As we enter the business end of the Bundesliga season, the teams looking to stave off relegation are the ones arguably feeling the most heat. Schalke, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Augsburg, VfB Stuttgart, Hannover and Nuremberg are all looking to keep their heads above water, but who will retain their top-flight status?
Schalke (13th, 18 points)
The story so far
A disappointing Hinrunde for last year’s runners-up has left them just four points above the Bundesliga trapdoor and facing up to the possibility of a first relegation from Germany’s top-tier since 1987/88. Nevertheless, despite their domestic woes, the Royal Blues have made it to the last-16 of the UEFA Champions League. Five out of eight home matches ending in defeat has been a concern for coach Domenico Tedesco, as has their return of just 20 goals in 17 matches so far. Both records need to be turned on their heads to ensure Schalke pull away from the bottom of the table.
USA star Weston McKennie has featured all over the pitch for Schalke this season; at centre-back, operating as a defensive, orthodox and attacking central midfielder and even as centre-forward. This versatility will be key for Schalke as they rotate their squad to compete in three competitions, but you can be certain that McKennie will invariably have a part to play.
Matchday 21 - Bayern (away)
Matchday 31 - Dortmund (away)
Matchday 32 - Augsburg (home)
Matchday 34 - Stuttgart (home)
Fortuna (14th, 18 points)
The story so far
Between the end of September and the beginning of November, Fortuna suffered six successive defeats, a run that stretched to eight losses in ten by early December. It suggested a rapid return to the second tier for last year’s Bundesliga 2 champions, but three victories on the bounce - including a stunning 2-1 win over otherwise unbeaten league leaders Dortmund - stopped the rot. It means Fortuna head into the Rückrunde in far better shape, four points off the relegation playoff spot and seven points clear of the automatic relegation places.
On-loan forward Dodi Lukebakio has been a revelation in Düsseldorf, netting seven times in 15 Bundesliga appearances and 11 in 17 across all competitions. Quick, strong and a nightmare to mark for opposition defenders, Lukebakio has also developed the handy knack of scoring in big games. The Belgian bagged a memorable hat-trick in a thriller of a 3-3 draw at Bayern and also struck the opener in Fortuna’s despatching of Dortmund. Heading into the crucial back-end of the season, Fortuna will hope this is a habit the December Rookie of the Month manages to maintain.
Matchday 22 - Leverkusen (away)
Matchday 23 - Nuremberg (home)
Matchday 24 - Schalke (away)
Matchday 34 - Hannover (home)
Augsburg (15th, 15 points)
The story so far
Augsburg coach Manuel Baum will have welcomed the mid-season break having gone eight games without a win at the close of the Hinrunde. Only bottom two Hannover and Nuremberg (two apiece) have won fewer times than Augsburg (three) but they have managed more goals (25) than any other side on this list. The Fuggerstädter faithful will hope Baum’s outfit can find a way to hold their nerve after failing to see out victory on six occasions when they have taken the lead. Augsburg have the perfect opportunity to kickstart their season on Matchday 18 when they face Fortuna.
Alfred Finnbogason has had some awful luck with injuries over the course of the past six months but when the Iceland international is fit, he is effective, with seven goals and one assist. His hat-trick in the 4-1 win over Freiburg and goal in the 2-1 win over fellow strugglers Hannover have been crucial to their campaign. Good with both feet, strong in the air and deceptively quick; if Finnbogason can stay healthy for the remainder of the season then Augsburg should be in far better shape come Matchday 34.
Matchday 18 - Fortuna (home)
Matchday 22 - Bayern (home)
Matchday 26 - Hannover (home)
Matchday 27 - Nuremberg (away)
Stuttgart (16th, 14 points)
The story so far
A run of 11 defeats in 17 has left Stuttgart facing up to the possibility of a second Bundesliga relegation in three years. Markus Weinzierl’s men have particularly struggled away from home, registering just one win and one draw on their travels, while tasting defeat seven times. Die Roten’s problems in the attacking third are clear and their 12 Hinrunde goals represent the lowest return in the league. They’ve not fared much better at the back, where only bottom side Nuremberg (38) have conceded more than the 35 Stuttgart have shipped.
Benjamin Pavard will depart Stuttgart at the end of the season, the France World Cup winner bound for Bayern Munich. Before then, however, he will be looking to inspire a turnaround and lead the Swabians to safety. There is clearly no doubt about Pavard’s talent or that of his defensive partners; the likes of Holger Badstuber, Timo Baumgartl, Emanuel Insua, Andreas Beck et al. If they can each rediscover their best form then VfB will have the perfect platform to start picking up the points they need to steer themselves to safety.
Matchday 19 - Bayern (away)
Matchday 20 - Freiburg (home)
Matchday 21 - Fortuna (away)
Matchday 30 - Augsburg (away)
Hannover (17th, 11 points)
The story so far
Having come up from Bundesliga 2 as runners-up to Stuttgart in 2015/16, the 96ers are again battling with VfB but this time at the wrong end of the table. Out of the bottom three just once since Matchday 4, Hannover have endured a testing start to the season. Andre Breitenreiter's men aren’t quite cut adrift just yet though, with three points separating them from Stuttgart and four from the safety of 16th place. However, just two wins to date and a current run of six games without victory are clearly a worry and will need to be addressed if Hannover are to extend their Bundesliga stay.
Like most sides on this list, goals scored has been a concern for Hannover. Ihlas Bebou, Hendrick Weydandt and Bobby Wood are the club’s leading trio in front of goal with three Bundesliga strikes apiece. American hitman Wood may yet prove the difference if he can hit the ground running in the latter stages of the campaign as the focal point of the Hannover attack. His creativity may aid those around him in finding the back of the net too, and if he can continue his mid-season form - he netted twice in victory over Dutch side Heracles - then the 26-year-old may well provide the firepower Hannover need to rocket up the table.
Matchday 19 - Dortmund (away)
Matchday 24 - Stuttgart (away)
Matchday 27 - Schalke (home)
Matchday 32 - Bayern (away)
Nuremberg (18th, 11 points)
The story so far
Just two defeats from their first six matches put Nuremberg in tenth place early on and suggested their season might be free of any serious flirtations with relegation. But 11 matchdays have since come and gone without a Nuremberg victory and, having completed their slide to the bottom of the league courtesy of a 2-0 defeat to Mӧnchengladbach on Matchday 16, they are in danger of staying there. Der Club are yet to win on their travels, having captured just two points from eight games away from the Max-Morlock-Stadion. Last year’s Bundesliga 2 runners-up will need to improve on that record if they are to avoid an immediate return to the second tier.
With the worst defensive record in the league (38 goals conceded) and the second-worst attack (14 goals scored), Hannover’s problems are pretty clear. They are crying out for a leader in the pack to shepherd them to safety and captain Hanno Behrens is just the man to provide the guidance. The 28-year-old central midfielder is playing in his first Bundesliga campaign and will need to use all his expertise if Nuremberg are to eke out successive seasons in the top flight. His 14 goals were integral to Nuremberg’s promotion push last term and if he can find his scoring touch again, the Bavarians will be primed to stay up.
Matchday 19 - Mainz (away)
Matchday 21 - Hannover (away)
Matchday 29 - Schalke (home)
Matchday 31 - Bayern (home)
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