Title races are all very well, but nothing inflames the passions of football supporters quite like a relegation battle. The drop can have far-reaching consequences. People lose their jobs, clubs lose their players, and there is never a guarantee that things will turn out well the season after. Indeed, as last season’s Bundesliga battlers Paderborn are finding out, one relegation can put you in danger of another.
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Critics of the Bundesliga often sneer at the league because of Bayern Munich’s dominance, but that narrow view rather misses the point. Beyond Bayern and Borussia Dortmund, the league is incredibly competitive from third place down to 18th. The German top flight does an especially nice line in relegation drama, and we’re all set for another thrilling denouement.
Hannover have become the first team relegated, and their demise is hardly a surprise. Chairman Martin Kind and former sporting director Dirk Dufner had a shambolic summer in the transfer market, and neither Michael Frontzeck nor Thomas Schaaf could get anything out of a limited squad. Promoted youth coach Daniel Stendel did bring about a revival, but it was too little, too late.
Eintracht Frankfurt occupy the second automatic relegation spot, and their survival bid is alive and well thanks to the weekend’s dramatic 2-1 win over Mainz. Former Hertha Berlin bad boy Anis Ben-Hatira has become a talismanic figure, and has been involved in all three of Frankfurt’s goals since Croatian coach Niko Kovac replaced Armin Veh.
Without injured skipper Alex Meier, Frankfurt lack firepower, but Kovac has instilled a work ethic that means the Eagles won’t go down without a fight. Saturday’s Hessen derby at Darmstadt was always likely to be a fiery affair anyway, but now it’s about much more than local pride.
Werder Bremen are only a point clear of Frankfurt, and are in the relegation playoff spot. Whoever is in that position at the end of 34 games will face the third best team in the second tier over two nail-biting matches. Werder’s 2-1 Nordderby defeat at Hamburg on Friday night summed up their problems. In defence, they were ludicrously haphazard, with centre-back Papy Djilobodji constantly out of position. Djilobodji has the air of a man that has only just started playing football, and thinks you just need to chase the ball wherever it happens to go. Viktor Skripnik’s side have conceded 63 goals, and haven’t kept a clean sheet in the league since May 2015.
Werder’s attack has got them out of trouble on numerous occasions this season, largely thanks to the Bundesliga’s Dorian Gray, 37-year-old Claudio Pizarro. The Peruvian has stuck two fingers up at Old Father Time by smashing in 13 league goals, but even he’s feeling the pressure. He saw a feeble penalty saved on Friday, and missed a golden opportunity to snatch a draw in the dying seconds.
Werder’s defensive ineptitude has only been matched by Stuttgart, and after barely escaping the drop in each of the last two seasons, the Swabians are putting their fans through the wringer again. After 13 games of unsustainably wide-open football, VfB dismissed Alex Zorniger, a man who never really looked comfortable at top-flight level.
His replacement Jurgen Kramny tightened the team up and looked to be carrying them to safety, but the collection of just two points from the last six games has made the alarm bells ring once again. Stuttgart are just a couple of points above the bottom three, and visit Werder next Monday in one of the biggest games of the season. It’ll be like two faded beauty queens having a cat-fight.
Hoffenheim have been revitalised by the youngest coach in Bundesliga history. Like Shirley Temple and Doogie Howser before him, 28-year-old Julian Nagelsmann has proved that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. The former youth coach has delivered six wins from 11 games, and one more should see his side safe.
Augsburg and top-flight new boys Darmstadt also realistically need just one more victory to breathe easy, but as this season is proving, you can never take anything for granted in the Bundesliga. In the next three weekends, the survival scrap will have enough twists and turns to make even Game of Thrones seem tediously straightforward.
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