Cologne - The Bundesliga is set to head down the final straight for 2014/15 after the international break, with eight games to go and still plenty to play for.
The battle for places in Europe is in full swing with no fewer than eight clubs battling for the chance to join FC Bayern München and, most likely VfL Wolfsburg, on the continent next season. bundesliga.com has decided to take a look at all of the candidates, focusing on where their strengths lie in the season's run-in.
Third place - 47 points
Even before the Foals sent out a warning to the rest of the Bundesliga by beating Bayern 2-0 on their own patch, Lucien Favre's men were being regarded as serious candidates for UEFA Champions League football next season. Conceding just twice as a result of their own mistakes is a remarkable record with only Bayern boasting a better one. Their 4-2-2-2 formation has been tinkered to perfection by the master craftsman Favre, resulting in an inimitably successful style of play. A well organised back four (only 20 goals conceded) is the springboard for quick wing marauders like Patrick Herrmann or André Hahn to catapult clear with an air of unpredictability which keeps opposition defences guessing. Impressively, Gladbach are finding their man with 82 per cent of their passes. This figure is put into perspective by a low-possession game (around 52 per cent) which exalts their effectiveness.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Fourth place - 45 points
FC Schalke 04
Since taking charge of Die Werkself, Roger Schmidt has affirmed one concept in the tactical rulebook more than any other: pressing. It took just nine seconds of the opening game of the season against Borussia Dortmund for to hammer that concept home with the quickest goal in Bundesliga history. Leverkusen play the opening half an hour with an extremely high intensity, attacking their opponents early on and not shirking the tackles. Bayer's players have been involved in a league high 7,018 duels over the first 26 games of the season. Their quick transition play going forwards, with eight goals coming from counterattacks, is also working like a dream, and the depth of their squad is practically unrivalled: six of their goals have come from substitutes, a league high.
Fifth place - 39 points
Roberto Di Matteo has succeeded in bringing some stability to Schalke. The Italian coach has altered the style of play from 4-2-3-1 to 3-5-2, placing increased emphasis on the defence and having immediate success. With the full-backs pushed further forwards, more width has been given to their game, relieving some of the pressure down the middle and creating more room for the forwards, who have used this to great effect. A total of 28 goals or assists can be accredited to Schalke's forwards this season with a particularly strong aerial presence (11 headed goals). Despite a string of injuries to key players, as well as a form crisis of a key player like , the team are managing to put the coach's doctrines into practice perfectly.
Sixth place - 38 points
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
The Fuggerstädter are the surprise team of the season and they can rightly aspire to a place in Europe in the upcoming campaign. With their variable 4-1-4-1 system, FCA have shown a particularly high degree of versatility. Whether they play a quick transitional game, or focus more on the Pep Guardiola school of possession football, Markus Weinzierl's men have a solution for every situation, each of which has been practised to near perfection. 14 different players have already found the back of the net - a league-leading statistic together with Bayern. The defenders have looked particularly menacing with eight goals coming from the back line, including, of course, one from goalkeeper Marwin Hitz. That does not mean they are neglecting their menial duties, though - 54 per cent of tackles have been won by Augsburg's defenders.
Seventh place - 37 points
If there was one thing you could always rely on in recent years, then it was that whenever Hoffenheim were on the field, there would be fireworks. With a goal difference of 72-70 at the end of last season, coach Markus Gisdol did not need to think hard as he identified his side's problem and succeeded in adapting the defence while leaving his attractive, modern attacking football unharmed. That attacking play has its roots entrenched in midfield, from where 26 of their 40 goals have arrived. With pulling the strings in the centre and Kevin Volland causing a stir out wide, two of the most talented and coveted Bundesliga players are among the TSG ranks.
Eighth place - 34 points
SV Werder Bremen
Using the classical SV Werder Bremen diamond in a 4-1-2-1-2 system, former Werder legend Thomas Schaaf has transformed Eintracht Frankfurt into a goal machine. However, while they have been sparkling up front, they have lacked gloss at the back in the same way Hoffenheim did last term: 49 goals scored are a top mark, but 52 conceded are also. Schaaf has been able to rely on , who leads the goalscoring charts with 19 strikes. Eintracht are also a side who like to have the ball with and in the engine room, the preferred route to goal takes the ball via the wing and back into the middle: 287 crosses have been whipped into enemy territory, from which 11 goals have been scored (league high).
Ninth place - 34 points
Viktor Skripnik has no qualms about admitting where he got his inspiration for Werder's return to the upper echelons of the division. "I've always been fascinated by how we used to play and what we used to achieve," said the Ukrainian, referring in no enigmatic way to the architect of their 2004 double-winning season Thomas Schaaf. That same brand of attractive, self-confident attacking football with plenty of passion is what Bremen were and once again are all about. Since returning to the diamond formation, the cogs have started turning in the same direction once again. Players like and are in inspirational form, while Franco Di Santo is scoring at will (12 goals). Another ace in the hand for a place in Europe is the high quality they have shown from set-pieces with an impressive 18 goals coming from dead ball situations.
Tenth place - 33 points
The fact that Borussia Dortmund are still here able to dream about qualifying for Europe next season is quite clearly down to the individual class they have in their squad. The attractive, full-throttle football from recent years has been stored in the cupboard for safe keeping with the outstanding talents of and now carrying the team in a more workmanlike manner. Attitude, determination and tireless running is behind the revival of Jürgen Klopp's team. With 119 kilometres covered on average per game, that is a clear indication of how determined the Black and Yellows are of playing in Europe again next season.
By Thomas Ziemann / Translated by Ben Gladwell