All to play for
Trust the Bundesliga to be unusual even when everything looks perfectly normal. On the face if it, matchday 20 didn't produce a particularly outstanding result or noteworthy scoreline. Bayern, for instance, lost first place when they dropped two points in Hamburg, but the Munich giants have won only one game away at HSV in the last eight years, so the 1-1 draw hardly constitutes a shock result.
However, upon closer inspection you notice a stunning detail: None of the nine home sides managed to earn three points. It was the first time in fourteen years and only the fifth time in league history that a whole round of games didn't produce a single home win.
Also, it was only the third matchday this season on which not a single game produced more than four goals. While all this could be taken as a sign of extreme competitiveness, the weekend may actually have served to cement the division of the top flight into three parts.
Bremen and Leverkusen once again failed to gain ground on Mönchengladbach and, what's more, Hannover 96 - one of the few decent teams these days who don't follow the Barcelona mantra of possession football - have resumed their highly effective don't-allow-many- chances-and-then-hit-them-on-the-break ways, creeping up on the aforementioned two clubs.
What this boils down to is that the top four sides - Dortmund, Bayern, Schalke and Gladbach - will in all likelihood decide the title and the Champions League slots among themselves, while the trio of Bremen, Leverkusen and Hannover are fighting for the two Europa League places.
And this also means that every club on the other end of the six-point gap that now separates Hannover from the pack has to be primarily concerned with avoiding the drop, starting with Hoffenheim in, yes, eighth place.
We suspected as much last week when we said Hoffenheim had better win their home game against lowly Augsburg. They didn't and, what's more, they exhibited the kind of lifeless football that sets the alarm bells ringing. Especially those of the man in charge. "There are no two ways about it," coach Holger Stanislawski thus said after Saturday's 2-2 draw, "we are now in the relegation fight."
The same still goes for the clubs level on points with Hoffenheim, Cologne and Wolfsburg, even though the former earned valuable three points away at Kaiserslautern and the latter held Gladbach to a scoreless draw. Cologne will be without their most important player, the injured Lukas Podolski, for another three or four weeks, while Wolfsburg looked improved and yet should have lost the game. First Gladbach's Mike Hanke scored a legal goal that was chalked off for a supposed offside position, then Marco Reus was one-on-one with the goalkeeper and tried to score a beauty instead of doing it the simple way. ("I'm sorry for the team," he said ruefully. "In the 70th minute [when he wasted the chance] I was already thinking nine points [from the three games since the end of the winter break]."
The situation in Cologne, despite the much-needed win in Kaiserslautern, also remains volatile because, as is so often the case at this club, there seems to be a clash of personalties and opinions at the helm. Volker Finke, the club's director of football, moved heaven and earth to sign the coach he wanted, the Norwegian Stale Solbakken. Yet Finke's enthusiasm must have coolled quickly.
After the defeat in Wolfsburg two weeks ago, he said that "if you allow 26 crosses you will sooner or later concede a goal". What would be a normal remark - and criticism of the team - at other clubs, carries special resonance in Cologne. Solbakken has spent the season teaching his players a new system, under which defending the flanks is of secondary importance. It means that the full backs are rarely backed up by team-mates, which results in more crosses. Consequently, Finke's remark was aimed at the manager rather than the players.
Solbakken pointed out that the stats Finke was quoting were misleading, but when reports then made the rounds that Finke had signed the Korean striker Jong Tae-Se from second-division Bochum during the January transfer window even though Solbakken had favoured someone else and knew next to nothing about Jong Tae-Se, the public's verdict was a foregone conclusion: Finke and Solbakken are not really working hand in hand.
It is an uneasy truce, but it will probably have to do for a while.
Finke, who made his name as the long-time coach of Freiburg, is already unpopular with many fans, because he is seen as being responsible for the resignation of the well-liked coach Frank Schäfer last April, so he has to be careful and not give the impression that he would prefer coaching the team himself.
Finke's old team, meanwhile, have a few un-Freiburg like weeks behind them. The club, unlike Cologne, is not known for perennial unrest or a tendency to make rash, emotional decisions (not for nothing was Finke the coach for a staggering 16 years). But shortly before christmas, Freiburg suspended no less than six players, among them captain Heiko Butscher.
Nine days later, coach Marcus Sorg was sacked after all of six months in charge. To cap this turmoil off, striker Papiss Demba Cissé, who had been toying with a move for the last one and a half years, was sold to Newcastle United.
But perhaps it was all a much-needed clearing of the air. Freiburg have collected four points from three games since the winter break ended and twice came back to salvage a point against Bremen on Sunday. They are still in last place, but since some clubs ahead of them, most notably Hertha, appear to be fading fast, the relegation fight Stanislawski spoke of could be heating up.
And yet even Hertha, still without a point since coach Michael Skibbe replaced Markus Babbel in December, are not without a chance to get into, yes, Europe. That's because of the cup. Hertha host Gladbach in the quarter finals and should they manage to win the game, they would be only one step away from the final, staged in their own city.
This is a particularly enticing prospect as both Dortmund, who beat fourth-division Kiel on Tuesday and have already made the last four, and Bayern are still in the competition. It means a berth in the final could be enough to qualify for the Europa League. It is, incidentally, a prospect Hertha share with Hoffenheim. They may be, according to Stanislawski, in the relegation fight, but since they play second-division Fürth in the cup quarter-finals they are also, bizarrely, edging nearer towards Europe.