Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund continue to lead the way at the Bundesliga summit, but what is taking place behind the leading two is developing into one of the most exciting races for a top-four finish in recent years. bundesliga.com assesses the current contenders ...
WIth record champions Bayern having carved themselves out a healthy lead at the top while Dortmund have created their own cushion to those chasing behind. It all means the top two can rest somewhat easy, for now. With 15 games still to play, however, it is nigh on impossible to predict who will be sitting among the division's Champions League spots come the end of the campaign, such is the ferocity of the fight.
Previously soaring in third spot and outscoring their opponents at an impressive rate, Bayer Leverkusen's Bundesliga bounce was abruptly checked by fellow top-four challengers, Mainz, last weekend. The Werkself had previously won four in-a-row, netting 16 goals in the process, and were looking good to chip away at the gap to BVB in second, until the 05ers put Gerardo Seoane's side to the sword with a 3-2 triumph, a result that lifted Mainz to eighth.
Watch: Mainz seal pulsating win against Leverkusen
Just a blip for B04? Saturday will provide a good test for Leverkusen, with 20-goal top scorer Patrik Schick sidelined for the foreseeable with a calf injury and Arminia Bielefeld in town. "There’s no reason at all to look at everything that was so good in previous weeks negatively all of a sudden," captain Lukas Hradecky told the club's official website. Midfielder Robert Andrich, meanwhile, said Bayer would, "... dust off and keep going," the 27-year-old adding, "We’ll show Bielefeld that [the Mainz loss] was a one-off."
To speak of Mainz, is to speak of the Bundesliga's most in-form team right now. With their aforementioned victory last Friday - which took Bo Svensson's brigade to within just three points of fourth spot - the team from the banks of the Rhine have now taken seven points from their last three fixtures.
Take care not to mention any prospect of finishing in the European spots to coach Bo Svensson though, for the Danish tactician has only one thing on his mind for a team that just set a new club record of five home wins in succession. "I didn't say a single word about staying up or [qualifying] for Europe," the 42-year-old insisted. "It's not essential and it's not why I come to work; I come here to improve my team and to delight the fans by performing like we did [against Leverkusen] on Friday."
Those same fans would now love to see their side win away from home for what would be the first time since last October. But beware Mainz's next opponents, a wounded Union Berlin who are level on points and just as eager to climb back into the top four, having already been there as recently as late January. Looking to halt a run of three straight losses, Die Eisernen desperately need to find the net having also failed to score in their last three, an unwanted Bundesliga first for the capital side.
Freiburg have also enjoyed their place in the top-four sun this term, Christian Streich's men even touching third at one point. Now sixth, and one of three teams on 37 points along with Leipzig and Hoffenheim, this season's DFB Cup quarter-finalists will be hoping to continue to add to their second-best ever campaign at this point in a season when they welcome a troubled Hertha Berlin on Saturday.
Not that Freiburg forward, Ermedin Demirovic, is taking anything for granted against the team currently with the poorest Rückrunde return. "A few people might think that we’ve got to win [against Hertha]," Demirovic said. "But even if it sounds like a bit cliché, a boxer on the ropes is always dangerous."
It would also be dangerous to assume that Hoffenheim are guaranteed three points in their Friday-night encounter against Stuttgart, another troubled side battling it out at the wrong end of the table. Sure, the Sinsheimers have won seven of their last nine at home and are facing a team that have triumphed in just one of their previous 11 games on the road, but in this season's spectacular race for a top-four place, pressure can begin to tell.
Just as well, then, that Hoffenheim boss, Sebastian Hoeneß warned that his fifth-placed team will, "... need to focus on ourselves and produce on the pitch," before they can attempt to, "... remind VfB that they are in a difficult situation."
Enjoying their best-ever return after 23 Bundesliga matches, Cologne are also well in the mix for that coveted place among the division's best four sides. They have the magnificent Anthony Modeste to thank for two wins in their last three games, the French forward - who has scored 43 per cent of the Billy Goats' goals this term - finding the net in the 1-0 wins against Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt.
Watch: Modeste wins it for Cologne
"If someone had said before the season that we would be 16 points clear of the relegation zone on matchday 23, everyone would have grabbed that," Cologne defender Timo Hübers said ahead of his team's meeting with basement side Greuther Fürth this weekend. "Maybe we can talk about new goals after the game in Fürth," he added.
Leipzig were celebrating plenty of goals - six of them, to be exact - when Die Roten Bullen brushed aside Hertha last Sunday to roar into fourth spot. With Christopher Nkunku in fine form - scoring in his third consecutive Bundesliga game to take his tally to 13 - and the rest of the team purring, Leipzig will take some stopping as they look to hold off their top-four challengers.
"We keep making great progress as a team," Yussuf Poulsen said after the Hertha success. "Everyone is in top form right now and that's why we're playing the way we are." Benjamin Henrichs added, "We have an incredible amount of possession under the new head coach. We're calm and strong on the ball." Strengths Tedesco's men will need when they visit Bochum this weekend, as the exciting battle for the top-four promised land continues.
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