With Bayern clinching their 5th consecutive Bundesliga title on Match Day 31 and RB Leipzig clinching a Champions league spot with their 4-1 win over Hertha on the weekend, one of the most exciting battles in the Bundesliga is over the two Europa League qualification spots.
Combined with Hoffenheim and Dortmund fighting for 3rd and what can only be described as the relegation vortex, there is a lot at stake in the last two match days.
Only 4 points separate 5th placed SC Freiburg from 9th placed Borussia Mönchengladbach for Europa League qualification. Spots 5 and 6 qualify automatically for the Europa League while the 7th spot could enter the Europa League qualification rounds depending on the results of the DFB Pokal.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of who is likely to qualify and who will be on the outside looking in, lets clear one thing up. The Bundesliga table looks unfamiliar. Clubs like SC Freiburg and Werder Bremen were not expected to be even in the discussion for Europe. Freiburg had only just regained their Bundesliga status and Bremen finished 13th last year. Traditionally strong teams such as Schalke, Leverkusen and Wolfsburg have had incredibly bad campaign
So, who is in contention for Europa League qualification? What are their remaining matches looking like? What is the probability they will qualify?
(Technically, Schalke and Frankfurt are still in contention for Europa League but with 5 points to make up to make it to the 6th spot, it just seems to unrealistic. Frankfurt could also qualify by winning the Pokal.
Let’s take a look at the teams in competition starting from 9th and moving up…
Borussia Mönchengladbach 9th:
Gladbach finished the 2015/16 season in 4th place and were poised for another top finish. With the addition of Jannik Vestergaard and the return of Christoph Krammer, Gladbach should’ve been a top team.
The first half of the campaign was horrid with Gladbach sitting in 14th after the first half. The club departed with trainer Andre Schubert who was replaced by Dieter Hecking. They have regained their normal form and fought their way up the table to land at spot 9 with 2 matches left.
Anything other than direct Europa League qualification should be considered a disappointment. It would be the first time since the 2013/14 season in which they have finished outside the top 6 and is unacceptable for such a strong squad.
Fortunately for them, 6 points should be easy as they have to play Wolfsburg away and the already relegated Darmstadt at home. Unfortunately for them, they will have to rely on every single team ahead of them dropping 4 to 2 points in order to qualify.
Werder Bremen 8th:
After finishing 13th last season, expectations weren’t high for Werder Bremen after the first half of the season saw them briefly in the relegation zone.
Werder Bremen has performed nothing short of a miraculous turn around. They are the 3rd best team in the Bundesliga in the second half of the season, winning a total of 29 points, only 1 behind Dortmund and 5 behind Bayern.
After parting ways with Vikotr Skripnik, the new trainer Alexand Nouri has turned the squad around without bringing in players during the winter transfer window.
This was largely achieved by shaking up the starting formation and the return of Max Kruse, who scored an impressive 14 goals in 21 appearances.
Bremen still have to play Dortmund and Hoffenheim, both teams are jockeying for 3rd place and it is hard to see them dropping points to Bremen.
Unfortunately it looks like the fairytale will not end with Europa but Bremen should be incredibly happy with the turnaround.
FC Köln 7th:
Köln have improved every season since being promoted to the Bundesliga in 2014. They are only one point off 6th and have a better goal difference than both Hertha and Freiburg. Defensively stout, Köln uses a counter attacking style to absolutely deadly effect.
However, they can run a bit cold at times. If Köln can get another attacking player to compliment Modeste, this can be a top Bundesliga team.
Köln have not dropped below 8th place this season and arguably, if Timo Horn did not miss 14 games they would probably be higher in the table. The remaining two matches on paper are easy but could be challenging. Although Leverkusen have been poor this season, it still is a Rhein Derby and Derby matches are always tough and unpredictable.
Mainz have also been slightly better and could be fighting to avoid a relegation place in the last match day. Köln’s future lies in their own hands.
Hertha BSC followed up their unexpected 2015/16 season with another great start to the season. They ended the first half in 5th place and only one point off of 3rd place.
This start was surprising as key players such as Mitchell Weiser, Salomon Kalou and Vladimir Darida all missed time and the season started off with Hertha being bounced from the Europa League by Brondby.
Hertha can be impenetrable on defence and will slowly build up from the back to create opportunities for their efficient scorers, Vedad Ibisevic and Salomon Kalou.
As typical for Hertha, the second half of the season has seen a steady decline in performance with 9 defeats away from home in a row. It is obvious that the away losses have had a serious psychological impact on the squad.
The only reason they are in 6th is they are one of the best home teams in the Bundesliga and Rune Jarstein has probably saved 10+ points this season single handily.
Hertha’s over reliance on an efficient shot to goal ratio hurts them deeply when they miss opportunities or can’t create enough chances to score. Hertha’s next two opponents, the already relegated Darmstadt and Leverkusen are great opportunities to finish the season strong with two wins and the first away win in seemingly forever. 4 points should be enough to secure Europa League qualification.
SC Freiburg 5th:
How the hell are SC Freiburg in 5th? Their squad was stripped bare after relegation in 2014 but they’ve been able to rebuild and have enjoyed a very strong second half.
SC Freiburg can be loosely described as a typical “Bundesliga” team. What I mean by that is they don’t have superstars but rather rely on well drilled, “team first” style of defensive play that can be very successful in the Bundesliga.
Augsburg and Mainz have been able to secure Europa League spots with this style in the past. They should beat Ingolstadt even though they will be fighting to stay in the Bundesliga and have been playing better.
The big question is Bayern. Will Ancelotti, with the title already secured, field a weaker squad? If Freiburg only gets 3 points out of their last two matches, it is difficult for me to see them staying in the Europa League.
The fight for Europa is important for Bundesliga clubs. Supporters love it and it can be an important source of revenue for more cash strapped clubs. Entire transfer windows have been decided by whether or not a team has qualified.
This year is particularly hard to predict due to the lack of consistency by the competitors, the relative equal strength of the clubs and the fact that the traditionally strong clubs have been poor.
I predict Hertha and Köln to qualify with Freiburg just missing out. Bremen’s remaining matches are too tough and Freiburg’s goal differential mean they’d most likely have to secure 6 points to remain in the race.