Clash of the titans
Just a few weeks ago, in mid-March, various German news outlets reported that the league was toying with changes to the way the fixture list is compiled. According to the story, league representatives Holger Hieronymus and Gotz Bender had been visiting the professional clubs to lobby for a revolution, namely drawing up an entirely new fixture list after the first half of the season.
Supposedly, the idea was to create more excitement. At the beginning of a season, when the fixture list is published, you rarely know who'll end up fighting for or against what. It means two title contenders could be meeting on matchday one, which also means they would play each other again on matchday 19, right after the end of the winter break.
Hieronymus and Bender, it was reported, were planning to analyse the standings over the winter and then reshuffle the fixture list to move the deciding duels as far back as possible or feasible.
The league promptly denied the reports, though only to the extent that there were "no concrete plans". Nobody disputed that the clubs' business managers had been discussing these and comparable measures.
Which may explain why the next new model popped up only two weeks later. Bayer Leverkusen CEO Wolfgang Holzhauser used the regular column he has in the club's matchday programme to discuss not only the pros and cons of revolutionising the fixture list but the very method by which the title is decided. Those in charge, he concluded, "should give up their positions, which are usually too conservative, and look for better solutions". The one he proposed was drastic enough to grab the headlines: "Play-off rounds with the top four teams, real highlights with semis and a final!"
While it's not a crime to think about improvements, the current season makes you wonder why there's any need to tinker with the fixture list or the way the competition is organised. Following this weekend's results, the Bundesliga is surely not lacking in excitement or games to look forward to. If we accept that anything that's within a five-point reach of a team with five games left is a realistic goal to strive for, then there is only one single team in the entire league that - viewed realistically - has nothing to fight for or defend after 29 rounds of matches.
That team is Kaiserslautern, of course, who are now nine points adrift at the bottom after losing 2-1 against Hoffenheim on Saturday. The result also means that Hoffenheim are harbouring hopes of Europe again. This may sound absurd, considering we are talking about a club that fired their coach two months ago, conceded seven goals in Munich and has not won a Bundesliga home game since mid-October, but two developments have conspired to breathe new life into Hoffenheim's campaign.
The first is that the German Cup final (Dortmund versus Bayern) means that seventh place in the league is good enough to reach the final Europa League qualifying round. The second is the collapse of the other contenders.
Injury-plagued Werder Bremen have won only one of their last seven games and could consider themselves lucky to come away with a draw at Cologne at the weekend. Leverkusen are winless in six matches, in all competitions, and Hannover 96 have lost four of their last seven league games.
One is tempted to say that Hannover are probably paying the price for their outstanding European season, during which they collected many valuable points in the Bundesliga. But the same holds true for Schalke, and they are showing no negative effects, as the game between those two sides on Sunday made abundantly clear. On the contrary, Schalke are moving from strength to strength since March and have been slowly but steadily edging away from fourth-placed Monchengladbach. Third place is important, because it means direct entry into the Champions League, while the team in fourth has to play a potentially tricky qualifying round.
Schalke's stellar form is personified not so much by the heroics of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who's now found the target in each of the last five league games, but the brilliant form of Raul. The living legend was struggling a few weeks ago, but now he is nothing less than inspirational again and scored a brace against Hannover, the second goal showing supreme elegance and coolness. The fans are hoping he'll extend his contract (the word on the street is that the club offered him a one-year extension, while Raul would prefer a two-year deal). And, of course, that he and Huntelaar will continue their hot form for at least another seven days - because this coming weekend, Schalke play their fierce local rivals Dortmund.
Which, at last, brings us to the title race - and back to the fixture-list debate. Because on Wednesday, league leaders and title holders Borussia Dortmund will host the team in second, Bayern Munich.
Both sides deservedly won their games at the weekend, though both also had to put in quite an effort. Mario Gomez scored the fastest goal of the season - after 24.3 seconds - for the Munich giants against Augsburg, yet the game was open for a long time. (While he was quick, Gomez is nowhere near the top. The Bundesliga record stands at 11 seconds and is jointly held by Bayern's Giovane Elber and Leverkusen's Ulf Kirsten.)
Dortmund, meanwhile, took a 2-0 lead a few moments after the restart and then conceded a goal out of the blue midway through the second half, just like they had done a week ago. This time, however, they held out against Wolfsburg and didn't drop any more points, which means they go into Wednesday's big game with a three-point lead. Add to this that both teams and in fine form and have a star fit just in time for the game (Bastian Schweinsteiger started the first match since his most recent injury on Saturday, while Dortmund's Mario Gotze is training with the team again after a nine-week lay-off) and you'd have to say that this match-up is just about perfect. Under floodlights, no less! And all without rigging the fixture list.
If anything, the game is even more interesting due to the fact that it is not played on the final or penultimate matchday. It might decide the race, yes. And it might not. "We'll have four more games after this one," Dortmund's coach Jurgen Klopp says. "Our remaining games are a handful. And I think Bayern's fixtures aren't foolproof, either."
Despite all the headlines this midweek clash of the titans is producing, it is by no means the only thrilling one-on-one coming up. On Tuesday, Hertha host Freiburg in what Berlin's coach Otto Rehhagel has termed a "battle of decision" in the relegation zone. The same could be said of the game between Mainz and Cologne, while the Lower Saxony derby between Hannover 96 and Wolfsburg on Wednesday is crucial for the Europa League race.
Put differently, this season is giving Hieronymus, Bender and Holzhauser mighty few arguments for radical changes.