David Morris evaluates the biggest talking points in Germany as the Rückrunde looms...
After what's felt like an extraordinarily long winter break (just under six weeks) the Bundesliga returns this weekend, with plenty of important matters still to be resolved. Here's what to look out for in the Rückrunde...
1) Can Bayern Munich go unbeaten?
A question that seems to get asked each year, with an affirmative answer that seems increasingly likely as the seasons pass. Under Pep Guardiola, Bayern are more than a dominant force in Germany – they're practically untouchable.
The Bavarian giants head into the second half of 2014/15 with a remarkable record of 14 wins in 17 games; three draws thwarting their chances of perfection. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that in those 17 games, they have only conceded four times. It's no wonder Manuel Neuer has been entertaining himself.
So can they really become the first Bundesliga team to do it? Don't bet against it. As the stats show, Bayern are defensively solid and irresistible going forward, with no shortage of attacking options. Add to this the players returning from injury, and Guardiola may soon be able to select his XI from a near fully-fit squad.
They face perhaps their hardest domestic game as soon as the Bundesliga returns with a trip to Wolfsburg. If they can escape the Wolves with their undefeated record still intact, it's hard to see exactly where they will falter. But last season’s hopes of an unbeaten campaign were ended at the most surprising of places (Augsburg), and when Bayern inevitably wrap up the title early again they could risk taking their foot off the pedal with the Champions League in mind.
2) How will Wolfsburg react to tragedy?
Wolfsburg’s rise up the table has been exciting to watch. Only Bayern and Frankfurt have managed to outscore them so far, and with their entertaining brand of football they have easily been the best and most complete side behind the Bavarians. But now they must play on after the tragic passing of midfielder Junior Malanda, who died in a car crash during the winter break aged just 20.
One can only imagine how difficult it has been for the players and management to return to normality after the death of a close colleague and friend, and there is certainly a possibility that it will have an impact on their performances. However, it is also true that the Belgian’s team-mates will be desperate to continue their excellent form in his name and finish the season in the best possible fashion.
It's highly unlikely that they'll catch Bayern, of course, especially if they fail to defeat them in the first game back from the winter break. Nonetheless, Dieter Hecking's men are looking increasingly likely to finish as the Bundesliga’s runners-up. A strong second half of the campaign will send out a positive message that they are ready to challenge for honours properly next season.
3) Can it get any worse for Dortmund?
It's still hard to fathom just how far the 2013 Champions League finalists have plummeted. Never has a side been in such desperate need for a winter break as Jurgen Klopp and his team were in December. But how will they perform when the action recommences?
Surely it can't get any worse for Die Schwarzgelben. Dortmund have performed very well in Europe, at least, which makes their dreadful form to date in the league even more surprising. Twice this season they've sat bottom of the table, and only aren't now by virtue of having scored one more goal than Freiburg. The numbers make for particularly painful reading for Dortmund fans, with their side having lost 10 of 17 matches, and only Freiburg, Cologne and Hamburg having found the net fewer times.
But the winter break may just aid one of the best recoveries ever. The six weeks off have allowed Dortmund’s injury-plagued squad to properly recover – not least talisman Marco Reus. In reality they're only four points off 10th, 12 off a Champions League spot, and given the unpredictable nature of the Bundesliga it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Klopp may be able to orchestrate a dramatic revival.
4) ...or will he go before the season's out?
As the days pass by it seems certain that Reus and Mats Hummels will still be at Dortmund when the Bundesliga returns. But while questions over their future may be best saved for the summer when rumours are likely to intensify once again, can the same be said of manager Klopp? The powers that be continue to insist he will never be sacked, but if the poor form continues and Dortmund find themselves on the brink of an unthinkable relegation, who knows what may happen.
Similarly, Klopp continues to maintain that he will never walk away from the club that has helped make him one of the most high-profile names in European football. However, he has always come across as a man of honour, and if he genuinely feels he is unable to save the club then he may well step aside.
While such a predicament was unthinkable 12 months ago, there have been recent signs that the supporters are less enamoured with Klopp than they were previously. If the poor results continue, Kloppo's future may be more uncertain.
5) Will the Bundesliga lose a giant?
If Dortmund’s plight illustrates anything, it's that the Bundesliga is wildly unpredictable. Such is the competitiveness of the league that only four points separate bottom side Freiburg and 10th-placed Paderborn. Between these two sides are a number of ‘big’ teams including Werder Bremen, Stuttgart and Hamburg, four of the bottom five sides in the league.
It is now possible, perhaps even probable, that one of them will finish in the bottom two. In the last 10 years, three of them (Dortmund, Werder and Stuttgart) have been crowned Bundesliga champions. In which other top league would such high-profile sides be facing the drop?