Cologne - With just four rounds of regular-season action remaining, it is now looking very much like a five-way battle to avoid relegation from the Bundesliga. The bottom two teams at the end of Matchday 34 can start preparing for second-flight life post haste, while the one directly above them enters the last-chance saloon of the relegation/promotion play-off, against the third-place finishers in Bundesliga 2.
Stevens eyeing victory at his old stomping ground
As it stands, VfB Stuttgart are the side with the most to do but, on 27 points, only three behind SC Freiburg in 14th, the Swabians are far from doomed yet. That said, they are fresh from squandering a golden opportunity to pull level with their regional neighbours from the Black Forest. Substitute Nils Petersen's brace – the second coming with five minutes to go – salvaged a draw for the visitors at the Mercedes-Benz Arena last Saturday, after Stuttgart had gone 2-0 up inside the opening half-hour.
VfB head coach Huub Stevens admitted to being “perplexed as to how you can throw away a game like that,” and said he was “disappointed above all for the fans, that we denied ourselves victory with our second-half performance.” The show must go, though, and Stevens accordingly took a measure of solace from his side's purposeful start to the contest, noting, “We still feel confident and we're focused now on preparing as best we can for the game against Schalke.”
A trip to the Veltins Arena is always something a bit special for the veteran Dutch tactician, who Royal Blues fans voted their “Coach of the (20th) Century in tribute, among other accomplishments, to his command role in the legendary Schalke Eurofighters' 1997 UEFA Cup triumph. Despite acknowledging the early years at Schalke as “the best time” of his long coaching career, Stevens is not renowned for excessive displays of sentimentality. His sole concern in Gelsenkirchen this weekend will be to further extend the hosts' current six-game winless run, preferably by departing his former stomping ground with all three badly-needed points in the bag.
Hamburg on the up at last
The three clubs directly above Stuttgart, in ascending order, are SC Paderborn and Hamburger SV, on 28 points apiece, and Hannover 96, on 29. Paderborn, like VfB, failed to capitalise on a two-goal home advantage on Matchday 30, in their case against upwardly-mobile Werder Bremen. The Bundesliga debutants could count themselves unlucky in that one but they will need to improve on their recent away form to get any change out of Saturday's trip to Freiburg, in what is the upcoming round of action's key bottom-end clash.
Hamburg gave themselves a huge boost in the bid to retain their unique ever-present top-flight status with a 3-2 home win against Europa League hopefuls FC Augsburg. Having suffered a narrow defeat at Bremen in the first game of his second stint in charge of the Red Shorts, Bruno Labbadia thus got up and running on the rebound as his charges put a timely end to their nine-game winless run.
Two-goal hero Pierre-Michel Lasogga, having doubled his season goals tally at a stroke, was understandably upbeat about the club's prospects of beating the drop, saying “If we fight like that every week, I'm confident we'll get the points we need.” For his part, Labbadia was content to describe the result as a “small but very significant step” in the right direction. He wants to see his team take the next one on Sunday at mid-table Mainz 05, themselves currently on the up after back-to-back victories over Freiburg and Schalke.
Tough derby looming for Frontzeck's Hannover
Labbadia is no longer the newest coach on the Bundesliga block, though, with Michael Frontzeck having been installed as Tayfun Korkut's successor at Hannover on a short-term contract only last week. There would be no overnight improvement here, either, with the 96ers losing 2-1 at home to Hoffenheim to make it now 14 games since their last win, against Augsburg last December.
That's a downward spiral in a class of its own at the moment and Frontzeck's second attempt to turn things around takes the unenviable form of a trip to high-flying regional rivals VfL Wolfsburg. Time is fast running out for the Bundesliga's bottom five – and every passing week can be guaranteed to add a new twist to the nail-biting proceedings in this bitter relegation dogfight.