16th-place VfB Stuttgart travel to rock-bottom SC Paderborn on the final day of the campaign
16th-place VfB Stuttgart travel to rock-bottom SC Paderborn on the final day of the campaign

Sink or swim for the Bundesliga’s bottom six

Cologne - It’s approximately 46 years since so many clubs have been in such a mathematically precarious position at the eleventh hour. Back in 1968/69 - long before the introduction of the relegation play-off - two thirds of a rather troubled-looking sextet faced off on Matchday 34, with rock-bottom Kickers Offenbach and champions 1. FC Nürnberg needing to beat 16th-placed Borussia Dortmund and 13th-in-the-table 1. FC Köln respectively to survive.

No room for complacency

Had they succeeded, any one of the quartet of sides above them at the start of play could have theoretically gone down, but a pair of 3-0 defeats ensured the pre-match bottom two slipped away with barely a whimper. Fast approaching 16,817 days later, the similarities are striking. From the bottom up, the current status quo at the wrong end of the standings is delicate to say the least.

Top-tier greenhorns Paderborn cannot rise any higher than the relegation play-off position currently held by upcoming opponents Stuttgart; self-styled Bundesliga dinosaurs Hamburg must beat FC Schalke 04 to have any chance of maintaining their exclusive ever-present status; Freiburg and Hannover meet in the mother of all six-pointers separated only by goal difference; and even Hertha Berlin on 35 points, albeit winless in six, can still be dragged into the mire.

On 29 May 1999, Nürnberg played host to fellow strugglers Freiburg with a three-point cushion over 16th-placed Eintracht Frankfurt as well as a seemingly unassailable advantage in the goal-difference department (-9 compared to the Eagles’ -14). “We have a 99 per cent chance of staying up,” opined FCN goalkeeper Andreas Köpke before the game. “Everything would have to go against us. But we’re not going to let that happen.”

Famous last words. After Jan Age Fjortoft found the net in stoppage time to give Frankfurt a 5-1 lead against 1. FC Kaiserslautern, Frank Baumann missed the most gilt-edged of opportunities to secure the 2-2 draw that would have saved der Club’s bacon. By virtue of scoring four fewer goals, Nürnberg were relegated.

Now or never

The worry in Germany’s capital is that history could repeat itself on Saturday afternoon. “It’s tricky,” warned Hertha defender Sebastian Langkamp, no doubt with some recollection of conceivably the most dramatic finale to a Bundesliga season in living memory. “We have to stick together and focus on ourselves. We have to try and get a result against Hoffenheim. If we do that we’ll be safe, but we’re going to have to give absolutely everything and go full throttle. Then we’ll see what happens.”

Hertha are not alone in their uncertainty. While some could, at least on paper, get away with dropping points, Matchday 34 represents a veritable case of win or bust for bottom-two incumbents Paderborn and Hamburg. Even if outright safety proves a bridge too far, there is always the play-offs - a lifeline not afforded to Nürnberg on that fateful late spring afternoon 16 years ago. “It’s no good thinking about it and hoping,” affirmed Paderborn goalkeeper Lukas Kruse. “We just have to go out there and beat Stuttgart.”

And what a turn up for the books that would be - one final twist in the tale: the real underdogs in all of this rallying at the last to send the five-time champions - the bottom six’s form side no less - down for only the second time in their history. Almost anything is possible after all, and that’s the true beauty of the 2014/15 relegation scrap. Players, fans and coaching staff alike will all take stock of the innumerable caveats, but when it comes to the crunch they all want to win. In some cases, they have to.

Christopher Mayer-Lodge