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?
6) How will Augsburg’s season of surprises conclude?
Paderborn might find themselves in mid-table, but the plucky promoted side are still perilously close to the battle for survival. Augsburg, who rose in 2011, are not. A side tipped by most to be in real trouble this season, the Bavarians have continued to shock almost on a weekly basis. Markus Weinzierl's mob have been on an upward trajectory since ending Bayern Munich’s unbeaten record last season, moving from relegation candidates to genuine European hopefuls. Currently one of the three sides on 27 points, the Bavarian outfit are sixth in a Europa League spot.
Weinzierl is now one of the hottest managerial properties in Europe, having completely transformed this side. If they don't conclude their fairytale story with a place in Europe next season, don't be surprised to see him move on to a new project.
7) Who will secure a Champions League spot?
Bayern Munich are dead certainties to gain one, while it also looks likely that Wolfsburg will take another, leaving the other two places completely up for grabs. Only five points separate Bayer Leverkusen in third and Frankfurt in ninth, and any side in between will genuinely believe they are in with a shot.
The likes of Leverkusen and Schalke would be the favourites at this stage, but with latter's instability constantly rearing its head, together with the minimal gap between all the teams involved, every team will quietly fancy their chances.
One side desperate to go one better than last season are Borussia Monchengladbach, who have performed worse in the second half of the season in each of the last three campaigns. It is also interesting to note that in just three Bundesliga seasons ever have the sides in the top four at the halfway point finished there.
8) And how far will German clubs progress on the continent?
Germany will start the year with five teams representing it in European competitions. Both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund topped their groups in the Champions League, while Schalke also progressed, finishing second behind Chelsea. Roberto Di Matteo's side will do well to even run Real Madrid close in the last 16, but Bayern and Dortmund will be more hopeful of their chances against Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus.
Meanwhile in the Europa League, Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach made it through to the last 32, and while both teams have difficult draws (against Sporting and Sevilla), they have no reason to panic.
This year’s Europa League looks a very challenging one to call, but there is no reason why Germany’s two remaining clubs can’t go deep into the competition. After a World Cup triumph in the summer, will a German side be the toast of Europe come May?
9) Who'll top the goal charts?
Bayern's form in front of goal may have been blistering, but they boast neither the league's top goalscorer nor assist maker so far this season. Dutchman Arjen Robben has netted the second-highest number of goals (10) in the Bundesliga, while fellow team-mates Robert Lewandowski, Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller have all found the net seven times. It's Frankfurt’s Alexander Meier who leads the charts with 13 strikes to his name, and given the Eagles' free-scoring season so far, you'd expect him to net more in the second half of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Wolfsburg’s Kevin De Bruyne has been doing a good job of showing Chelsea what they're missing out on by topping the assist table. With 10 goals laid on for his fellow Wolves, he is four ahead of nearest competitor Muller.
With Bayern likely to romp their way to the title it would be a big surprise if the league’s leading marksmen came from other sides. But while the likes of Robben and Gotze have been ticking along nicely, the somewhat underwhelming performances of Lewandowski have been one of the few marks on a splendid first half of the campaign. Will he burst into life when the league restarts, or will Frankfurt be toasting their first Torschützenkönige winner since Tony Yeboah in 1993/94?
10) Who will win the BunDucksLiga?
A swimming pool, a race, and some rubber ducks wearing club colours. Seventeen of them, plus a frog in a rubber dingy (Werder Bremen) have battled it out to be crowned the champion. Will Bayern Munich storm to yet another success, or will they be beaten to the line by Werder Bremen’s (surely illegitimate) reptile?
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