The top of the Bundesliga is tighter than ever but who will clinch a place in Europe next season and who is in contention heading into the 2018/19 Rückrunde? bundesliga.com takes a look at the scramble for UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League football next season.
With no fewer than four clubs heading into the second half of the season still in with a sniff of the Bundesliga title, the pursuit is on behind them for coveted places in Europe next season.
Third-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach and RB Leipzig in fourth still have to watch over their shoulders as Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hoffenheim, Hertha Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen all jostle for a ticket to tour the continent in 2019/20.
The top four in the Bundesliga will qualify automatically for the Champions League group stage. Fifth place goes straight into the group stage of the Europa League, while sixth enters in the second qualifying round. However, seventh place could suffice for qualification if the winner of the DFB Cup has already qualified for Europe via their league position, in which case the team in sixth goes into the group stage and seventh starts in the second qualifying round.
Let's take a look at the runners and riders...
Wolfsburg (5th, 28 points)
The story so far
After only just avoiding relegation via the play-off last season, what Wolfsburg have achieved over the first four months of the season is nothing short of extraordinary. With 28 points, they are just five short of the 33 they picked up over the whole of 2017/18. "We deserve the points we've got," said coach Bruno Labbadia to bundesliga.com. "Playing in the relegation play-offs twice casts a dark shadow over the club, but the lads have shown true belief to fight their way out of this situation."
Wolfsburg have picked up 16 points away from home this season – a new club record, bettered only by champions Bayern Munich and leaders Borussia Dortmund this term. That includes victories in Leverkusen and Frankfurt, which is why they have slowly and almost stealthily advanced into a position where the top four and Champions League football is within sight. In 2009, they were ninth at the turn of the year, and what did they do next? They won their hitherto first and only Bundesliga title. Dreaming is therefore permitted in Lower Saxony, and it is a much better feeling than what the fans have grown used to in recent years.
The last time Wolfsburg played Champions League football, they had the Dutch destroyer Bas Dost leading their line, and they had eventual champions Real Madrid on the brink after a 2-0 win at home in the first leg of their quarter-final tie. Fast-forward three years and they have another Dutch diamond carving out goals in Wout Weghorst, who has hit the ground running in his first season in the Bundesliga with six goals in 17 outings.
One to watch
Maybe Wolfsburg's first half of the season would have been even better still had Labbadia been able to count on captain Josuha Guilavogui for more of it. He came back from an injury picked up on Matchday 1 to start the Wolves' final four fixtures of the calendar year, steering in goals against VfB Stuttgart and Augsburg. His physical presence is a boon to the Wolves' midfield and if he can keep clear of injury, having the captain back on board will be a real boost.
Matchday 19 – Leverkusen (home)
Matchday 20 – Hertha (away)
Matchday 23 – Gladbach (away)
Matchday 30 – Frankfurt (home)
Eintracht Frankfurt (6th, 27 points)
The story so far
It was a tough act to follow. When Adi Hütter arrived, fresh from breaking FC Basel's domination of Swiss football with Young Boys last season, to fill the boots of Niko Kovac, he joined a club who had just lifted the DFB Cup and were not intent on taking any steps backwards. A 5-0 defeat to Bayern in the Supercup was followed by elimination in the first round of the cup and a far from ideal start to the season, with three defeats and a draw from their opening five matches.
Things turned quite rapidly, however, when the Eagles gradually learned Hütter's desired style of play, and a seven-game unbeaten streak, including a 7-1 win over Fortuna Düsseldorf as one of six wins which propelled them into the top half of the table. In the Europa League, they were one of only two clubs to get through the group stage with a 100 per cent record, and while a 3-0 defeat to Bayern may have dampened their festive spirits, they come into 2019 with plenty to be excited about.
Watch: All Jovic's Frankfurt goals - including five in one game against Fortuna!
"There are players who need relatively few scoring chances," Frankfurt coach Hütter said. "Luka Jovic, for example, scores four times out of every five chances because he's a poacher and, when he's in the box, he knows where the goal is." Hütter has arguably brought out the best in Jovic, giving him the freedom to move across the line and do what he does best: poach goals – 12 in 15 games, all told.
One to watch
Jovic might not have such a good strike rate were it not for the eye of Sebastien Haller. The French giant, coming in at 6'3", has set up nine goals this season – an assist-rate matched only by Dortmund's Jadon Sancho and Bayern's Joshua Kimmich - but when you consider he also has nine goals to his name, you can see how big a contribution the 24-year-old has made to the Eagles' cause.
Matchday 20 – Dortmund (home)
Matchday 22 – Gladbach (home)
Matchday 24 – Hoffenheim (home)
Matchday 34 – Bayern (away)
Watch: Frankfurt's tactics with Jovic, Rebic and Haller
Hoffenheim (7th, 25 points)
The story so far
Having started the season in the knowledge that supremo Julian Nagelsmann would depart for RB Leipzig in the summer, Hoffenheim have set their stall out to bid farewell to their departing coach in memorable fashion. Building on last season’s third-place finish was always going to be a tough ask, especially with UEFA Champions League group stage football to balance for the first time in the club’s history.
Despite exiting a tough Group F bottom, Hoffenheim have performed admirably across multiple fronts and turn the Rückrunde corner with securing another season of European football next term firmly within their sights. Four wins on the bounce across October and November suggested Hoffenheim may propel into the top-four but a run of six consecutive draws since will have left Nagelsmann and his team thinking of what could have been. Regardless, it leaves Hoffenheim on a run of 10 league games without defeat going into the second half of the season.
