The Ruckrunde, or second half of the Bundesliga season, gets underway on Friday after a month-long break for the holidays.
Bayer Leverkusen host runaway leaders and reigning champions FC Bayern Munich in the first fixture of Matchday 18.
With the business end of the season just hours away there are three big questions that need answering.
Can Bayern stay the course?
After a stodgy start that eventually led to the replacement of Carlo Ancelotti with Jupp Heynckes, the Bayern juggernaut kicked into top gear; reeling off nine straight wins to open up a huge 11 point gap at the top of the table. as their rivals struggled to keep the pace.
It’s going to be a big ask for anyone to overhaul the Bavarians and stop them from racking up a sixth successive title, but fourth-place Leverkusen could at least sow the seeds of doubt if they can manage a win on Friday.
Heiko Herrlich’s men are unbeaten in 12 games in a run that stretches back to late September and will present as stiff a test as Bayern will face in the home stretch. Leverkusen’s attacking trio of Leon Bailey (six goals), Kevin Volland (nine) and Julian Brandt (four) will be looking to continue their excellent form from the first half of the season as they take on the Bundesliga’s meanest defence. No doubt the rest of the table will be cheering them on.
Can anyone challenge the leaders?
Leverkusen aside, it seems like Schalke 04, RB Leipzig, and a revitalised Borussia Dortmund will be the most likely candidates if anyone is to put up a fight.
Dominico Tedesco’s Schalke have been the surprise package of the season, and like Leverkusen, they are also unbeaten since late September. Die Knappen’s problem has been too many draws – they have drawn more games (six) than they have won during their 11-match streak. Start turning those draws into maximums and they may have a chance.
While many thought Ralf Hassenhuttl’s Leipzig side would push on from last season to mount an even stiffer challenge this term, consistency has been their biggest problem. The Champions League proved a distraction for Die Roten Bullen and showed them that although they have come a long way in a short time, they still have much more to do before they can take up a spot among Europe’s elite. Although still in the Europa League, an early exit (they face Serie A leaders Napoli in the Round of 32) could be a blessing in disguise and help Leipzig concentrate their focus on reeling in Bayern.
The third potential rival is Dortmund, who managed to quickly turn their fortunes around under Peter Stoger after Peter Bosz’s departure, to record back-to-back wins before the break. Whether they can keep that run going, recapture their early season form and maintain it is a tougher call, but they certainly have enough talent in their squad to do so.
Can Koln pull off mission impossible?
To say that FC Koln enjoyed a miserable first half to the season would be the biggest understatement in Bundesliga history. It took the Billy Goats five matches to score their first goal of the season, while it wasn’t until matchday 17 that they managed to secure their first win of the campaign, as Koln set all kinds of records for the worst ever start to a Bundesliga season. Peter Stoger was eventually replaced by Stefan Ruthenbeck at the beginning of December and things did start to improve.
Whether Ruthenbeck can manufacture what would be the greatest turnaround ever and save Koln’s top-flight status remains to be seen. But with a nine point gap to make up it seems very, very unlikely. Koln start the Ruckrunde by hosting sixth-placed Borussia Monchengladbach and needless to say a win would be very welcome indeed.