Cologne - The race for a place in Europe next season is set to be one of the closest on record with no fewer than eight sides mathematically still in with a shot at a berth in the UEFA Europa League next term.
Down to the wire
From fifth-placed FC Schalke 04 right the way down to 1. FC Köln in 12th, a contest for what could be only two – but may also be three - qualifying berths will be decided in the final four games of the Bundesliga season.
The final four weeks are set to be compelling viewing, not least on Matchday 31 when four of the contenders face up in two head-to-head fixtures. TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, who are currently seventh, just two points behind Schalke and Augsburg, host Borussia Dortmund, while SV Werder Bremen entertain Eintracht Frankfurt.
"We want a place in Europe," declared Bremen coach Viktor Skripnik following his side's 2-2 draw with SC Paderborn 07 last weekend. "If I said anything else, I would only be betraying the fans." He is not the only coach to have made such a declaration, with FC Augsburg boss Markus Weinzierl recently admitting his side would be stupid not to give it a go. There are others who are keeping their cards a little closer to their chest, however.
Open to eight
While for Schalke a place in Europe is nothing short of obligatory, 1. FSV Mainz 05, Frankfurt and Köln are happy enough just to have avoided relegation; anything else would be a major bonus. "Considering things rationally, then we've reached our goals for the season," said Frankfurt coach Thomas Schaaf. "That was to have nothing to do with relegation, and we've managed that."
Yet with just six points separating the Eagles from sixth - or four from seventh - they too can still sneak into Europe via the back door, even if Schaaf insists he is "only focusing on our next game", and that is set to be decisive. Defeat for the Eagles could see them fall too far behind to recover; win and they are right in the fray, at the expense of Schaaf's former club.
Köln hold the key
The Green-Whites head to Hanover a week later before hosting Borussia Mönchengladbach. On the final day of the season, Bremen pay the Signal Iduna Park a visit and it is most likely to be there that the final decision on who will be representing the Bundesliga in Europe will be taken. Schalke will certainly be hoping they will be assured of their berth already by then, with games against VfB Stuttgart, Köln, Paderborn and Hamburger SV remaining.
Like the Royal Blues, Augsburg have their destiny in their own hands and a maiden ticket to Europe will be theirs with wins over Köln, FC Bayern München, Hannover 96 and Gladbach – quite a tall order for the Bavarians who have won only two of their last 11, picking up just eight points.
A tall order it is also for Köln, yet they have as much control over those tickets as anybody else with just five points separating them from Hoffenheim and three of their final four opponents involved in the scramble. Stranger things have happened and one thing is for sure – it is going to be a gripping season finale for eight clubs as the sound of that Europa League anthem lures them in.