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PREVIEW-Soccer-German relegation battle goes down to the wire

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By Karolos Grohmann

BERLIN, May 21 (Reuters) - A third of the Bundesliga's 18 clubs will be sweating it out until the last final whistle of the season on Saturday, hoping they will be one of the lucky sides to survive one of the most closely contested relegation battles in recent history.

The sextet comprises former European champions Hamburg SV, the only club to have never been relegated in the league's 52-year history, former champions VfB Stuttgart, as well as Freiburg, Hanover 96, Paderborn and Hertha Berlin.

With Bayern Munich crowned champions at the end of April and the top four already assured, the focus has shifted to the bottom of the table, where a fierce battle to avoid the drop has been raging for weeks.

Hamburg are in 17th place on 32 points, one ahead of basement-dwelling Paderborn and just below Stuttgart, and could see their top-flight status finally broken even with a win over Schalke 04 as they need other results to go their way.

This week, coach Bruno Labbadia has taken his squad on a mini-training camp in an effort to prepare his players for the vital showdown away from the unwanted attention of over-zealous fans placing added pressure on his men.

Stuttgart, who were champions as recently as 2007, have a simpler task, knowing that a victory at Paderborn would secure a at least a relegation playoff spot (16th) but more likely a guaranteed place in the top flight for next season.

"Our focus is only on victory. There just cannot be any other target for us now," Stuttgart captain Christian Gentner told reporters.

"The confidence is there but we should not become light headed. We are convinced we can stay up but we must be serious."

Paderborn, in their first Bundesliga season, also need to win to have any chance of climbing into the playoff spot. Any other result will not be enough for the Westphalian club to avoid a quick return to the second division.

Freiburg and Hanover are both on 34 points and could be safe with a draw, while a win for either side would confirm Bundesliga football for next season.

Hertha are the best placed of all the strugglers, needing just one point at Hoffenheim to be certain of avoiding the drop.

"We will not even play for a draw. We want to win," said Hertha coach Pal Dardai, whose arrival in February marked a turnaround for the club, who are now all but safe.

Last year's runners up Borussia Dortmund, who face Wolfsburg in the German Cup final next week, can secure a Europa League berth before that encounter with a victory over Werder Bremen.

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Bottom six standings: P W D L F A Pts 13 Hertha Berlin 33 9 8 16 35 50 35 14 Freiburg 33 7 13 13 35 45 34 15 Hanover 96 33 8 10 15 38 55 34 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 16 VfB Stuttgart 33 8 9 16 40 59 33 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 17 Hamburg SV 33 8 8 17 23 50 32 18 SC Paderborn 33 7 10 16 30 63 31

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Bottom two are relegated with the 16th-placed side involved in a two-legged relegation playoff against the third-placed side from the second division. (Editing by John O'Brien)

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