Munich - The race for trophies may be the priority for most, but a dramatic, down-to-the-wire relegation battle is every bit as much a part of the package in any season worth its salt. And as far as the most recent campaign went, 1899 Hoffenheim and FC Augsburg fans are best-placed to enlighten you on that score.
Turnaround at Augsburg
The overall pattern of the unfolding dogfight may have been far from unique, but 1899's eventual fairy-tale survival - coupled with Fortuna Düsseldorf's nightmare demise - serves as a prime example of just how exciting it can get at the bottom end of the ferociously competitive Bundesliga. Düsseldorf looked to be safe as the clock ticked down on the final matchday, but Hoffenheim's sensational late comeback at UEFA Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund earned Markus Gisdol's side a second chance of top-flight survival via the play-off, which they duly took.
Hoffenheim's was not the only remarkable escape, however. Augsburg's incredible second season-half run saw them earn a stunning 24 points and snatch 15th place away from Düsseldorf on Matchday 34. The Bavarian Swabians had picked up a mere nine points before the winter break and became the first side in the league's 50-year history to successfully claw back a deficit of more than ten points.
“It was a dramatic finale, the team were sensational,” FCA head coach Markus Weinzierl said after the play-off success: “It’s an incredible relief today. We were in a horrible situation at Christmas and completely written off. That makes the way it's worked out all the more amazing. We’ve pulled off a minor miracle." That said, Augsburg's form curve bore an uncanny similarity to that of the year before, when they had collected 23 points in the second half of the season to survive their debut Bundesliga season intact.
Promotion no guarantee of failure
So what's to be expected in 2013/14? Given how evenly-balanced the league is and the quality displayed last season by new boys Hertha BSC Berlin and Eintracht Braunschweig, who respectively boast Bundesliga 2 top scorers Ronny and Domi Kumbela, among others, in their ranks, it looks odds-on that the battle against the drop is going to every bit as fiercely contested this time around.
Indeed, in the four years prior to last season, when newcomers Düsseldorf and Fürth both made a hasty return to the second flight, only three promoted clubs dropped straight back down again. 2012/13's other fresh face, Eintracht Frankfurt, meanwhile proved how things can turn out very differently, to the extent of qualifying for the UEFA Europa League.
A look back at the standings in mid-March, when then fourth-placed Frankfurt were a mere ten points ahead of Düsseldorf in 15th, likewise indicates there's every chance of another tight battle across the board. VfL Wolfsburg's dramatic survival on the final matchday of 2011, just two years after winning the title, offered a recent salutary example of that competitiveness. No wonder the Wolves' coach at the time, Felix Magath, believes the Bundesliga is the strongest league in the world, as "Anyone can beat anyone else here."