Relegation battles take center stage in Bundesliga
BERLIN (AP) — The relegation battle takes center stage in the Bundesliga as the season enters its final phase. Eintracht Braunschweig, Hamburger SV, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Freiburg and Hannover are all in danger of the drop, with just seven points between the sides with six games still to play. Bayern Munich, which has already wrapped up the title in record time, aims to maintain its unbeaten run and will use Saturday’s Bavarian derby against Augsburg to prepare for Wednesday’s Champions League quarterfinal return leg against Manchester United. Here are five things to know about the Bundesliga’s 29th round of games:
On the verge of exiting the Champions League after Wednesday’s 3-0 quarterfinal first-leg defeat at Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund is struggling to stay positive after an underwhelming season to date. Only the German Cup remains a realistic target for Juergen Klopp’s side. Second place in the Bundesliga is a minimum requirement but scant consolation for finishing so far behind Bayern for the second season in a row. The gap was 25 points last season. It’s 23 now with six games to play.
Dortmund can stop Bayern’s bid to become the first side to complete a Bundesliga season unbeaten by winning in Munich next week but “schadenfreude” would seem petty in an inconsistent season. Terrible luck with injuries has played its part, to be fair to Klopp’s side, but the knowledge that top striker Robert Lewandowski is joining Bayern next season is unlikely to improve the mood.
Lewandowski scored four goals in one game against Madrid last season. All would be forgiven if he did it again in Tuesday’s second leg.
Wolfsburg harbors dreams of being among “the best of the rest” behind Bayern and has spent more than 200 million euros ($275 million) on new players over the past five seasons to qualify for Europe. The Volkswagen-backed club is currently fifth, just one point off Bayer Leverkusen in the last Champions League qualification place.
“We want to take the chance and finish fourth,” said Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking, whose side visits Dortmund on Saturday.
Wolfsburg, the 2009 Bundesliga champion, has the opportunity to return to the Champions League due to Leverkusen’s poor form. Leverkusen was second but an alarming slump — just five points from eight league games — has given Wolfsburg the encouragement it needs.
HAMBURG IN TROUBLE
Last week’s 1-1 draw with bottom side Braunschweig may have increased the pressure on Leverkusen coach Sami Hyypia, but Hamburg coach Mirko Slomka is trying to stave off relegation. Hamburg is the only club to have played every season of the Bundesliga since the league was formed in 1963 and Slomka’s players are under immense pressure to prevent its first relegation.
Slomka said last week the situation was “ominous” after a 3-1 defeat at Borussia Moenchengladbach left his side just two points above last-placed Braunschweig.
Hamburg hosts Leverkusen on Friday, when the home side will be looking for just its third win from nine games.
Hamburg striker Pierre-Michel Lasogga is out with muscle problems. However, Ivo Ilicevic could be back after recovering from his thigh strain and Milan Badelj will be back from suspension.
FIGHTING THE DROP
Stuttgart hosts Freiburg on Saturday for a derby both sides are desperate to win. Stuttgart occupies the relegation playoff place by virtue of a better goal difference to Hamburg, while Freiburg is five points clear but by no means safe after claiming 10 points from its last four games.
“We have to keep getting points,” Freiburg striker Admir Mehmedi said. “We can only relax when it’s mathematically safe.”
Nuremberg is just two points above Stuttgart and will have to cope without suspended defensive players Emanuel Pogatetz and Niklas Stark against Borussia Moenchengladbach, also Saturday.
Hannover, which has been dragged back into the relegation scrap after three defeats in a row, visits bottom side Braunschweig for a high-stake Lower Saxony derby on Sunday.
“We know how special the game is for the region,” Braunschweig midfielder Mirko Boland said. “But the only thing that matters for us, particularly because of the league table, is a victory. We have to win the derby.”
Bayern remains unbeaten in 53 Bundesliga games but last week’s 3-3 with Hoffenheim ended the side’s 19-game winning streak in the league and — more importantly — was followed by Tuesday’s 1-1 draw at Manchester in the Champions League. With one eye on Wednesday’s quarterfinal return leg, Pep Guardiola will almost certainly rotate his side again for Saturday’s game at Augsburg.
The title was already secured with seven games to spare and Bayern sporting director Matthias Sammer warned, “A bad thing mustn’t come from a good. We shouldn’t get it into our heads to lose our rhythm.”
Augsburg has been enjoying an excellent season, though appears to be running out of steam with just one point from four games. Markus Weinzierl has to do without his two top scorers against Bayern. Andre Hahn is suspended and Tobias Werner is out with a fractured eye socket. Defender Ragnar Klavan is also doubtful with thigh problems.