Munich - With FC Bayern Munich away and clear at the top, much of the interest down the home straight of the 2012/13 Bundesliga campaign is now focused around the battle for the three remaining Champions League places.
Incredible density mid-table
The rewards to be gained from taking part in Europe's elite club tournament, both sporting and financial, speak for themselves and, as it stands going into Matchday 26, defending champions Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen are looking good to claim the two coveted automatic group stage berths next season.
Of course neither team can afford to rest on their laurels quite yet, but for each the way ahead is relatively clear-cut when compared with the scramble below for fourth and a qualifying shot at Europe's premier club competition.
Only five points separate the side currently in the driving seat, FC Schalke 04, from Hannover 96 down in tenth. Indeed it is not beyond the bounds of credibility that even Fortuna Düsseldorf, hovering one place above the relegation zone, could get themselves into the mix on the back of a few good results. Despite their lowly standing, the promoted side are just eleven points down on the men from Gelsenkirchen.
Downs, ups and downs
Schalke are a prime example of how swiftly the picture can change in the ultra-competitive Bundesliga standings, having dropped to tenth as recently as Matchday 21 in the wake of a one-sided 4-0 loss at FC Bayern. An initially fortuitous about-turn in results sparked a form revival which found its temporary culmination in a 2-1 home win against Dortmund last weekend, wrapping up a Ruhr district double over their great local rivals for the Royal Blues.
That success edged Jens Keller's team into fourth place at the expense of Eintracht Frankfurt - who a matter of weeks earlier - at the end of Matchday 21 -found themselves six points clear in the Champions League qualifying round slot. Eintracht, another of the top-flight newcomers this season, have not dropped lower in the standings than fifth at any point of the campaign. However, having now gone five games without hitting the net, Armin Veh's exciting young side face perhaps their stiffest test of character so far in trying to regain that lost momentum and re-establish their European credentials.
Hopefuls queuing up
Coming up fast on the outside are Hamburger SV. A return to the European stage is the target for the Bundesliga old-timers, and at their current rate of knots they could even be on course for fourth. With a couple of notable exceptions, the Red Shorts' trajectory has been very much upwards of late, as demonstrated by their 4-1 demolition of Dortmund in the champions' own backyard on Matchday 21.
A point further down the pecking order on 37 are 1. FSV Mainz 05, who revitalised their own unlikely bid for a top-four finish with a 1-0 home victory over Leverkusen last time out. Thomas Tuchel's men are, in turn, just a squeak ahead of yet another surprise package in SC Freiburg, who, like Frankfurt, face a resilience test of their own after being unexpectedly dismantled 5-2 at home by Wolfsburg over the weekend.
Further single-point increments separate solid Borussia Mönchengladbach in ninth and homeboys Hannover in tenth - two sides who have gotten used to the taste of international action of late, and each unquestionably eager for their own opportunity to perform centre-stage. Without a doubt, the Bundesliga's 50th season run-in has twists and turns aplenty in store yet.