Unlike every other major European Soccer League, the Bundesliga enjoys an annual six-week winter break over Christmas and New Years. But this Friday, January 12th, the ball will start rolling again in Germany when Bayern Munich visit Bayer Leverkusen 2:30pm EST on Fox Sports 1. As the second half of the campaign gets underway, here is a dive into the top 3 Bundesliga stories you should be following over the final 17 matchdays.
Story 1: Can anyone stop Bayern Munich from winning their 6th straight title?
The short and simple answer, in my opinion, is no! The Bavarians currently sit 11 points clear atop the German top flight, ahead of Schalke 04. Although they have lost 2 of their opening 17 games, it is very unlikely they will let an 11-point lead slip. Bayern are poised to cruise to their 6th title in a row and will have it secured early enough so they can shift their attention to the Champions League (assuming they are still in the competition). Can Bayern win the Treble as they did in 2012-13?
The deeper question, however, is what will happen below the top spot in the Bundesliga? Who will qualify for the Champions League, along with Bayern, and who will claim a Europa League spot next season? Between 2nd place Schalke 04 and 10th place Hertha BSC, there is a slim 6 point difference. Dortmund struggled during the latter half of 2017 but they remain the favorite to finish as Bundesliga runner-ups due mainly to their sheer talent and depth. Below Dortmund, it could get interesting with Schalke, Leverkusen, Leipzig, Gladbach, and Hoffenheim all having Champions League ambitions. Whoever doesn't finish within the top 4 will have to be satisfied with a Europa League ticket for the 2018-19 season. Frankfurt, Augsburg, and Hertha, currently sitting in 8th , 9th and 10th only have outside chances of finishing in the top 7 and thereby qualifying for European competition.
Story 2: Can the "Bundesliga-Dino" yet again avoid relegation?
“Bundeslgia-Dino” you ask? That is none other than the Hamburger SV, the current home of US men's national striker Bobby Wood. They are the only club in Germany never to be relegted from the German top flight dating back to 1919. However, over the past few years they have cut it awfully close. In 2014 and 2015, Hamburg barely remained in the Bundesliga after surviving relegation-playoff thrillers. And in 2016 the club sealed Bundesliga-safety again in the dying minutes of the final game. Luca Waldschmidt scored the game-winner against Wolfsburg in the 88th minute, sending Wolfsburg into the relegation battle instead of the Hamburger SV.
As the second half of the 2017-18 Bundesliga kicks off this Friday, Hamburg are only 2 points clear of 15th place, which Mainz 05 currently holds. Management upheaval, backoffice turmoil, injuries and outside pressures are the challenges the club faces as it seeks to remain in the Bundesliga. In their home stadium, the Volksparkstadion, Hamburg proudly present a clock displaying the time that they have remained in the Bundesliga. Currently at 54 Years and 139 days, this clock may finally be reset to 0 in early May...
Story 3: Who will impress Joachim Löw and get the call-up to Germany’s World Cup squad?
The 2018 FIFA World Cup will be the 21st World Cup, and is scheduled to take place in Russia from June 14 to July 15, 2018. Of the 32 competing nations, 20 will be making back-to-back appearances following the last tournament in 2014, including defending champions Germany.
One of the biggest questions facing Germany coach Joachim Löw is the left-back position. In the 2016 European Championship tournament, Cologne’s Jonas Hector played that part. However, his season has been plagued by injuries and poor performances. It seems he has fallen out of Löw’s favor as he was not part of Germany’s recent squads which finished out their World Cup qualifying campaign. For those games, as well as the 2017 Confederations Cup, 25-year old Marvin Plattenhardt from Hertha BSC served as Germany’s left-back. Whether he gets the final call before the national team heads off to Russia remains in doubt, as Hertha, and Plattenhardt, have not performed as well as they did last year.
Lepizig’s Marcel Halstenberg has an outside chance of taking over Plattenhardt’s spot. However, what is more likely is that Germany will play in a system with 3 defenders. If everyone is healthy, those slots should be filled by Hummels, Boateng, and Süle. Healthy: that is the key word in the run-up to Germany’s quest for back-to- back World Cup Championships.
Manuel Neuer represents a major issue. Neuer has only been on the field for merely 270 minutes this year before breaking his left foot for the 3rd time in his career. Whether he will return to play, and return to form, is still up in the air. Although Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Barcelona's number 1 goalkeeper, is certainly a solid back up, having Neuer between the posts surely makes opposing strikers and teams a little more nervous.
The same issue regarding health can be asked about Borussia Dortmund midfielder Marco Reus. When fit, the winger is without a doubt one of Germany’s most gifted players and a must-have at the World Cup in the Russia. However, he continues to be plagued by severe injuries. He missed the 2014 World Cup after injuring himself during a friendly prior to the competition and once again Reus is attempting to fight his way back from a major injury, this time an ACL-tear. It certainly would not hurt Germany’s chances if Reus returns to form and stays healthy ahead of the tournament in Russia.
Which strikers will Löw call into the team? Over the past year, youngster Timo Werner and resurging Sandro Wagner have performed well for club and country. However, do not count out veteran Mario Gomez just yet. Gomez, who has a similiar physique and style as Wagner, has scored important goals for Germany in the past. After limited success in Wolfsburg over the past two seasons, Gomez has moved back to his boyhood club VFB Stuttgart. He will not only attempt to keep them out of the relegation battle but also make a case for himself to be included in Germany’s World Cup squad. Whether or not that happens will be seen as early as Saturday, when Stuttgart kick off the 2nd half of their Bundesliga campaign against Hertha BSC. I myself will be watching him closely, as I will be in the stands with my fellow compatriots. However, as a die-hard Hertha fan, I will naturally be rooting against Gomez this time.
In addition to the stories above, below are must-watch Bundesliga games in the second half of the campaign
- Schalke v Dortmund (Matchday 30: Likely April 14th)
- Werder v Hamburg (Matchday 24: Saturday February 24th)
- Dortmund v Bayern (Matchday 28: Likely March 31st)
- Final Matchday (Matchday 34: May 12th)
Author: Felix Dalstein