Munich - While FC Bayern München march inexorably on towards the earliest ever Bundesliga title wrap - if other results go their way, they could even sew it up at Mainz this weekend - the battle raging at the other end of the standings could scarcely provide a greater contrast in terms of both its scope and intensity.
Backs to the walls
With only nine rounds of league action still to go, the table reveals a clear split down the middle, with seven points currently separating ninth-place Hertha Berlin, on 36, from the side immediately below them, 1899 Hoffenheim.
From there all the way down to Eintracht Braunschweig at the bottom, however, nine teams are jostling for position in a sub-table covered by a mere 11-point spread. And while Hoffenheim, for example, may look safe enough at a cursory glance, closer inspection shows them to be just seven points clear of the relegation play-off slot – not an overly-comfortable cushion for an entertaining but somewhat volatile ensemble who have shipped four goals in each of their last two outings since hitting Wolfsburg for six on Matchday 23.
Momentum in the wrong direction at this stage can prove fatal - as was the case with Fortuna Düsseldorf only last season. The newly-promoted club's downward spiral after a fine first campaign-half culminated in them dropping into a direct relegation berth for the first time on Matchday 34, with no possibility of a comeback. Last year it happened to be Hoffenheim who dramatically leapfrogged them at the final hurdle and with 27 points still up for grabs in such a tightly packed field, there is guaranteed to be plenty of movement yet in both directions.
Inevitably, with half the division involved, every matchday is as good as guaranteed to throw up at least one potentially pivotal 'six-pointer' in the relegation dogfight. This season's fixture schedule has delivered a plot-within-a-plot over the coming weeks as four of the affected parties – Hamburger SV, 1. FC Nürnberg, VfB Stuttgart and SC Freiburg – all play against each other in a sequence of tussles bound to shed considerable light on their prospects of top-flight survival. In fact, the mini-round-robin got underway last weekend, with Hamburg beating Nürnberg 2-1 to edge out of the bottom three and above their vanquished visitors on goal difference for good measure.
Nürnberg's Markus Feulner noted afterwards that: “Hamburg played very aggressively and we weren't able to match them as we'd hoped in the first half.” It was a telling insight from an encounter which could be viewed as pitching sides from two broadly disparate camps head-to-head: Hamburg began the season with their sights firmly set on Europe, while their opponents last week have been focusing on survival from the off.
Heavyweight assignments for Slomka and Stevens
HSV's previous coach, Bert van Marwijk, had more than once alluded to his charges having to “alter their mindset - we're playing to stay up now”. Under his successor Mirko Slomka, the message appears to have hit home. Aggression and ruthlessness have to come to the fore when mere survival is the bottom line. Stuttgart responded to their own alarming slump – former youth team coach Thomas Schneider bowing out with a home draw against Braunschweig on the back of eight straight losses – by tasking old-school pragmatist Huub Stevens with keeping them afloat in the top flight.
A battling draw at Bremen on his debut left the worldly-wise 60-year-old Dutch tactician “satisfied with the performance, but not the result”. The first opportunity to improve on the latter comes at home to Slomka's revitalised Hamburg this weekend, with further crunch encounters at Nürnberg and against Freiburg following in quick succession. Stuttgart's slide at any rate no longer has the ominous tinge of inevitability attached to it, even if wins for Hamburg and Freiburg did see them drop into an automatic relegation place despite the point at Bremen.
Cellar-dwellers Braunschweig meanwhile played out a 1-1 draw with ambitious, big-spending regional rivals Wolfsburg to keep themselves in touch with the teams above and even they remain just four points shy of the play-off berth. Amidst all the possible relegation permutations, only one thing seems certain at the moment: whoever does eventually bid farewell to the Bundesliga this season will not go down without a fight.
In 2009 Germany international Mesut Özil was involved in this corker between two of this season's relegation candidates, Freiburg and Bremen. Discover plenty more videos on the Bundesliga's official YouTube channel: