Mönchengladbach - For Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder Christoph Kramer, Matchday 32’s showdown with Bayer 04 Leverkusen represents something of a catch-22 situation.
A win would put the Foals clear of the Werkself with only two rounds of fixtures remaining to determine which side qualifies for the UEFA Champions League outright and who has to go through the play-offs. It just so happens Kramer might end up doing both.
The 24-year-old midfielder, who has been on the books at Leverkusen since 2008, joined Gladbach in 2013 following two seasons on loan at Bundesliga 2 side VfL Bochum, but on 22 December 2014 announced that he would be returning to the BayArena at the end of the 2014/15 campaign after signing a new two-year deal with his parent club.
"After speaking to the relevant parties at Leverkusen, I didn’t hesitate to sign an extended deal," Kramer told club website bayer04.de at the time. "The team, the coach and the club - it's the full package. I’ve known Bayer 04 since I was young and it’s always been a dream of mine to play for the first team […] I’ve become an international player during my time at Gladbach and I’m really grateful for such a wonderful time there."
Indeed, it is during a two-year spell under the wing of fastidious Gladbach head coach Lucien Favre that Kramer has blossomed into one of European football’s most coveted holding midfielders. He has drawn ample comparisons with FC Bayern München’s Bastian Schweinsteiger in recent years and was even part of the same Germany side that collected their fourth FIFA World Cup crown in Brazil last July.
Kramer has continued his accelerated upward trajectory in 2014/15, along with midfield partner Granit Xhaka providing the foundation for the five-time Bundesliga winners’ domestic resurgence. Their 2-1 success over Hertha Berlin on Matchday 31 means the Foals have now amassed 33 points during the second half of the season - two and three more than champions Bayern and fourth-in-the-table Leverkusen respectively. Should Gladbach keep their noses in front over the final few fences, an automatic place at Europe’s top table will be theirs.
Third the priority; second a bonus
It’s not the first time the Foals have reached such dizzy heights under Favre, who masterminded a surprise fourth-placed finish back when Borussia Dortmund’s Marco Reus was scoring goals for fun in Gladbach colours in 2011/12. Borussia finished six points clear of Leverkusen that season, but ultimately fell short of the Champions League group stage after suffering a 4-3 aggregate defeat to Ukrainian outfit Dynamo Kyiv in the play-offs. Die Fohlenelf have only gone as far as the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League since, while Bayer 04 have reached the Champions League Round of 16 in each of the last two campaigns after finishing third in the Bundesliga.
Repeating the trick is now all that matters for Leverkusen, even if they - like Mönchengladbach - can still usurp faltering VfL Wolfsburg in second. Die Werkself make the short trip to the Borussia Park on the back of a convincing 2-0 home triumph over Bayern, a result which extended their unbeaten league run to nine (W8, D1). Victory on Saturday would take them a point clear of Gladbach, but defeat would leave them needing to win their two remaining fixtures against TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and Eintracht Frankfurt whilst hoping Borussia amass no more than a point from games against Europa League candidates SV Werder Bremen and FC Augsburg to wrestle back third.
Long time coming
The prospect of playing catch-up on the Bundesliga’s form side going into the penultimate round of action doesn’t bear thinking about, but neither does facing a team against whom you’ve failed to register a single home win in over 26 years. Yet that is exactly the position Gladbach find themselves in this weekend, with Leverkusen having won six and drawn 17 of their last 23 trips to the Borussia Park since suffering a rare 2-1 reverse on 25 February 1989.
Omens and statistics are not everyone’s cup of tea, but it would appear Favre’s Foals are going to have to rewrite history before making it with a milestone spot in next season’s Champions League.