Bundesliga relegation battle tense with half league involved
BERLIN: With only six points separating half the teams and the relegation zone, this season's Bundesliga relegation scrap is one of the most exciting in years.
Ninth-place Schalke is still not safe with nine games remaining in the 18-team league, while Borussia Moenchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen - teams that reached Champions League qualification spots last year - are even worse off after 25 games.
Four teams below them - Mainz, Werder Bremen, Augsburg and Wolfsburg - are level and only two points ahead of improving Hamburger SV in the relegation playoff place. Ingolstadt and Darmstadt currently occupy the automatic relegation spots.
Here is a closer look at the teams involved:
SCHALKE (33 points)
Perennial underachiever Schalke should be nowhere near the relegation zone after offseason transfers brought a new coach, Markus Weinzierl, and sporting director, Christian Heidel, as well as the likes of Nabil Bentaleb, Breel Embolo, Yevhen Konoplyanka, Benjamin Stambouli and Naldo to the club.
But the team has struggled amid inconsistent results. Winter arrivals Daniel Caligiuri, Holger Badstuber and Guido Burgstaller were supposed to shore up the side, but Schalke has still lost more games than it has won.
Next up is rival Borussia Dortmund in Saturday's Ruhr Derby.
BORUSSIA MOENCHENGLADBACH (32)
'Gladbach is also paying for a poor start under previous coach Andre Schubert - only four wins from 16 league games left the side three points above the relegation zone at Christmas. Former Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking took over and restored some stability, though losses to Hamburg and Bayern Munich have frustrated efforts to pull clear.
BAYER LEVERKUSEN (31)
Leverkusen's worst Bundesliga season in 14 years recently cost Roger Schmidt his job as coach, but successor Tayfun Korkut hasn't provided the bounce the club was hoping for.
A draw against relegation rival Werder Bremen and a loss to Hoffenheim do not provide encouragement.
Korkut was brought in in a desperate bid to salvage a European qualification place from a disappointing season but mere survival has to come first.
Mainz was looking comfortable in mid-table earlier in the season but the club is going in the wrong direction after three straight games without a win, including a loss at last-place Darmstadt.
The club has only two wins from its last 10 games.
WERDER BREMEN (29)
Former under-23 coach Alexander Nouri needed time to get previously last-place Bremen going after taking over from Viktor Skripnik in September.
Nouri's efforts have been evident since the winter break, with progress made in losses to Bayern and Dortmund before three straight wins.
Bremen's last game, a 3-0 win at home over second-place Leipzig, capped a five-game unbeaten run and gave its long-suffering fans hope of moving clear of the drop zone.
Augsburg is another side in a downward spiral after three games without a win and only one victory, over last-place club Darmstadt, from its last five matches.
Wolfsburg has undoubtedly improved since Andries Jonker returned to the Volkswagen-backed club. The former assistant coach is Wolfsburg's third of the season after Dieter Hecking and then Valerien Ismael were fired.
Jonker is unbeaten with two wins from three games, helped by the remarkable scoring record of Mario Gomez. The Germany striker has scored in every game he has played under Jonker, 12 goals in eight games, including five for Bayern Munich when Jonker was interim coach in 2011.
HAMBURGER SV (27)
No 16th-place team had more points at this stage in the season than Hamburg. Eintracht Frankfurt also had 27 after 25 games in 2006-07 before finishing 14th with 40.
Hamburg has been impressive since the winter break - an 8-0 rout at Bayern notwithstanding - with five wins and two draws from its last eight league games.
Hamburg, the only founding league member remaining, also has experience of avoiding the drop after several near brushes in recent seasons.
Ingolstadt has not yet given up hope but a six-point gap behind Hamburg seems too much for a side that only has two wins from its last 10 games, seven of those defeats.
Sunday's visit of Mainz already looks like a must-win game for 2015 second division champions.
Darmstadt, promoted with Ingolstadt in 2015, looks certain to return to the second division, even if coach Torsten Frings says his team hasn't given up.
Eighteen losses from 25 games offers little realistic hope, particularly with games against Leipzig, Leverkusen and Bayern still to come.