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 By Uli Hesse

Bundesliga's relegation race is as tight as some of the league's historic best

After another tumultuous weekend, the Bundesliga's relegation zone looks poised for a spectacular showdown. With two days left in the season, only two points separate 14th-placed Hamburg from last-placed VfB Stuttgart.

So it will probably all come down to two head-to-head meetings on the final day. On May 23, Paderborn (currently in 17th place) host VfB Stuttgart (18th), while Hannover 96 (16th) play Freiburg (15th).

A direct relegation decider on the last day is not extremely rare.

Statistically, it happens every six years. However, having two such games on the final day would be historic, because this has happened only once before in 1969.

With the race for Bundesliga survival going right down to the wire in such dramatic fashion, here are the league's five most memorable head-to-head relegation meetings on the final day.

5.  May 8, 2010 -- Bochum vs. Hannover 96

League standings before the final matchday:

15. Hannover GD: -27 Points: 30
16. Nurnberg GD: -27 Points: 28
17. Bochum GD: -28 Points: 28
18. Hertha GD: -20 Points: 24

Bochum needed a win at home to at least reach the relegation playoffs against the third-placed team from the second division. There was even a chance the team could escape the drop zone entirely, provided Nurnberg didn't win their final game (at home against Cologne).

Both sides appeared calm during the week leading up to the game.

Bochum's goalkeeper Philipp Heerwagen told reporters: "I have this sort of pressure every year, it's nothing new." Hannover's director of football Jorg Schmadtke pointed out that no less than 10,000 fans would travel with the team, adding: "They will help us getting through one or two difficult situations in the match."

Hannover's Mike Hanke, left, celebrates after his team confirmed its top flight status while on other end, Bochum's Zlatko Dedic, right, looks distraught after seeing his club get relegated.

In the end, it wasn't too difficult for Hannover. Playmaker Arnold Bruggink brought the visitors ahead after only nine minutes and Bochum collapsed. At halftime, Hannover were up 3-0 and the relegation fight was over.

After the final whistle, Heerwagen said: "This is a nightmare for all of us."

4.  May 13, 2006 -- Wolfsburg vs. Kaiserslautern

League standings before the final matchday:

15. Wolfsburg GD: -22 Points: 33
16. Kaiserslautern GD: -24 Points: 32
17. Cologne GD: -24 Points: 27
18. Duisburg GD: -29 Points: 26

It was the era before the return of the relegation playoffs, so Kaiserslautern needed all three points at Wolfsburg to avoid the drop. Amazingly, it was the second time in only 10 years that the club had been involved in such a head-to-head duel (we'll come to other one in due time).

Three days before the game, Kaiserslautern's striker Halil Altintop told Kicker magazine: "The club has been in relegation fights for four years running. So, psychologically, we have an advantage."

That was indeed the general opinion. Kaiserslautern had just drawn with Bayern Munich and were unbeaten in three games, while Wolfsburg appeared to suffer from nerves and had lost two matches in a row. Defiantly, the team's captain Kevin Hofland said: "I don't care what people say. We control our destiny."

And they did, though only after a mighty scare. Altintop brought Kaiserslautern ahead after 20 minutes, his 20th goal of the season. For almost 50 minutes, Wolfsburg were a second-division team. Then substitute Cedrick Makiadi knocked a loose ball across the line from seven yards to tie the game. It was the 22-year-old's first Bundesliga goal.

Barely three minutes later, Makiadi raced down the wing, rode a tackle and played a perfectly timed pass into the path of centre-forward Diego Klimowicz, who scored his 12th goal of the season to save Wolfsburg from relegation. Kaiserslautern made it 2-2 a few minutes from time, but the hosts easily ran down the clock.

Ingo Hertzsch, Kaiserslautern's right back said: "I just feel empty. We lost our Bundesliga status during the first half of the season, not today."

3. May 29, 1999 -- Bochum vs. Rostock and Nurnberg vs Freiburg

League standings before the final matchday:

12. Nurnberg GD: -9 Points: 37
13. Stuttgart GD: -8 Points: 36
14. Freiburg GD: -9 Points: 36
15. Rostock GD: -10 Points: 35
16. Frankfurt GD: -14 Points: 34
17. Bochum GD: -24 Points: 29
18. Gladbach GD: -36 Points: 21

One of the two head-to-head games on the final day wasn't really a decider, as the table shows. Although Bochum hosted relegation-threatened Rostock, the home team could no longer avoid the drop.

So it was all about which of the five teams above Bochum would finish in 16th place.

The permutations were almost endless, although -- fatally -- one team felt fairly safe. When the journalist Michael Pfeifer asked Nurnberg's goalkeeper Andreas Kopke about the situation, the veteran replied: "We have a 99 percent chance of staying up. Everything would have to go against us. But we're not going to let this happen."

You could understand his optimism, as Nurnberg were three points and five goals ahead of Frankfurt, not to mention that they were playing another relegation candidate at home, Freiburg. But it was this negligent attitude that ultimately doomed them in what has gone done in league history as the greatest relegation thriller of all.

The story of that final matchday has been told often and in great detail. What people sometimes forget to mention is that the drama happened only three days after the Champions League final in Barcelona during which Bayern conceded those famous two goals in stoppage time to Manchester United. What a week!

During the last 900 seconds of the season, 16th place changed hands five times. At one point, with seven minutes left, Rostock were relegated, then they scored the 3-2 winner in Bochum that seemed to send Frankfurt down.

