Coronavirus / Europe

The Bundesliga returns: the relegation zone

Image Credit: PSP Archives

Don’t worry, just as the ball is still round we know our place is still Philly. But anyone in the Delaware Valley watching live soccer this weekend will be watching the Bundesliga, so we’re putting together a quick primer for those of you who might be new to the league. But have no fear, the minute MLS returns we’ll be returning to our regularly-scheduled programming.

In the meantime, the Bundesliga is back! Germany’s top league, and indisputably one of the best leagues in the world, is going to be the first major sports league to return to play. The reasons for that are complex, and well beyond the scope of this article. But suffice to say that between the differences in how Germany handling the pandemic, and differences in how the league is managed, Germany has decided to play out the remainder of their season even while countries like France and the Netherlands completely abandon their own competitions.

So the Bundesliga is back! And they’re the only game on at the moment, so of course the soccer-centric world is going to be paying attention to them. And it may even be that just as other sports fans have turned to marble racing or Taiwanese baseball, the Bundesliga may catch eyes outside standard soccer demographics. So even if you’re not planning on watching, it might be wise to familiarize yourself with the state of the league before engaging in conversation with anyone with whom you regularly talk sports.

For better or for worse, the German league system is still enforcing promotion and relegation this season. Which means in addition to fighting to keep their players and staff healthy these teams will be fighting to keep their teams in the Bundesliga. But before we get to the teams, let’s talk about how Germany handles relegation. Three teams are officially in the relegation zone, with the bottom two automatically sent down to the 2. Bundesliga. The third from the bottom team is in a playoff spot, and faces the third-place 2. Bundesliga team in a home and home competition, with the winner going to the top flight. So not dissimilar to how many other leagues handle relegation, but for fans coming from leagues that do it differently (or not at all) it’s an important part of understanding the dynamic. Because the relegation fight extends well beyond the bottom of the table, and could easily effect teams well beyond the four we’re looking at here.

SC Paderborn 07 (16 points, -24GD)

This section is going to be short, much like Paderborn’s time in the Bundesliga. Just promoted last season from the 2. Bundesliga, Paderborn was already on tenuous footing before the pandemic put the Bundesliga on pause. Before you lament their misfortune too much, know that unlike fellow North Rhine-Westphalian team 1. FC Köln (also promoted last season and currently in 10th) Paderborn’s story is less about a top team falling victim to circumstance and more of a team for whom promotion was the pinnacle achievement. While they may not admit it, they’ll be just fine with returning to the 2. BL where they belong.

Why to watch: This team is playing on borrowed time and the fans know it. Seeing the party in the stands would have been reason alone, but even with an empty stadium it should be easy to feel the joy of simply being in the competition.

SV Werder Bremen (18 points, -28GD)

Full disclosure here, your author has been lightly following Bremen ever since becoming Internet friends with Aron Jóhannsson in 2016. But that doesn’t mean he’s blind to Bremen’s challenges, and boy do they have challenges.

It was always going to be a tough season along the Weser due to Max Kruse’s departure for Fenerbahçe S.K. in Turkey. Kruse was essential to the team’s attack, leading in both goals and assists, and without him the team has floundered scoring just five goals in seven matches after the mid-season Winterpause break.

Luckily, Kruse’s departure doesn’t completely explain Bremen’s struggles. The team has been plauged with injuries this season, including America’s own Josh Sargent who was expected to at least partially fill Kruse’s shoes this season. While it can’t be said that this pandemic has been “good” for anyone, for Bremen at least the time to heal and recover means that they’ll be facing the remainder of the schedule with a more healthy team than they had before the Bundesliga paused.

Speaking of the remainder of the schedule, this also favors Bremen. They not only have a game in hand, but they also get to play fellow bottom-dwellers Paderborn and Mainz, while only facing “Champions League” competition twice.

Why to watch: In a league packed to the brim with both Davids and Goliaths, Bremen manages to be neither. Since their heydays in the 90’s-early 00’s they’re no longer a dominant team, but remain relevant despite the decline. Plus, Josh Sargent.

Fortuna Düsseldorf (22 points, -23GD)

No discussion of Fortuna would be complete without acknowledging their capacity to surprise you at any time. After plummetting from the Bundesliga in 1997 they eventually wound up in the fourth-tier Regionalliga before returning to the top flight in 2012. Their success was short-lived however, as the team returned to the 2. Bundesliga the following year. And most of the team’s recent history has been in that second tier, even though their most recent trip to the top started last season.

So like Paderborn, Fortuna is arguably a 2. Bundesliga team that has enjoyed an unusual pattern of recent success. While they have slightly more resources than Paderborn, it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to maintain their position.

Why to watch: This team’s ability to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat is only matched by their ability to nose-dive dramatically from a position of apparent competence. If what you miss most about sports is the unpredictability, you’ll probably enjoy the ride.

1.FSV Mainz 05 (26 points, -19GD)

On paper Mainz seems to be on good footing, with a four point cushion between them and Fortuna’s relegation playoff spot. But Mainz has the most challenging remaining schedule of any team we’ve looked at so far. With games against RB Leipzig (3rd), Dortmund (2nd), and perennial powerhouse Bayern Munich (1st). Things get even more challenging for them when you consider that their only match against a team lower than them on the table is June 20th’s meeting with a potentially healthy Werder Bremen.

Why to watch: Of the Bundesliga’s many Davids, this one will be fighting for it’s life against the largest Goliaths.

We could realistically keep going from here, as FC Augsburg is just a point ahead of Mainz with Eintracht Frankfurt and Hertha Berlin tied a further point ahead. But suffice to say just as the top of the Bundesliga table is the most competitive it has been in a long while (more on that in a later column) this season’s relegation battle really could go any way, adding some much-needed drama for sports-starved viewers this weekend.

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