Munich - There's plenty at stake as ever in the Bundesliga this weekend, with VfL Wolfsburg's trip to Hannover topping a tricky trio of Matchday 19 encounters on Saturday afternoon (kick-off 15:30 CET).
The Bundesliga's bottom side Greuther Fürth are also in action against European hopefuls Mainz 05, while Borussia Mönchengladbach entertain Fortuna Düsseldorf in the first-ever Rhine derby to be played at the Borussia-Park.
While the derby attention may predominantly be focused on Sunday’s clashes in the north and south of Germany, Hannover 96 and VfL Wolfsburg will be playing out a regional contest of their own in the Lower Saxony capital - and the stakes for both sides are equally high. Hannover are seeking to halt their recent slide down the table and regain contact with the top six, and a place in Europe next season.
To help them achieve that, they've signed Belgian international full-back Sebastien Pocognoli from Standard Liege. He will take up his place in a back line which already boasts high-profile winter arrival Johan Djourou (loan), himself given a baptism of fire in a topsy-turvy 5-4 defeat to FC Schalke 04 as the Bundesliga returned from the winter break with a bang last Friday evening.
Hitting the net is less of an issue for the free-scoring Reds, though, who have now scored 36 - as many as they have conceded - in 18 Bundesliga outings. Indeed, they managed to score four times against both Wolfsburg and Dieter Hecking's former club 1. FC Nuremberg during the Hinrunde.
However, under Hecking the Wolves look like being an altogether tougher nut to crack as VfB Stuttgart found out the hard way last weekend. Not that the new coach at the VW Arena is taking anything for granted following the Diego-inspired win a week ago. "We have to go to Hannover with the right level of aggression in order to take something from the game. We need to have the belief to do so."
Hannover 96: Benaglio - Fagner, Naldo, Kjaer, M. Schäfer - Träsch, Polak, Perisic, Diego, Rodríguez - Olic
VfL Wolfsburg: Zieler - Sakai, Eggimann, Djourou, Pocognoli - A. Hoffmann, Schmiedebach - Schlaudraff, Huszti - Abdellaoue, Diouf
Try as they might, Greuther Fürth still came away from Bayern Munich with nothing to show for another valiant performance last Saturday. Michael Büskens' men opted for the park-the-bus approach, with at least nine men defending the box for much of the game at the Allianz Arena, before falling to a narrow 2-0 defeat.
"It's important we make use of our belief and positivity in our quest for the three points. Togetherness will be key," explained Büskens in his pre-match press conference. "Mainz have progressed really well. They're a good model for us to look up to and they play really good football," he added. You can see what the Clover Leaves coach is getting at, but as things stand there's quite the gulf between the two sides.
"It doesn't matter if they've won one, eleven or 20 games," said Mainz head coach Thomas Tuchel of the Franconian strugglers, who remain rooted to the foot of the Bundesliga table after winning just once in 18 attempts. That victory, though, came at the home of Saturday's visitors, way back on Matchday 2, and it is a contest the Mainz players have not forgotten.
"Fürth stood with their backs against the wall. It was a cruel game. They battle hard and have great team spirit, so we have to be on our guard," warned Mainz midfielder Marco Caligiuri, who himself spent three years at Fürth. "I'm looking forward to seeing some of the people I used to know there, but once the whistle sounds it's just the same as any other game."
Greuther Fürth: Hesl - M. Zimmermann, Sobiech, Mavraj, Baba - Nehrig, Fürstner - Sararer, Prib, Stieber - Djurdjic
Wetklo - Pospech, Svensson, Noveski, Junior Diaz - Baumgartlinger, Polanski - N. Müller, Ivanschitz, M. Caligiuri - Szalai
This fixture occupies a special place in many a Rhineland heart, but it's a clash that has not been too kind to the Foals of late. Lucien Favre's men were unable to find the breakthrough as the two sides played out a goalless draw earlier in the campaign, before being dumped out of the DFB Cup by Düsseldorf at the quarter-final stage two months later.
Favre was not all that impressed with his side's most recent display away at Hoffenheim (0-0) either, and was very clear about what he expects from his team as they chase a first home win over Fortuna in 16 years. "We saw a lot of the ball in Hoffenheim, but we have to play quicker and be more direct to create clear-cut chances [...] We have to adapt in order to be efficient and successful."
Fortuna, meanwhile, have enjoyed their fair share of success since returning to the top-flight of German football. 21 points from 18 games keeps them nine points clear of 17th-placed Augsburg ahead of their derby showdown in Gladbach, but the manner in which they succumbed to defeat against the aforementioned Bavarians last weekend has unsurprisingly set alarm bells ringing in various corners of the Fortuna camp.
"The game against Augsburg was your proverbial 'six-pointer'. If we'd won, we would have put a bit of distance between us and the rest of the competition," explained former Fortuna striker Thomas Allofs. "Now the gap on Augsburg isn't as great, which is something we really wanted to avoid, but as a promoted side every movement is under pressure. We've analyzed the mistakes and want to show in the next game that they're behind us."
ter Stegen - Jantschke, Brouwers, Alvaro Dominguez, Wendt - Nordtveit, Marx - Cigerci, Arango - Herrmann, L. de Jong
Fortuna Düsseldorf: Giefer - Levels, Bodzek, Latka, J. van den Bergh - Tesche, O. Fink - Reisinger, Ilsö, Bellinghausen - Kruse