With six goals in 13 Bundesliga appearances thus far, Andrej Kramaric shares top spot in the team’s scoring charts with rookie loanee Reiss Nelson. The Croatian forward has been deployed all across Hoffenheim’s front-line which has seen a great deal of rotation with the likes of Adam Szalai, Ishak Belfodil and Joelinton also battling it out for a place in Nagelsmann’s starting line-up. But it is Kramaric who has impressed the most, scoring the bulk of his goals from either the left wing or behind one of those three as the out-and-out centre forward.
One to watch
That man Nelson will be itching for more starts in the second half of the season, having notched his six league goals to date from just five starts in his 13 appearances. Nelson and Kramaric have only started together on three occasions thus far; in 3-1 and 4-0 wins over Nuremberg and Stuttgart respectively as well as the 0-0 draw with second-place Gladbach. The Hoffenheim faithful will be hoping Nagelsmann can find a way to accommodate both players more frequently over the course of the remainder of the season.
Matchday 21 - Dortmund (away)
Matchday 23 - Leipzig (away)
Matchday 31 - Wolfsburg (home)
Matchday 32 - Gladbach (away)
Watch: Nelson, Paco Alcacer and the Bundesliga's super-subs
Hertha Berlin (8th, 24 points)
The story so far
Pal Dardai’s men have been inconsistent of late but have kept pace with the other teams on this list thanks largely to some impressive returns against their fellow European huntsman. Hertha have notched wins over Bayern, Gladbach and Frankfurt while also sharing the spoils with league-leaders Dortmund, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg with Leipzig the only team above them to have beaten the capital club.
Should Hertha repeat that record in the campaign’s final stretch then they will be in a good position to secure European football for next season. Their sights will be firmly set on a first top-four finish in the league since 2008/09 and a first Champions League campaign since 1999/00. With just 26 league goals so far - the joint-worst with Leverkusen of the Bundesliga’s top-half - they will need to find a more lethal touch to hammer home their case.
Watch: Marko Grujic is a nominee for the December Rookie Award
"I've been at Hertha for 22 years. This isn't meant as an insult to anyone else, but Marko is by far the best midfielder I've seen in my time at the club." That was the praise Dardai heaped upon on-loan Liverpool midfielder Marko Grujic who, bar awful luck with injuries, has been instrumental for Hertha. The Berliners are yet to taste defeat with Grujic in the side, the Serb featuring in five wins and two draws in the league this season. Having returned to training over the winter break, Hertha will hope Grujic will return to the first-team fold and provide the added spark needed to see them home this season.
One to watch
While Grujic has been all artistry in the centre of Hertha’s midfield, Arne Maier has provided the platform for the youngster to express himself. Sitting at the base of Hertha’s midfield, Maier has played every minute of 16 of Hertha’s 17 league games to date with their defeat to Stuttgart being the only match the 20-year-old has missed. Alongside Grujic, the pair perform a masterful double act that belies their youth, combining substance with style.
Matchday 23 - Bayern (away)
Matchday 27 - Leipzig (away)
Matchday 29 - Hoffenheim (away)
Matchday 31 - Frankfurt (away)
Bayer Leverkusen (9th, 24 points)
The story so far
Three defeats on the bounce greeted a sluggish start to the season for Leverkusen and despite winning four of their last six games of the Hinrunde, the club parted ways with the man who led last year’s electrifying version of Bayer 04 to fifth place. Heiko Herrlich’s one-and-a-half seasons at the helm came to an end in December with former Dortmund chief Peter Bosz stepping into the breach in a bid to turn around the club’s fortunes.
At the top of Bosz’s inbox will be the task of helping the likes of Julian Brandt, Leon Bailey and Wendell to rediscover their best form. The trio were all integral parts of Leverkusen’s best work going forward last year but have so far struggled to replicate their very best. Die Werkself will be hoping a fresh outlook on things will be just the tonic for a side that currently sit three points off sixth and seven points from fourth.
Kai Havertz has been a revelation this season, the 19-year-old carrying the bulk of Leverkusen’s burden and sparkling at the tip of their midfield. Havertz is the club’s joint top-scorer in the league alongside Kevin Volland and has also contributed a further three assists to the cause. The teenager has also provided great cheer in Europe with a further three goals and three assists helping Leverkusen top their Europa League group. A major positive for Bosz is that his young charge won’t want to give up the chance of playing in Europe again next season any time soon.
One to watch
The aforementioned Bailey epitomised the best of Leverkusen under Herrlich last season, the sight of the Jamaican winger leaving defenders in his dust with searing pace and edge-of-your-seat skill one of the best visions of 2017/18. His output of nine goals and six assists were just reward and his performances suggested he could better that this time around. However, just eight of his 16 Bundesliga appearances this time around have been from the start and with a return of only one goal and two assists Bailey has yet to pick up where he left off. If he can hit the ground running in the second half of the season then Leverkusen could potentially soar up the table.
Matchday 18 - Gladbach (home)
Matchday 27 - Hoffenheim (away)
Matchday 28 - Leipzig (home)
Matchday 32 - Frankfurt (home)
Watch: Kai Havertz's key role for Leverkusen