FOX Soccer Exclusive
Heynckes, Bayern remain title favorites
German teams have made a lot of noise in Europe this season, and the Bundesliga is now considered by most experts to be among the top three leagues in the world. Success in Europe this season aside, the German league is full of young, talented and offensive-minded teams that have attracted perhaps the most interest since the late 1990s. Wrapping up its 50th season this spring, let’s take a look at what to expect until the end of the campaign:
Bayern Munich's continued reign
Bayern hasn’t just been great this season, they’ve been historically great. Forty-two points out of 17 games, a goal difference of plus 37 and a nine point lead at the break are exhibits A, B and C. Bayern's downfall in years past, its defense, has been the best in Europe on the year; their seven goals allowed tied the Bundesliga’s all-time mark by the winter break and is the lowest amongst Europe’s top 5 leagues.
Oh yeah, their offense is good, too. Despite playing most of the year without either Mario Gomez or Arjen Robben, Die Roten have been terrorizing opponents’ defenses. New additions Mario Mandzukic and Xherdan Shaqiri have been better than advertised and made this Bayern squad deeper and more versatile than last year. Once Gomez and Robben return to form, Bayern should be even better in the second half. Expect Bayern to cruise to a record 22nd Bundesliga crown to give Jupp Heynckes a winning send-off - and make noise in the Champions League. There's no doubt Pep Guardiola is going to inherit a great team.
Dortmund's consistent play
The Bundesliga’s second elite team and two-time defending champion has stolen much of Bayern’s thunder this season on account of their undeniably impressive Champions League campaign, knocking out Manchester City and holding off Real Madrid to top the "Group of Death." But in the Bundesliga, Jurgen Klopp’s men have often underwhelmed. Home losses to archrivals Schalke and Wolfsburg have been the low points of the season so far, and point to an unusual problem. BVB’s home record (4-2-2, 14 points) has been worse than its road record (4-4-1, 16 points), an unthinkable statistic as Signal Iduna Park is traditionally one of Europe’s toughest places to visit.
That said, Dortmund has shown up for its biggest contests. They battled Bayern to a draw in Munich and dismissed second-placed Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 at home. If Borussia Dortmund can just stay focused each week and show the same hunger against the lower sides as they did last season, and this writer believes they will, they should easily finish in the top two. The winter return of golden boy Nuri Sahin, with whom Dortmund played its best football in 2010-11, will only help matters.
For the first time in the Bundesliga’s history, seven of its clubs advanced to the knockout stages of European competition. Bayern, Dortmund and Schalke all advanced as group winners in the Champions League, while Moenchengladbach, Leverkusen, Stuttgart and Hannover all survived the Europa League group stage. In the Bundesliga’s best European campaign ever, it should culminate in a final spot for one of its teams.
In the Champions League, Bayern and Dortmund have established themselves as the biggest threats to Barcelona and Real Madrid. Dortmund has proven they can succeed against Europe’s best this season, while Bayern needs no introduction after losing the Champions League final to Chelsea on penalties. They should be extra motivated after hearing all the talk about Dortmund being one of the favorites, and not them.
In the Europa League, none of the Bundesliga representatives will be regarded as favorites, yet their strength in numbers should at least produce one team to make a run. They’ll have an excellent chance to knock out some of the bigger sides in the competition from the get go. Gladbach faces a strong Lazio side, Hannover duel Samuel Eto’o-led Anzhi, and Leverkusen take on Benfica in the Round of 32. If these teams make it past the first hurdle, anything can happen.
Work in progress
Dortmund’s arch-rivals, Schalke 04, started the campaign so promisingly, but the wheels have since come off. The Royal Blues picked up just two points in their last six games, dropping them from second all the way down to seventh. Legendary coach Huub Stevens was sacked, and their best midfielder Lewis Holtby signed on for a summer move to Spurs. In winter camp, they recently got rocked 0-5 in a friendly against Bayern. Things are looking ugly for Schalke, and expect them to miss out on Europe next season if they don’t turn it around soon.
Augsburg, Greuther Fuerth face relegation
It’s pretty simple really. When you don’t win your home games, you don’t stay in the top flight for long. Augsburg and promoted side Fuerth are the two bottom teams, and between them they have won one home game. One. Both clubs sit at nine points out of 17 games, 10 points adrift of the safety zone. They sport the two most anemic offenses (12 goals for Augsburg, 11 for Fuerth) and are both in the bottom five in goals against. It’s quite clear they are the two worst Bundesliga sides, and there’s nothing that suggests a quick turnaround for either team in the second half of the season.