In stoppage time, Frankfurt's Jan Age Fjortoft made it 5-1 against Kaiserslautern. At this moment, Nurnberg were trailing Freiburg 2-1. Then their left-back Marek Nikl shot from almost 30 yards. The ball struck the inside of the left-hand post. It rebounded, hit the back of Freiburg's goalkeeper Richard Golz and bounced towards Nurnberg's onrushing sweeper Frank Baumann.

From six yards out, Baumann tried to sidefoot the ball into an empty net while Golz was scrambling to his feet. The shot was so weak and so badly placed that the goalkeeper caught the ball and held on to it.

Nurnberg's stunning relegation devastated the team's fans.

Nurnberg were level on points and goal difference with Frankfurt but had scored four goals less.

"I'm so shocked," Baumann later said, staring into a camera and shrugging his shoulders, "that I can't say anything."

2. June 7, 1969 -- Cologne vs. Nurnberg and Dortmund vs Offenbach

League standings before the final matchday (only two teams went down):

15. Cologne Goals: For: 44 Against: 56 Points: 30-36
16. Nurnberg Goals: F: 45 A: 52 Points: 29-37
17. Dortmund Goals: F: 46 A: 54 Points: 28-38
18. Offenbach Goals F: 42 A: 56 Points: 28-38

Note: It doesn't say GD here, because this was the last season the Bundesliga used goal average -- goals scored divided by goals conceded -- instead of goal difference.

Now you may ask yourself, how can one possibly beat the drama of 1999?

To which a seasoned Nurnberg fan will wearily reply: Well, we can, don't worry.

The last matchday in 1969 finishes ahead of the 1999 thriller for two reasons. First, it was the only time that the four teams fighting the drop were playing each other. (Which also explains why Kaiserslautern, in 14th place and on 30-36 points as well, were already safe.)

Second, Nurnberg were the reigning league champions! And as most of you will know, they lost the game in Cologne and went down, the first and only time this has ever happened to a team that had won the league the season before.

It's hard to explain to a modern fan how shocking it was that this happened to Nurnberg. At the time, the Franconians were still German record champions and probably the most famous and revered club (along with Schalke) in the country.

When the game in Cologne ended, with a 3-0 win for the hosts, the stadium announcer said: "We all wish the renowned team from Nurnberg that they will be back soon." Hundreds of home fans hung around for well over an hour after the final whistle just to pat the Nurnberg players on the back and wish them well as they trotted towards the team coach.

In Dortmund, meanwhile, Borussia also won 3-0, sending Offenbach down. Hundreds of celebrating fans invaded the pitch and literally grabbed the shirts off the players' backs.

1. May 18, 1996 -- Leverkusen vs. Kaiserslautern

League standings before the final matchday:

14. Leverkusen GD: -1 Points: 37
15. Cologne GD: -3 Points: 37
16. Kaiserslautern GD: -6 Points: 35
17. Frankfurt GD: -22 Points: 32
18. Uerdingen GD: -25 Points: 23

This head-to-head duel finishes first because it's probably the one most people immediately remember. One reason is that it produced one of the most famous images in league history: a grave-looking Rudi Voller silently consoling a sobbing Andreas Brehme.

It's also worth noting that the outcome of this season was in its own way just as shocking as Nurnberg's relegation in 1969, because Frankfurt and Kaiserslautern had been founder members of the Bundesliga and never been relegated from the league before.

Now both went down. And in Kaiserslautern's case, it happened in dramatic fashion.

On 58 minutes, Kaiserslautern's striker Pavel Kuka headed a Frank Greiner cross home from close range. When the ball went in, the cameras captured Leverkusen's captain Voller and the television commentator said: "Will Rudi Voller be relegated in his last-ever game?"

That seemed suddenly very likely. And it was also the reason why many neutrals kept their fingers crossed for Leverkusen on this day. Needless to say, Bayer were nowhere near as popular as Kaiserslautern, but Voller was one of the few universally loved footballers the league has ever seen, perhaps the first since Uwe Seeler. And this was indeed Voller's final game as a player.

But the mood would soon change. With 10 minutes left in the season, Leverkusen's left back Markus Munch hacked down Olaf Marschall. Referee Bernd Heynemann whistled for a foul. But then, bizarrely, he didn't allow Marschall to receive treatment on the pitch.

Perhaps he felt the player was making too much of the foul, but to most people watching, Marschall seemed really in pain. Heynemann told the teams to restart play and not worry about the prostrate Marschall.

With almost palpable anger, Kaiserslautern's sweeper Miroslav Kadlec intentionally belted the ball into touch to halt play again, hoping Heynemann would change his mind. Strangely, the referee now allowed physios on the pitch after all.

Marschall was stretchered off. Leverkusen's Brazilian Sergio took the throw-in -- and heaved the ball to his goalkeeper. The away fans, who had expected Sergio to follow the unwritten rules of fair play and give the ball back to Kaiserslautern, booed mercilessly.

Their catcalls were still ringing round the ground when Bayer's Mike Rietpietsch tried a desperate long-range shot. Kaiserslautern's goalkeeper Andreas Reinke punched the ball away and Munch volleyed it home from a tight angle to tie the game.

After the match, Voller and Brehme, both 1990 World Cup winners, faced the television cameras. Voller had his left arm around Brehme, who was sobbing uncontrollably. It took the Kaiserslautern icon two minutes two regain his composure enough to answer questions.

"I've been through a lot," Brehme haltingly said in a tearful voice. "But never anything like this."

Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.


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