Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Winter Break

I thought it would be nice if I stepped away from being so MLS heavy and spent a little time on a few European leagues. This weekend marks the end of the first half of the season for the top four leagues here in Europe: England, Spain, Germany, Italy. Three of these leagues will now enter the nearly month long winter break; while England plays through the holidays. I think it's time to take stock of who look to be the title contenders and those doomed to relegation in May and June over the next few days.

I want to start in Germany. After living in England for a year and the price of SKY Sports being too high at the time, I am currently being blessed in my new digs in Eastern Europe where I have as many as 15 football matches a weekend to watch. Many of these matches come from Germany. I've always been a big fan of the Bundesliga and the first half of the season has been great. The Bundesliga is the most well supported league in Europe and typically the closest in terms of standings.

This season has seen Borussia Dortmund run out on top and take the coveted Autumn Champions' title in Germany. The young fiery upstarts that is Mainz currently sit in second 10 points behind Dortmund. Mainz is currently in uncharted territory and were tipped by many to fight relegation this season. However, new manager Thomas Tuchel has brought a fresh approach to the team that saw them win eight of their first nine matches. Bayer Leverkusen, who are known around Germany as the best club in the country to never win the league, sit third with a chance to move into second by the end of the weekend. Leverkusen have the most depth and arguably are the most well put together team. The only question mark for Leverkusen is the central defender partnership of Sammi Hyypia and Manuel Friedrich. Leverkusen's Achilles heel could come from there advancement to the second round of the Europa League tournament, while Dortmund can now focus their attention to the league campaign following last week's draw with Sevilla; which knocked them from the tournament. Last seasons Bundesliga champions' Bayern Munich sit in sixth place 17 points behind Dortmund going into the final game before the winter break. No team has ever won the Bundesliga being this far behind at the midway point. However, in '08-'09 Wolfsburg made up 11 points following the break to win the league. Bayern have had up and down form this season and will be lucky to secure a Champions League place. Too many top Bayern players competed at the World Cup and the fatigue is showing in the side. They are still missing the mercurial Arjen Robben, who should come back in the near future.

The bottom of the table is currently being propped up by Borussia Monchengladbach. Who have been absolutely woeful this season. 'Gladbach are seven points from safety and currently I cannot see them climbing out of the relegation zone. VFB Stuttgart is just ahead of 'Gladbach after an equally woeful start to the season. Stuttgart is missing Sami Khedira in midfield, after he was sold to Real Madrid, and big off-season acquasition Mauro Camoranesi hasn't fulfilled expectations. The third relegation spot will be a dogfight as it is currently a mess of out of form teams. FC Cologne occupy the last relegation space and are two points from safety. But sitting in front of them are St. Pauli, Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg and Kaiserslautern. The winter break has come at the right time for each of these teams to regroup and push toward safety. Though, Cologne are in the relegation zone, I expect St. Pauli (who were promoted last season) to occupy that spot at the end of the season. If there is a positive regarding the 16th spot in the table it is this; the 16th spot plays a two-legged playoff with the third place finisher of the second division to preserve their top-flight status.

The Bundesliga again this year is showing it is the most exciting league in Europe that is totally unpredictable. Regularly, teams who challenge one season get relegated the next. Just look at Hertha Berlin over the previous two seasons.

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