Even the most ambitious of Bayern Munich fans wouldn’t have expected their team to still be in the hunt for the title, given their start to the season.
Munich had a terrible start, and didn’t look like making a title challenge until a couple of weeks before the winter break. Bayern had several players out through injury including Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, but their turnaround came from an unlikely source.
Ivica Olic returned to the side from injury and has helped Bayern claw their way back up the table, propelling them to within touching distance of league leaders Leverkusen. Bayern mirraculously made it through to the Champions League knock-out stage, dumping out Juventus in the process. This gives Bayern a great chance to make something of their season and have gone from strength to strength.
Louis Van Gaal has an impressive managerial record. He has won the league title with every club he has managed. His arrival in Munich expected the Dutchman to continue his record, but Bayern stuttered in the early parts of the season.
With Bayern struggling, Leverkuson have set the early pace, thanks to the goal-scoring of German striker Stefan Kiessling. The 25-year-old has netted 12 times this season helping his side to be crowned Autumn Champions. Leverkusen have no distractions through European football and are still yet to lose in the Bundesliga this season.
After a slow start, Werder Bremen showed their potential, but currently lie 7 points off the top. Their good run of form included Bremen remaining unbeaten for 23 games in all competitions. Werder’s good form has centred around young midfielder Mesut Ozil. The young German is certainly one worth keeping an eye on during the 2010 World Cup, and he will be looking to cement his place in the German squad with another good run of form in the second half of the season.
The biggest surprise package so far have been new boys FC Mainz. In their first season in the Bundesliga after promotion they sit in 9th place, only six points away from a Europa League place. It could have been better for Mainz, but several teams had good runs towards the end of the autumn season. Mainz were tipped for relegation before the season, but have enjoyed a great start including a 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich back in August.
At the bottom of the table Hertha Berlin have had a torrid opening to the season. Hertha lie six points adrift with only one victory all season, a 1-0 win in the opening game against Hanover. The biggest underachievers so far are Stuttgart. Their team includes quality players such as Aliaksandr Hleb and Cacau but have struggled in the Bundesliga, sitting in 15th place. Their poor form saw manager Markus Babbel sacked in his first managerial role. Babbel was replaced by ex-Spurs boss Christian Gross.
The tragic death of Hanover and Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke dominated German football in November. Hanover have struggled to replace the talented keeper and are struggling near the bottom of the table.
German sides are still going strong in Europe. Bayern Munich face Fiorentina and Stuttgart have the uneasy task of playing Barcelona in the next round of the Champions League. In the Europa League, Werder Bremen are one of the favourites to go all the way, but face FC Twente in the next round. Hamburg face Dutch league leaders PSV and Wolfsburg face Villarreal. Despite all of Hertha Berlin’s problems in the league they are still in Europe and will play Benfica in the knock-out stage.
The second half of the season is expected to be very competitive, especially at the top of the table. Despite Bayern’s resurgance, Leverkusen are still favourites to take the title. However, if last season is anything to go by, teams setting the early pace need to keep on their toes in the second half of the season. Hoffenheim were top last season at this point, but struggled after the winter break and eventually finished in 7th place after losing 12 matches in a row.
If Leverkusen do slip up there are plenty of candidates waiting to fill their shoes. Munich are the obvious challengers but four or five other teams will fancy their chances. Felix Magath’s Schalke are only a point adrift and have put in some very professional performances this season. Dortmund have emerged as challengers after a slow start and Hamburg are still in with a shout despite numerous injuries.
It is sure to be an interesting climax to the Bundesliga. With so many teams looking to get their hands on the title anything could happen.