Here are five things to keep your eyes on as we head into the second half of this Bundesliga campaign. Actually, we complete the first half of the season with Matchday 17 this weekend – but you know what we mean.1. Can RB Leipzig keep up the pressure on Bayern?
Over the first 16 matchdays of the season, the energy-drink peddlers mounted the most credible challenge to Bayern Munich’s superiority in years, even topping the table for a short time. However, the promoted club, only established in 2009, were given a lesson by Bayern in the last game of 2016, when they went down to a 3-0 defeat. How many upstarts have impressed in the first half of the season, only to falter in the second half anyway? Of course, if Carlo Ancelotti’s men decide to turn on the afterburners in the second half – the way they did against “Rasenballsport” before Christmas – the entire question could be rendered all but academic.
2. What about the other pleasant surprises from the first half?
Third-placed Hertha Berlin go into the second half without any major injury woes, only the timing of Mitchell Weiser’s return is unclear. Hertha won both of their tune-up matches, albeit against teams from the Spanish second and third divisions. One does have to wonder to what extent last season’s second-half collapse may be in the back of the players’ minds.
Eintracht Frankfurt are in fourth place despite a paucity of goals, with “football god” Alex Meier having found the back of the net just four times so far. The fact that he is still their top scorer tells you all you need to know about their offense. The already good mood in the Frankfurt camp should also be buoyed by the return of defender Marco Russ after his successful cancer treatment. However, finishing in a European spot will be difficult for coach Niko Kovac and his men – especially if a key player such as Meier were to go down injured for an extended period.
Despite the news that Niklas Süle and Sebastian Rudy are to head for Bavaria at the season’s end, it looks like all systems are go in the camp of this season’s only undefeated team, Hoffenheim. Barring something unforeseen and untoward, Julian Nagelsmann’s men should have a shot at qualifying for Europe for the first time in club history.
3. Who are the players to look out for in the second half?
As long as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang comes back from the Africa Cup of Nations healthy, this season’s top scorer should continue to find the net for Dortmund as they attempt to climb up the standings. Cologne have to hope for the same from Anthony Modeste, and Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, while not on last season’s pace, has also found the back of the net consistently. It will be interesting to see how Holger Badstuber does – and whether he can remain healthy – in his half season at Schalke. One guy who could be a season-changer for local rivals Dortmund is Marco Reus – provided that he can stay fit enough, long enough to be a factor.
4: Which coaches are on the hot seat?
At first glance one might say it is Torsten Frings, who has chosen to take his first-ever job as a head coach with the league’s worst team. Darmstadt, with just eight points from 16 games, look almost certain to go down but perhaps that takes some of the heat off the former Germany player. Under far more pressure are a couple of coaches farther up the table. Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel goes into the New Year with fresh injury woes among his sixth-placed squad, with Dortmund’s CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke saying that nothing short of a third-place finish will suffice. In Leverkusen, now that Karim Bellarabi is back, Roger Schmidt will be under more pressure to get the Werkself firing on all cylinders.
5. Who are the leading candidates to go down, and who should avoid the drop?
Darmstadt are clearly the favorites to drop down to the second division for next season. The Lillies are dead last and five points from the relegation playoff spot. Brave man Frings will need to produce a miracle to keep Darmstadt in the first tier. Ingolstadt and Bremen look like two other favorites for division 2 football next term. Yes, Hamburg are in the relegation playoff berth right now, but you have to think that with their flashes of talent, coach Markus Gisdol’s work ethic, and new chairman Heribert Bruchhagen steadying the ship in the boardroom, Hamburg at the end of the season will remain the only team never to have been relegated from the Bundesliga.