DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — The teams worth watching in the Bundesliga right now aren't those at the top of the table.
Bayern Munich cruised to its 10th straight title last week, leading even former Bayern greats to grumble about the lack of drama, but the German league has one of the fiercest fights in European soccer just a little further down the standings.
With three games to go, six points separate third-place Bayer Leverkusen from Cologne in seventh as teams fight for places in European competitions.
Freiburg in particular has become a favorite for fans across the country who admire its old-school, organic approach to achieving success. In fifth and able to qualify for the Champions League or miss out on Europe altogether — and with a German Cup final coming up — the club from a midsize city in the Black Forest is widely seen as doing things the right way.
In charge for more than 10 years, Freiburg coach Christian Streich has built a successful and sustainable team despite regularly losing his best players to better-funded clubs elsewhere in Germany or across Europe. The result is a close-knit, well-organized squad without big names or big egos. Freiburg's stars tend to be fringe players for their national teams like Italy winger Vincenzo Grifo and Germany defenders Nico Schlotterbeck and Christian Günter.
Streich likes his team to play a direct, counterattacking style and to try long balls forward. But it's not that slightly unfashionable style which has made him beloved by German fans. It's because Streich isn't afraid to stray off message in a soccer world where coaches often seem constrained by club policy and PR concerns.
He talks politics with his players, has called on Germans to vote against far-right parties, and has voiced concern over soccer's close sponsorship ties to the gambling industry. If Freiburg can make up the two-point gap to Leipzig in fourth place, Streich could ruffle some feathers in the carefully curated world of the Champions League.
The next step for Freiburg is a visit to eighth-place Hoffenheim on Saturday evening. In some ways, the clubs are similar — both from rural southwestern Germany, both underdogs with European ambitions — but Freiburg's slow and steady growth is a contrast to Hoffenheim's rise, which soared through the divisions with backing from a billionaire.
After that, Freiburg will have to wait and see if its rivals slip up. Leverkusen hosts Eintracht Frankfurt on Monday before Leipzig visits Borussia Mönchengladbach.
There are risks in being on the fringes of the Bundesliga elite. In each of the last three seasons, the team which placed fourth the season before and qualified for the Champions League couldn't repeat the feat. The most recent cautionary tale is Wolfsburg, which is stuck in 12th and has spent more of the season worrying about relegation than dreaming of success, after two coaching changes and the sale of its star striker Wout Weghorst to Burnley.
Neither champion Bayern nor midtable Mainz have much to play for in their game Saturday, and Borussia Dortmund is all but assured of second place as it hosts local rival Bochum the same day. Another surprise European contender, Union Berlin, hosts relegated Greuther Fürth in the Friday evening game.
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James Ellingworth, The Associated Press