Without the fanfare or media coverage, Germany’s second division returned to play from the league-imposed suspension of play the same weekend as did the Bundesliga. While the 2. Bundesliga naturally will always operate in the shadows of the first division, those who have followed it would be quick to tell you that it is a quality league, often with plenty of compelling story lines.
This year’s Zweite Liga is no different.
With four matchdays remaining in the 2019-20 season, let’s take a look at what is at stake in this weekend’s matches.
The Title Race
The league title cannot have but the smallest percentage of the prestige of a Bundesliga. What it can have that is increasingly rare with the division above it, however, is a new champion every season! While Bayern prepares to salt away its eight-consecutive league title, the 2. Bundesliga will have a new champion, as it must every season as the title comes with automatic promotion to the top flight.
Not only does the league necessarily have a new champion every season, but the race is normally much tighter than the Bayern-chase has been in recent seasons. Last season, 1. FC Köln won the league by six points, the biggest gap over the runner-up since the 2013-14 season.
This season’s league was packed with obvious title favorites in the form of big clubs recently relegated from the Bundesliga. Hamburger SV and VfB Stuttgart entered the season as heavy favorites to lift the title and return to their normal environment in the first division. The club on the verge of clinching the title early is indeed one with some Bundesliga history, but not one of those big clubs.
DSC Arminia Bielefeld has topped the league table since early December. They have lost just once since then and just twice all season. Though their attack has been notable, especially with Fabian Klos posting a career-high and league-leading 18 goals this season. Bielefeld had the two top scorers in the league at one point, but Andreas Voglsammer suffered a broken foot and has not added to his ten goals since returning to action. All of this goal-scoring has distracted, somewhat, from Bielefeld’s league-leading defending. They have conceded just 27 goals on the season, best in the league.
Because Bielefeld is no 57 points heading into the weekend, all but three other clubs — Stuttgart, Hamburg, and 1. FC Heidenheim — have already been eliminated from the league-title chase. Bielefeld plays Friday and Monday, the former fixture being their matchday 31 trip to SV Sandhausen and the latter being their rescheduled matchday 28 visit from Dynamo Dresden. Bielefeld will retain first place in the table regardless of what they or anyone else do over the weekend. However, if Uwe Neuhaus’ squad take four points from the two matches, even the most-optimistic Heidenheim supporters can file away their already-unrealistic dreams of a charge the top. Should Bielefeld win Friday night, they can clinch promotion to the Bundesliga with a Monday night win over Dresden. Should Stuttgart drop points Sunday to Karlsruhe SC in the Baden-Swabia Derby, a win would secure the league title for Bielefeld.
Give the choice, all second-place finishers would prefer to have taken the top slot, but once you remove the hardware from the picture, the second-place finisher gets the same big-time prize that the champion does: promotion to the Bundesliga. There may be some fan bases who would tell you they’d decline the promotion in favor of a league championship, were it a one-or-the-other situation, but the reality is that even one difficult season in the top flight can be a boon to a club.
The aforementioned Stuttgart currently holds onto second place with a two-point lead over Hamburg in third. In addition to Hamburg and Heidenheim, three clubs remain mathematically alive in the chase for second: SV Darmstadt, Hannover 96, and FC Erzgebirge Aue. A Stuttgart win eliminates Aue from contention, outright. And because Darmstadt and Hannover play each other on Sunday, whichever club drops points in that match would also then be out of the running for second.
Hamburg can leap into second place with a win and a Stuttgart loss. In this case, Aue could maintain their tenuous connection to automatic promotion only with a win. Hannover would also need a win over Darmstadt to keep any faded hopes alive. Darmstadt could take a draw and remain alive.
The Relegation Playoff
The prize for third place is not as what the top two get, but it’s so much better than what everyone below gets.
Finish third and you go to the relegation playoff against the Bundesliga’s 16th-place finisher for a two-legged fight for a spot in the first division. This is the path 1. Union Berlin used to earn their first season in the Bundesliga, upsetting Stuttgart in last year’s playoff. As things stand, Hamburg and Stuttgart have the best chances of being in that spot, which would bring an extra level of intrigue to this year’s battle.
Hamburg, as mentioned above, currently sits third and will be hoping to climb in front of Stuttgart for second. Heidenheim, just two points behind Hamburg, knows that as long as they stay close, they have a shot to pass Hamburg when they host the HSV on the penultimate matchday of the season.
Seven other clubs have at least 39 points and, therefore, a mathematical shot at stealing into that third-place spot (should a wildly unlikely series of events occur). Jahn Regensburg, Sandhausen, KSV Holstein Kiel, SpVgg Greuther Fürth, and VfL Bochum are all on 39 points. Should Hamburg win at Dresden Friday night, all five can officially shelve their promotion fantasies. Even if Hamburg lost, any points dropped by any of those clubs would also officially end their claim to contention. Even though the remaining scenario is folly, the fact that twelve of the league’s 18 clubs are still technically alive for promotion this late in the season should tell you how good the 2. Bundesliga can be.
The mirror of the desperate fight to escape the second division to the first is seen at the bottom of the league table, where teams scramble to not be sent to the 3. Liga. The bottom two teams are sent directly to the third division, and since there is no real differentiation between 17th and 18th, we’ll just treat them as one terrible grand prize that is split between two clubs.
Currently, Dresden and SV Wehen Wiesbaden are 18th and 17th in the table, respectively. Because Dresden had an extended quarantine due to positive tests for Covid-19 in their team, they have played just 29 matches to date. Dynamo will catch up to the rest of the league by Monday night, when they play their final rescheduled match. Because Dynamo has an extra match, and therefore three extra points, available to them. Those three points would be good enough to put them 16th right now. Because they will be on the road against Bielefeld, who may be playing to clinch promotion and maybe a league title, let’s just say that Dresden should maybe not count on those three points just yet.
In any case. should Dresden take all six points available to them between Friday and Monday, they would be out of a bottom-two spot.
Wehen Wiesbaden would need to win their Saturday trip to Holstein Kiel and hope that Dresden drops at least three points from their two matches and that Karlsruher SC loses to Stuttgart to get out of the bottom two.
Just as there is with the top of the table, there is a long list of teams (ten!) which are unlikely to drop to the bottom three, but are still technically eligible for the automatic drop. While the scenarios are numerous, 1. FC Nürnberg is the only club outside the current bottom three that could end up in the bottom three by the time Monday night’s match finishes.
The more-likely scenario is that the number of teams still fighting against direct relegation will be cut in half by the close of business Monday night.
But that’s why they play the games.
The ‘Other’ Relegation Playoff
Depending on your table position, 16th place is something you are either striving to reach or struggling to avoid. The third-from-bottom finisher does not get automatically relegated, but nor are they safe from taking the drop, as they will have to win a two-legged battle with the third-place finisher from 3. Liga to stay in the second division.
Karlsruher currently holds the spot, but is well aware they could be supplanted by Dresden by Monday night, even if they win Sunday’s Baden-Swabia derby. If the KSC drop any points, they leave themselves open to dropping into 18th spot, should Dresden and Wehen both get results over the weekend. On a more-optimistic view, Karlsruher could leapfrog Nürnberg should they beat Stuttgart and Nürnberg lose the Franken Derby to Greuther Fürth. Nürnberg are three points in front of the KSC right now, but the clubs currently have the same goal-differential (minus-12).
No other club could drop into the playoff spot from this weekend’s action.