Munich - The only two teams to have denied FC Bayern Munich victory in the Bundesliga all season meet at the BayArena on Saturday (15:30 CET) while 1. FSV Mainz 05 and Hannover 96 continue their pursuits of a place in Europe. At the bottom of the table, FC Augsburg and Greuther Fürth look for their second wins of the campaign against SC Freiburg and VfB Stuttgart respectively.
One thing Leverkusen and Nuremberg have in common is that they are the only two teams to have taken points off Bayern Munich this season, but the similarities do not end there.
Although there is no official agreement between the two sides, Nuremberg have become something of a feeder club for Leverkusen. This Saturday, no fewer than four former Nuremberg players are set to start for the home team, enough for visiting coach Dieter Hecking to call them a "branch" of his club.
"They have four of our former players in their starting team - Hegeler, Reinartz, Kießling, and lastly Wollscheid," he said. Leverkusen have certainly displayed a shrewd eye for Nuremberg's biggest talents, forming a team which is currently second in the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich's closest competitors at the top. "They've not lost in weeks, in three competitions," continued Hecking. "It took them a while to find their rhythm to begin with, but now they've found it and are very effective."
Hecking's side have also shown improved effectiveness in recent weeks, drawing with Bayern and beating Hoffenheim. "We're not over the mountain yet," warned the 48-year-old, who does not want to see any complacency from his player. Nor does Leverkusen's sporting director Rudi Völler. “We’d like to keep this position until the end of the first half of the season," said the former Germany international.
Mainz and Hannover are two clubs searching for a place in Europe next season and their clash at the Coface Arena tomorrow could separate dreams from reality.
Both clubs have 20 points, along with Hamburg and Borussia Mönchengladbach, as the race for Europe hots up. "When you're sixth at the end of a Matchday, it's a nice feeling," said Hannover coach Mirko Slomka, whose side have qualified for the UEFA Europa League in each of the last two campaigns. "We're enjoying being in the Europa League again this season and we hope to experience it again next year."
Thanks in part to the goals of Adam Szalai, Mainz are also in the hunt for a return to Europe after getting a taste of the Europa League in 2011. However, their coach Thomas Tuchel insists his side are not overly-reliant on the Hungarian striker, as the 3-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in midweek proved. "I'm delighted when we're able to score three goals away from home and when we're not always dependent on Adam," said Tuchel.
Szalai did actually get on the scoresheet on Tuesday, albeit at the wrong end. "He's nevertheless an extremely valuable player for us," added Tuchel, who also heaped the praise on Shawn Parker following his first goal for the club. "He deserved his chance," continued Tuchel. "We have no doubt that he can perform like this again, but we are being responsible wth him."
If one thing can be said about FC Augsburg, it's that they are consistent.
Each week, Markus Weinzierl’s side compete for three Bundesliga points, yet practically every week, they fail to get them. Their efforts have received praise from virtually every opposition coach, yet Weinzierl knows that compliments do not keep you in the Bundesliga.
"It’s bitter and depressing," he said Weinzierl after Wednesday's 2-1 defeat to Stuttgart. "I'd love it if my team could get a win, which they need. We'll fight with all that we've got." That fight continues against Freiburg on Saturday when the Bavarians will be looking to pick up maximum points for only the second time all season. "We lifted our heads in the second half and I hope that the small things which make a difference will go our way in future."
Indeed, Augsburg have not been beaten by more than two goals in any games this term, and they have already met the likes of Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, losing 3-1 to each of the sides from the top four. Only Bayern Munich is missing from that list and they meet their Bavarian rivals next weekend, although opponents Freiburg can already tell them a thing or two about the record German champions’ strength.
They lost 2-0 to the runaway league leaders on Wednesday to relinquish sixth spot in the Bundesliga, but that game is now water under the bridge as they look to get as many points as possible from the nine which are still up for grabs in 2012. "We put that game behind us," said coach Christian Streich. "Not much has changed in the league table after this defeat."
Stuttgart coach Bruno Labbadia has his sights set firmly on the European spots as he returns to club he launched his professional coaching career.
"It will be a hard bit of work," warned the 46-year-old ahead of the game at the Trolli Arena, where Fürth are yet to win and have only managed two draws. "They were unlucky in a number of games and are a side that never gives up, but at the same time play good football." Persistent inconsistency has left VfB in mid-table, yet UEFA Europa League qualification is still a realistic goal this season, with currently only a one-point deficit to sixth place.
Much of Stuttgart's hope will focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina striker Vedad Ibisevic who is already on seven domestic goals. However, William Kvist's foot injury is bad news for the Swabian club, as the Danish international is likely to be sidelined until the end of year.
Fürth's right-back Bernd Nehrig, who spent nine years on the Stuttgart books having joined them as a 12-year-old, has pointed out the importance of the match. "We have only a few points on the board and are under quite a lot of pressure to win."