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Mar 28, 2012

The headline makers

There are four teams of the moment in the Bundesliga, two of them in a positive sense and two in a negative one. Following the old adage of giving people the good news first, let's start with the success stories.

Schalke have won four games on the trot, in all competitions, have reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League and are back in third place for the first time since early February. That is important because this place now guarantees direct entry into the Champions League, while the team in fourth has to play in the final qualifying round.

Some neutral observers have pointed it out that it might be better for the Bundesliga if Gladbach finish in third place because, given their good results on the European stage in recent years, Schalke would be seeded for the qualifiers while Gladbach - who haven't played in Europe in 16 years - could be drawn against strong opposition from England or Spain.

Naturally, that will be of little concern to Schalke, who give the impression of a team that had a load lifted off their shoulders when they dropped out of the title race. "We're riding a wave of success," young midfielder Julian Draxler said. "I have the feeling everything's fallen into place and we're consistent."

This is particularly true of striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who scored both goals in Schalke's 2-0 win against Leverkusen on Saturday to bring his tally to 40 goals from 39 competitive games this season.

One is tempted to say the Dutchman is almost too successful for Schalke's good at the moment, as his run must be attracting big clubs. Huntelaar's contract runs out in 2013 and rumour has it he can leave for a fixed transfer sum of €20 million this summer.

On the other hand, Huntelaar has repeatedly stated that he is very happy at Schalke - he certainly looks and plays the part - and it may also play a role that he has already been with two famous teams, Real Madrid and Milan, and knows it is no bed of roses. He's said he'll decide after the European Championship whether to extend his contract or not.

The last time Schalke were third, seven weeks ago, Stuttgart were still casting a fearful glance at the relegation zone. Back then, they were only five points ahead of 16th place but now the gap has widened to become a gulf: 12 points.

Which is why VfB are the second team of the hour. They have lost only one league game since February and have won four of the last five to firmly put to rest the old (and unfair) saying that teams coached by Bruno Labbadia always collapse after the winter break.

True, the 1-0 home win against Nurnberg last weekend was entirely against the run of play, but the Swabians were missing two in-form players, defender Khalid Boulahrouz and striker Vedad Ibisevic. Plus, one of the oldest football maxims states that it's a mark of good teams that they win even when they're not playing well.

Stuttgart's good run has taken the club within a whisker of Europe, and not only because VfB have overtaken Hannover 96 and are within a point of Bremen and Leverkusen. No, it's to do with the DFB Pokal games in midweek. Luckily for Labbadia's men and their competitors, Bayern and Dortmund have reached the final. Since these two clubs are all but guaranteed European places, seventh place has suddenly opened up as a Europa League slot.

Trying to defend this place, VfB face a stern test indeed on Friday, as they travel to Dortmund, who rediscovered their free-scoring ways last Sunday, winning 6-1 away at Cologne. The game between up-and-coming Stuttgart and the league leaders will open matchday 28, but it's not the most crucial game of the coming weekend.

That's because there are two relegation thrillers coming up on Saturday afternoon, when four of the five teams at the bottom play each other.

The potentially more decisive match is at Kaiserslautern, where the hosts meet the third team that is in the headlines, though for all the wrong reasons, Hamburg. You don't have to be a prophet to predict that Kaiserslautern, already seven points off the pace, will go down if they don't win this game.

However, Hamburg are also forced to go looking for all three points, as there are just too many teams in the bottom third who are either looking fresh, sharp and confident at the moment, such as Freiburg and Augsburg, or at least collecting points regularly, like Hertha. Hamburg have none of that going for them and it looks a real possibility now that the unthinkable will happen, that the only club that has graced every single Bundesliga season with their presence is finally going to be relegated.

Of course it's way too early to write Hamburg off, but there are some worrying signs. As recently as February 12, the club were secretly entertaining hopes of Europe. That view was understandable, given the quality of the squad and that coach Thorsten Fink had declared he was not concerning himself with fighting relegation when he took over in mid-October.

But of course it means that the players, and also the coaching staff, are unprepared for the situation they find themselves in, which always constitutes a major problem, as Frankfurt found out last season. Then there's the fact that they have already pressed the panic button, namely changing the coach.

In brief, Kaiserslautern versus Hamburg is a game to look forward to, though you'd better not expect fireworks and flicks and tricks. The same goes for the second relegation duel, Augsburg against Cologne.

Freiburg, meanwhile, have a very interesting game coming up, as they meet their former coach Robin Dutt in Leverkusen on Saturday. And, yes, despite Kaiserslautern's or Cologne's negative runs, Leverkusen are the fourth and final team in the spotlight, though they will wish they weren't.

Like Hamburg, Leverkusen have had a few moments this season when you thought they had finally got their act together. In Bayer's case, that was the win over Bayern five weeks ago. Only four days later, though, they were massacred by Barcelona and the fact that the coach and also many of his players almost shrugged off the 7-1 debacle as if these things happen all the time should have set the alarm bells ringing.

Since then, Leverkusen have lost three straight and only the fact that Bremen and Hannover have also been dropping points regularly has kept them in fifth place. But while the table does not lie, it can be misleading. Theoretically, Leverkusen could drop to eighth place this weekend (ninth even, if you think Wolfsburg are capable of scoring a hefty amount of goals in Berlin). It's not likely, sure, but it demonstrates how tight Bayer have allowed things to become.

It's telling that director of football Rudi Voller, who often wears his heart on his sleeve and tends to become thin-skinned when he feels things are going wrong, has had another outburst on television, referring to Sky Germany's panel of pundits (former referee Markus Merk, ex-Germany international Steffen Freund and retired Norwegian international Jan Aage Fjortoft) as a "Muppet Show trio" and calling Fjortoft "a clown" and "a comedian". However, Voller wasn't laughing.

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