Munich - With the race for Europe the tightest it has ever been at this stage of the Bundesliga season, the focus is all on the mid-table teams at 15:30 CET on Saturday as they attempt to detach themselves from rest.
For Schalke, Saturday's encounter with Mainz is indeed all about making up ground in the race for European places. Having picked up just six points from a possible 30 dating back mid-November, the Royal Blues will now attempt to leapfrog Thomas Tuchel's side, who have proven a tough nut to crack on home soil this season.
In spite of Schalke's dip in form, Mainz maintain a healthy respect for their opponents on Saturday. "They've got a lot of individual quality in their ranks and belong to the top three teams in the Bundesliga," explained Tuchel.
The Nüllfunfer are without two key players for the big clash. Jan Kirchoff suffered a slight tear in his thigh muscle during Wednesday's training session, while Shawn Parker sits out the first match of his two-game ban. "The loss of Shawn and Jan annoys me a lot. Both are in good form and provide important alternatives in the squad," said Tuchel.
Injuries are also a pressing concern for Schalke head coach Jens Keller, but there's a good chance Jefferson Farfan (flu) and Marco Höger (illness) will feature even though they're "not fully up to scratch". However, the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Atsuto Uchida, Lars Unnerstall, Ibrahim Afellay, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Ciprian Marica all remain unavailable.
"It seems like there's a curse on us," said head coach Jens Keller, who could only watch as Schalke tumbled out of the DFB Cup against Mainz in his first match in charge. "We know what we're up against and we're ready for it."
The thumping of Borussia Dortmund is old news as Hamburg look to press on against another Borussia in Saturday's home clash with Mönchengladbach.
"We can't play against Gladbach the way we did against BVB," explained HSV head coach Thorsten Fink. In previous weeks the Red Shorts have been able to count upon the element of surprise, but at home to the Foals that won't be possible, as the customary roles have been reversed with Hamburg seen as the favourites.
Fink is expected to make three changes to his starting line-up, with Czech keeper Jaroslav Drobny set to deputise for Rene Adler, who tore a muscle in his midriff earlier this week. Slobodan Rajkovic is ready make his comeback to first-team affairs due to Jeffrey Bruma's suspension, while Milan Baldelj will replace Tomas Rincon after seeing out a one-game ban.
Gladbach have been on a rollercoaster ride in the past few weeks, but they'll be hoping their 3-3 draw at home S.S. Lazio in the UEFA Europa League has brought it to a halt.
Boss Lucien Favre will likely need to rotate his side after they put in a gruelling shift against the Romans, not that the Foals are seeing that as an excuse for this weekend. "In the first half of the season we spoke a lot about the burden of playing on two fronts and unusual rhythm that goes with it," explained Gladbach right-back Tony Jantschke. "In the end though, we still picked up plenty of points."
After securing back-to-back wins for the first time since November 2011, Werder Bremen are hoping to confirm their status as contenders for the European places as they welcome surprise package SC Freiburg to the Weserstadion.
Austrian trio Sebastian Prödl, Zlutko Junuzovic and Marko Arnautovic have all returned to training after suffering from minor knocks in recent weeks and should all feature in head coach Thomas Schaaf's starting line-up.
"We've had a one or two setbacks this week," admitted the Bremen boss, who may be without Sokratis and Aaron Hunt (both flu) having already lost Theodor Gebre Selassie to a broken hand. "We hope it won't get any worse in the next few days. We're well aware of how good [Freiburg] are as a team."
Schaaf's counterpart Christian Streich has had to deal with injury problems of his own. Jonathan Schmidt (ankle), Sebastian Freis (shoulder) and new-signing Hendrick Zuck (heel) are all unavailable for selection, but Mensur Mujdza could feature after returning to training this week.
Freiburg, without a win against Bremen in eleven years, are travelling north with mixed feelings. "We're getting ready to face what they call "a stiff breeze" in Northern Germany," explained Streich. "Bremen have returned to where they want to be in terms of match performance at the perfect time."
In a battle between two of this season's newly-promoted sides Fortuna Düsseldorf are aiming to maintain their impressive home form against a Greuther Fürth outfit who have collected more points on their travels than they have in Franconia.
Düsseldorf have won four of their last five in front of their own supporters, but head coach Norbert Meier has warned his charges against underestimating Saturday's opponents. "We can't begin to it's a foregone conclusion," declared the 54-year-old.
Suspension has ruled out the inclusion of midfielders Adam Bodzek and Andreas Lambertz with Oliver Fink expected to secure a starting berth. One other alternative is Ivan Paurevic. "He's a tried and tested defensive midfielder and will definitely be part of the squad," confirmed Meier.
For Fürth the fixture against Fortuna could be a final chance to create a genuine foothold in the relegation battle which currently has them pinned to the foot of the table. For coach Mike Büskens, a Düsseldorf native and former Fortuna player, Saturday's trip is especially meaningful: "I'm really looking forward to going back, but the result is more important."
The Clover Leaves' head coach won't be able to call upon Milorad Pekovic (suspended), Tom Mickel and Stephan Fürstner (both ill), though Gerald Asamoah and Edgar Prib have been declared fit to play.