Munich - As FC Bayern München stride imperiously on into the distance, much of the interest at the top of the Bundesliga is now focused on who will claim the remaining UEFA Champions League places this season. At least five clubs are very much in the running for the two direct group berths and one qualifying place up for grabs. While that promises to be quite a tussle, it pales in comparison with the potential intensity and magnitude of the battle unfolding at the other end of the standings.
Swings and roundabouts
With 13 matchdays still to go, ten points are all that separate 1899 Hoffenheim in the ostensible safety of tenth place from Eintracht Braunschweig, down but evidently by no means out, in 18th. And given the on-going fluctuations in form and fortune experienced so far this season by all nine protagonists currently occupying the lower half of the table, it looks like being some time yet before any of them can start to breathe easy and think about regrouping for 2014/15.
'Pack leaders' Hoffenheim will certainly not be lapsing into any premature sense of complacency. They themselves only survived by the skin of their teeth last year, a late final matchday victory at Borussia Dortmund paving the way to a play-off shot against 1. FC Kaiserslautern which they took grateful advantage of. 1899's surge under new head coach Markus Gisdol from a seemingly desolate position over the last few weeks of the regular campaign was accompanied by Fortuna Düsseldorf's inexorable slide in the other direction, a turn of events well familiar to 12th-placed Eintracht Frankfurt.
Memories of the 2010/11 season still burn fresh for Frankfurt diehards, who contentedly saw their favourites go into the winter break seventh in the table and boasting the league's top scorer at that point in Theofanis Gekas. But after the restart, neither the Greek international nor any of his teammates were able to muster a single goal between them in the first eight matches as the Eagles plummeted in unprecedented fashion towards direct relegation. Having bounced back at the first attempt under Armin Veh and followed up on that by making it all the way into Europe, Eintracht now find themselves battling the threat of another unwanted stint in Bundesliga 2.
Two other traditional Bundesliga cruiserweights, SV Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart, have to delve much further back into the club annals to re-encounter their previous taste of life outside the top flight. Bremen were last relegated back in 1980 and on their return, went on to spend the larger part of the subsequent three decades mixing it with the country's very best – several extended spells as FC Bayern's main domestic rivals included. Those days seem long gone now, though, and Robin Dutt's first season in charge is proving as fraught as the final one of his long-term predecessor Thomas Schaaf.
Troubled times for traditional big guns
Stuttgart, whose current Bundesliga tenure stretches back to 1977, are in even direr straits at the moment, two places and points below Werder and just one above the relegation play-off berth. Having initially flourished under Thomas Schneider, the Under-23 coach handed a shotgun promotion as Bruno Labbadia's successor after the team emerged pointless from their opening three games, VfB are approaching Matchday 22 having lost eight of their last nine outings, including six on the trot as it stands. In the two most recent of those, they shipped four goals apiece to regional rivals FC Augsburg and Hoffenheim.
The desperate need for a turnaround in fortunes at the South West's biggest club is more than matched, however, by that of their north coast counterparts Hamburger SV. The only club not to have missed a single season in the Bundesliga since Germany's national top flight got up and running in 1963/64, HSV are in serious danger of losing that unique status on the back of a club record seven-game losing streak which has seen them drop into a direct relegation place and culminated in the parting of ways with Bert van Marwijk after a 4-2 defeat at cellar-dwellers Eintracht Braunschweig. Former Hannover 96 supremo Mirko Slomka is the man now tasked with delivering the Red Shorts from an unsought slice of Bundesliga history.
For their part, Braunschweig returned to the top table after a 28-year absence fuelled more by hope than expectation. As it transpires, Torsten Lieberknecht's men are battling tooth-and-nail to retain their newfound status among Germany’s football elite, with that potentially defining success against Hamburg hauling them to within a point of their vanquished visitors. SC Freiburg, in the play-off slot, are only two further away, and above them single-point increments separate Stuttgart, Nürnberg and, on 21 apiece, Bremen and Frankfurt. In a league where attack has firmly established itself as the best form of defence, fans of all the clubs involved in this year's battle against the drop can look forward to thrills and spills aplenty, with the chill of relegation inevitably waiting at the end of the line for at least two of them.