This is the third and final part of our predictions for the second half of the Bundesliga season, looking this time at clubs currently in the top six.
It is another season where Schalke cannot find consistency neither on the field nor on the transfer front. Director Horst Heldt always makes headlines for all sorts of reasons. Manager André Breitenreiter has been shrewd to manage him upwards while making the best of the squad at hand since arriving from Paderborn.
Creativity has been lacking in midfield, and it is very doubtful the winter signings of Alessandro Schöpf (Nürnberg) and Younes Belhanda (Dynamo Kiev) will compensate for loss of Julian Draxler.
Most crucially, the German national team defender Benedikt Höwedes has been badly hurt during the winter camp. He will be out of action for at least 12 weeks, expecting to return on matchday 29. Who will lead and motivate others in his absence? What if Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Franco Di Santo do not soon score goals, a Champions League spot will remain only a dream for the Königsblauen. Wunderkind Leroy Sané cannot do it all alone before he leaves next summer to a top European location.
Verdict: Europa League spot
Bayer 04 Leverkusen
The playing system of manager Roger Schmidt may have its admirers, but it has been inconsistent. B04 lost away (in style!) at FC Bayern, Dortmund and Wolfsburg and dropped points unnecessarily, costing them the second round of the Champions League.
Director Rudi Völler has not moved on the transfer market, but we may expect a reaction from the likes of Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Çalhanoğlu. They were a pale shadow of themselves in the first half. Stefan Kiessling was completely muted. Even Bernd Leno made the unusual odd mistake between the posts.
The target remains a Champions League spot, but praying the goals keep coming from Chicharito may not be enough.
Verdict: fifth place.
The Fohlen supporters have feared the worst after a calamitous start to the season and the subsequent resignation of manager Lucien Favre. Successor André Schubert took over and initiated an impressive recovery, inflicting FC Bayern their first and only Bundesliga defeat.
Defender Martin Hinteregger (on loan from Salzburg) and striker Jonas Hofmann (Dortmund) were brought in to make up for injuries. Schubert needs to stabilize a defence that often fails to protect a comfortable lead (30 goals conceded). He needs to calm the temper of midfielder Granit Xhaka, who is about to become a red-card record holder.
Already out of Europe, Borussia should be able to focus and fight again for a Champions League spot, playing the most admirable football in the country.
Verdict: third place and a direct Champions League spot.
Kudos to manager Pal Dardai for having his team play an outstanding first half of season. However, as my colleague Shubham Ahuja discussed a few days ago, it will be a whole different scenario starting this weekend.
The arrival of young striker Sinan Kurt from FC Bayern cannot really be considered as reinforcement. The team was unable to cope with pressure and it could not turn around a game favourably when falling behind in the score.
Narrow winning margins may have hidden lucky results. Their resources may not be enough to continue playing dark horse. It could be a close battle with the likes of Augsburg for a European spot, but the final table position will be a welcome improvement.
Verdict: eight position, missing Europe narrowly.
The Schwarzgelben were not expected to have another bad season, but no one expected to see them chasing Bayern from second position. Manager Thomas Tuchel stamped his effective style by “reviving” some of his players (like Matthias Ginter), and bringing back a euphoric spirit.
As also previously underscored by my colleague Shubham, the attack relies too much on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, as goal conversions remain low. Questions remain on the return of Sven Bender from injury and the fitness of Marcel Schmelzer. Yet, the Dortmund offensive machine remains spectacular to watch. It could delay well into the late stages of the season.
Verdict: second place, a direct Champions League spot and holding one of the two cups.
FC Bayern München
The current leaders are firm favourites to become the first club to win four Bundesliga titles in a row. I will not discuss the style of Pep Guardiola and what he should do to win the Champions League. My colleague Michel has dealt with this topic with full pragmatism.
Looking closer at the calendar, the period going from 23 February to 16 March could be decisive . These two dates bring FC Bayern face-to-face with Juventus in the Champions League, sandwiching a trip to Dortmund on 5 March.
Chances of such a faceoff back in September would have been 70:30 in favor of die Roten going through. Now, with chronic relapsing injuries, a predictable style and a moody manager, the chances look to be more 50:50. The Bianconeri are in full form. They won their last 12 games (10 in the Serie A and 2 in the Coppa) and will not be stopped by Napoli for their fifth consecutive Scudetto.
An early exit in Europe could mean an explosive atmosphere in the dressing room but winning everything could lead to unforgettable farewell à-la-Heynckes!
The club also faces away trips to Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and tricky Augsburg where defeats could easily wipe away the eight-point cushion at the top.
The club has been successful to overcome such difficult opposition in the past. Supporters would be happy if injuries in the final stages could be avoided.
Verdict: Deutscher Meister for the 26th time and Pokal winners, but Europe eluding Pep again.
In addition to drama and surprises, we will hear about Jogi Löw worrying about injuries if his players are involved in European or Pokal finals ahead of Euro 2016.
There will also be suspense in the lower divisions. Freiburg and RB Leipzig are hot promotion candidates from the 2.Liga, with Nürnberg or St-Pauli joining them through a playoff spot. Notorious names like Düsseldorf and 1860 München could drop into 3.Liga, from where Dynamo Dresden could come up again.
New Bundesliga TV rights will be negotiated upwards and agreed upon, and the DFB should see the election of a new president.
[su_label] Post editor: Michel[/su_label]