Munich - As the 2013/14 Bundesliga season heads down the final straight, the stakes are getting higher and the margin for error accordingly slimmer with every passing week for those teams still battling to stay afloat in German football's top tier.
While neither Eintracht Frankfurt nor Werder Bremen, 11th and 12th in the table on 32 points apiece, are by any means out of the woods yet, it is the six sides currently making up the bottom third of the table who are really feeling the pinch going into Matchday 29. So what are their respective prospects for the remaining, all-deciding half-dozen matchdays – and who might well prove the key player for each of them in their bid to beat the drop?
Hannover 96 are in 13th place at the moment on 29 points, five clear of the relegation play-off place. The team from the Lower Saxony capital made a promising start to 2014 under new head coach Tayfun Korkut, earning back-to-back victories over Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Since then, however, they have lost six of their nine league outings and won only one with the latest defeat – 2-1 at home to Bremen – a particular blow to morale as the visitors nabbed the winner in the final seconds to pull three points clear of them. By an odd coincidence, all six of Hannover's remaining games are against fellow strugglers, if Frankfurt are included in that category. And that makes for the likely prospect of some very tense and tight struggles.
Alongside the steel and dynamism of the likes of Leon Andreasen and the finishing of Artjoms Rudnevs, who bears a particularly heavy burden there with top goalgetter Mame Diouf sidelined for the remainder of the campaign, the 96ers will be relying more than ever on the experience and guile of to prise open uncharitable opposition defences. As well as laying on seven goals for teammates this season, the Hungarian playmaker has chipped in with eight of his own, most recently a deadlock-breaking direct free kick in the aforementioned loss to Bremen. And of course, in real pressure situations a set-piece specialist is worth more than his weight in gold.
SC Freiburg have shown their true mettle against direct rivals in recent weeks, beating Frankfurt and Bremen and earning a draw at Hamburg before edging a five-goal thriller against Nürnberg at the weekend. That resurgent form has lifted them to 14th, just behind Hannover on goal difference, and should they be able to maintain it over the next couple of games at Stuttgart and at home to Braunschweig, Christian Streich's troops will be another two huge steps closer to safety. The head coach's tactical shuffling has itself arguably been the key player in recent weeks but on the scoring front, has been the Black Forest outfit's most reliable marksman by some distance this season. The Swiss international, signed from Dynamo Kyiv on an initial one-year loan, notched the ninth goal of his debut Bundesliga campaign to help down Nürnberg and a repeat showing in the next pair of six-pointers would definitively help cement his status as a new crowd favourite.
Having swapped places with Freiburg on the back of that defeat, 1.FC Nürnberg are now hovering just one place and two points above the drop zone. The Franconians made a flying start to the year after finally breaking their record winless streak on Matchday 18 but with five defeats in their last six games now, they will need all of coach Gertjan Verbeek's renowned motivational qualities to turn things around again before the situation becomes even more critical. On the upside, Josip Drmic is on fire up front at the moment, with ten goals to his name since league action resumed after the winter break. Equally significantly, Hiroshi Kiyotake looks to be in his element now in Verbeek's attack-orientated team and the Japanese playmaker will have an instrumental role in their fortunes over a tough run-in against sides who, with the exception of Hannover, all have a European berth of some sort firmly in their sights.
Occupying the relegation/promotion play-off slot at the moment are VfB Stuttgart, whose four-point return from Huub Stevens' first two games in charge has been followed by consecutive losses to Nürnberg and Dortmund. In the latter, VfB's chronic inability to hold onto a lead was on show again as they threw away a two-goal advantage and time is fast running out for Stevens' famously pragmatic approach to take hold. Come what may, the forward department will have to keep conjuring up the goods if an ignominious demotion for the South West's biggest club is to be avoided. Martin Harnik and Alexandru Maxim have their part to play there, but above all this is the moment for Vedad Ibisevic to step up to the mark, rediscover his early campaign form, add to his current ten-goal tally and demonstrate once again his credentials as a man for the big occasion.
An even more illustrious name, Hamburger SV, is currently to be found languishing second from bottom, albeit only marginally behind Stuttgart on goal difference. The clock is ticking down for the Bundesliga's only ever-present club and with Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and FC Bayern among their final six opponents, head coach Mirko Slomka has quite a task on his hands preserving that proud record now. That the Red Shorts have enough quality in their ranks to be in a different place altogether is beyond dispute, but that now has to come to the fore in tandem with nerves of steel. Pierre-Michel Lasogga has been in admirably barnstorming form up front of late but it is surely to Rafael van der Vaart that Hamburg must first look for the mixture of perspiration and inspiration required to shape their destiny for the better over the coming weeks. If he can rise to the occasion, it will be another significant addition to the veteran Dutch playmaker's already considerable legacy.
The Kumbela factor
Down but by no means out in 18th place are Eintracht Braunschweig, just two points adrift of the heavyweight duo above them thanks to a return of two wins and four draws from their last eight outings. Next up is a home meeting with Hannover, followed by a visit to Freiburg, after which FC Bayern come calling. Trips to Berlin and Hoffenheim, with a final home game against Augsburg sandwiched in between, make up the rest of the programme for the division's underdogs. A case could certainly be made for the potential significance of goalkeeper Daniel Davari further upping the solid form that has helped Braunschweig concede fewer goals than half a dozen better-placed sides. Then again, even six goalless draws would likely be too little, too late. So what chance last season's promotion-earning hero responding once again under pressure? Adapting to life in the top flight has not been straightforward for Domi Kumbela, but he is still Eintracht's most effective frontman by some distance. A hat-trick to dispatch direct rivals Hamburg on Matchday 21 and a brace in the recent vital win against Mainz would seem to indicate that as push turns to shove, Kumbela is up for the challenge.