With the Bundesliga title already a near impossibility, even second place may be out of reach for Bayern Munich and their embattled coach, Louis van Gaal. Several players have written off the season and some concede it will be difficult to recover from the stunning loss to the defending champions Internazionale in the Champions League this week.
The departing Van Gaal and his team are likely to finish the season without a title after sweeping the domestic double and reaching the Champions League final last season.
"The season is ruined," said the winger Arjen Robben when asked if there was a way for the club to rescue what is left following the loss to Inter.
Bayern players were sure they would avenge last season's final defeat by Inter and stay in the hunt for the European Cup after beating the Italian champions 1-0 in Milan. Bayern led 2-1 at home before conceding two goals to go out. "It was a stab in the Bavarian heart," said Bayern's chairman, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge.
Bayern travel to Freiburg in the Bundesliga tomorrow hoping that the players will come out of their depression and cut the deficit to second place, which is now seven points. With eight games remaining, Bayern are 16 points behind the Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund.
"It's difficult to get the guys motivated," said the Bayern captain, Philipp Lahm. "Normally, we are fighting for titles until the end of the season. But the ultimate goal is to qualify for the Champions League next season and we have to achieve it."
Second place means direct qualification for the Champions League, while third is good enough to reach the qualifying round. Next year's Champions League final will be played at Bayern's Allianz Arena and it would be disappointing if the club failed to qualify for the competition.
To make sure that doesn't happen, Bayern plan not only to hire a new coach but apparently to overhaul their leaky defence. "We have to do something in the back, because it became clear that you can win titles only with a stable defence," said the club's sporting director, Christian Nerlinger.
Van Gaal, a proponent of possession-based attacking football, neglected defence and repeatedly changed his back four, ultimately one of the reasons for Bayern's poor season and his downfall. "It's a pity that we never found a stable formation," Nerlinger said. "Clearly we have to strengthen our defence in the summer. We will do something about it."
Adding some intrigue to the equation, the team now in second place is Bayer Leverkusen, whose coach is Jupp Heynckes, reportedly the top candidate to replace Van Gaal for the new season.
Heynckes came out of retirement to coach Bayern for five games after the firing of Jürgen Klinsmann before Van Gaal was appointed. That was Heynckes' second stint at Bayern, after 1987-91, and he did such an admirable job of calming passions after the short but turbulent Klinsmann era that he was immediately hired by Leverkusen.
Heynckes has yet to accept the offer to extend his contract with Leverkusen and some club officials have said they expect him to leave.
On Sunday, Leverkusen, nine points behind Dortmund, host Schalke, another club going through an eventful week. Their coach, Felix Magath, was fired on Wednesday even though Schalke are in the Champions League quarter-finals and the final of the German Cup. The club have been inconsistent in the Bundesliga, lying in 10th, and Magath did not get along with the some members of the board.
Dortmund are coming off their third loss of the season, 1-0 at Hoffenheim, and face Mainz, their coach Juergen Klopp's old team. Mainz are fifth, two points behind Bayern, and have their eyes set on at least securing a place in next season's Europa League. Third-placed Hannover host Hoffenheim. Borussia Moenchengladbach are bottom and face a home game against Kaiserslautern they must win to ease their rapidly worsening predicament.