Leverkusen, Schalke, Wolfsburg and Gladbach are the teams set to fight it out for the remaining two Champions League places this season
Leverkusen, Schalke, Wolfsburg and Gladbach are the teams set to fight it out for the remaining two Champions League places this season

Permutations aplenty in race for Champions League places

Munich - FC Bayern München secured the first one seemingly many moons ago and Borussia Dortmund made sure of the second only last weekend. With three matchdays to go, however, the Bundesliga's two remaining UEFA Champions League berths are still very much up for grabs.

Schalke still in the driving seat

Five teams are theoretically in the running for at least a fourth-place finish and the accompanying shot at the qualifying rounds of Europe's elite club competition.

Naturally enough at this juncture, not all are in with an equal shout. At one end of the spectrum, anything less than the third group stage slot would inevitably be accompanied by a sense of anti-climax for FC Schalke 04. At the other, snatching fourth from their current position would require an unprecedented confluence of events to go the way of 1. FSV Mainz 05 - implausible, but not as yet impossible. In between the two, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, VfL Wolfsburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach are all battling it out for a coveted ticket to the VIP football event with varying degrees of hope and expectation.

Schalke did not do themselves any favours by losing 3-1 at relegation-threatened VfB Stuttgart last time out, but their fate remains firmly in their own hands all the same. The third-place Ruhr district outfit go into Matchday 32 on 58 points, still four clear of closest pursuers Leverkusen and five ahead of Wolfsburg. Gladbach, currently sixth on 49, also happen to be the visitors to the Veltins Arena on Sunday. All in all, provided they can swiftly put the latest setback behind them, the odds look well stacked in Schalke's favour. Of the five hopefuls they remain the form side of 2014 with something to spare, having racked up 30 points since league action resumed in January against the 23 of Wolfsburg and Mainz, with Leverkusen (17) and Gladbach (16) decidedly unproductive by comparison.

Moreover, two of the Royal Blues' three outstanding games are at home, where they are unbeaten in ten, nine wins - seven with a clean sheet on their own part - included. For good measure, they have not lost to Mönchengladbach on home turf since way back in 1993, while the other visitors, 1. FC Nürnberg, have scarcely fared any better, losing seven of their last eight games in Gelsenkirchen. At worst, Schalke seem odds-on to at least claim the Champions League qualifying spot, with only two third-placed teams on Matchday 31 ever having slipped out of the top four come the end of the season.

Leverkusen improving at the right time

For their part, Leverkusen have rediscovered that winning feeling since Sascha Lewandowski replaced Sami Hyypiä in the hot seat, taking six points from their first two outings under the interim coach. Upping that quota to nine against Dortmund this weekend will be something of an acid test but after that Bayer face Frankfurt and Bremen, two sides with likely little more to play for than pride. The fourth-placed side at the 31-game mark has ultimately slipped from that position 11 times down the years in the Bundesliga but, notably, not once in the past 11 seasons.

At any rate, a repetition of their two most recent campaign finales would do Leverkusen just fine this time around as well. Last year, and the year before, die Werkself managed to round things out with three straight wins. In all likelihood they will have to do the same once again to have any chance of pipping Schalke at the post to the direct group stage berth that seemed to have their name on it for most of the early part of the season.

Pressure off Wolfsburg?

One team who will not be wishing Bayer all the best in that endeavour are Wolfsburg, who need Lewandowski's charges to drop points at least once more if they are to have any chance of realising their own dream of a return to European football's centre stage next season. The Wolves' biggest advantage right now is arguably a psychological one. They already have a Europa League place in the bag and, with it, their declared season goal. Anything more is at least partially out of their hands and can thus be viewed as a bonus, in contrast to the prize potentially slipping from Schalke and/or Leverkusen's grasp.

Dieter Hecking's men are bang on form, having recorded four wins and an unlucky loss at Dortmund in their last five outings. They, too, have two more assignments on home turf - against direct competitors Gladbach and struggling Stuttgart - and just one on the road. That said, should they manage the jump from fifth to third between Matchdays 31 and 34, they would be only the third side ever to do so in the Bundesliga. Bumping up a single place to fourth - achieved nine times previously over the same timeframe - seems an altogether more feasible option.

Contenders go head-to-head

Five points down on Leverkusen and four shy of Wolfsburg after their own weekend loss at SC Freiburg, Mönchengladbach are now firmly in the 'outsider' category for a top-four finish. That said, they are still in a position to put the cat among the pigeons with road trips to Schalke and Wolfsburg yet to come. To do so, however, the Foals will need to find an extra gear that has been missing for much of a second season-half in which they currently sit a very modest 13th place on the overall Bundesliga form chart. In the bigger picture, the last team to make the leap from sixth ahead of Matchday 32 into the final top four were Dortmund, ten years ago.

Last and concomitantly least likely to defy the odds are Mainz, for whom a three-win finish would result in a sum total of 56 points - two more than Leverkusen have at the moment, three more than Wolfsburg. Both those sides would thus have to cave in fairly dramatically, with Gladbach - FSV's opponents in one of their two away games - effectively garnering no more than six points either. The seventh-placed team after Matchday 31 has never yet managed to find a way into the top four by season's end. Whether Mainz head coach Thomas Tuchel will be asserting that there's a first time for everything in any or all of his pre-match pep talks over the coming weeks remains a moot point, all the same.

Angus Davison