 21
Goals: 25-27 (-2)

Going straight from promotion into Europe does not happen often, but Werder are on course to make it happen in 2023, and they have one man in particular to thank for it. Niclas Füllkrug was the main architect of Bremen’s promotion campaign last term, with 19 goals and eight assists. He has proven he was not just a Bundesliga 2 performer this season, scoring 10 goals in 14 games, making him the top-scoring German in the Bundesliga (and all top European leagues). He scored two in brief substitute appearances at the World Cup too, returning to Bremen as a hero, despite Germany’s group stage exit.

Named Bundesliga Player of the Month in September and October, no wonder the Weser-Stadion faithful are dreaming of a return to European football for the first time in over a decade, since they finished bottom of a group including Inter Milan, Tottenham Hotspur and Twente in the Champions League and a certain Claudio Pizarro was leading their attack.

Watch: All of Füllkrug's goals so far in 2022/23

He is not doing it all alone, though, with Marvin Ducksch – his Bundesliga 2 partner in crime – doing his bit too with three goals. Further back, former Bayern youth product Mitchell Weiser is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career, with six assists so far coming from an adapted wide role, and right at the very back, goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka is running a very tight ship indeed – all ingredients for a successful push for European football next season.

Also in the hunt: Mainz (19 points), Hoffenheim (18), Bayer Leverkusen (18), Cologne (17)