Munich - The Bundesliga title race may have been put to bed, but two battles rage on as clashes between mid-table European hopefuls and relegation candidates dominate proceedings in Saturday's 15:30 kick-offs.
VfL Wolfsburg host FC Schalke 04 in the pick of the encounters with both sides in desperate need of points to put a positive spin on their current predicaments. Elsewhere, SC Freiburg and Hamburger SV will be hoping to remain in the European qualification spots after facing 1. FC Nuremberg and SpVgg Greuther Fürth respectively, while SV Werder Bremen host a rejuvenated FC Augsburg side.
After securing their semi-final berth in the DFB Cup, VfL Wolfsburg are determined to climb the Bundesliga table, starting with a match at home to FC Schalke 04, who stopped their recent rot against Fortuna Düsseldorf last weekend.
The Wolves, who could welcome former Greek international Sotirios Kyrgiakos back into their matchday squad, have improved since the winter break, but still sit just above the drop zone. "We've established a positive trend, but now we want to win again," stated head coach Dieter Hecking, whose side have collected two wins, two draws and two losses since the season's restart.
"We're not at all satisfied with our current situation. We're not happy about being in 15th place." said Hecking's counterpart Jens Keller, who is definitely expecting to face a tough opponent, irrespective of their league position. "Wolfsburg aren't where their quality suggests they should be," explained the 42-year-old.
The Royal Blues boss won't be able to call upon experienced left-back Christian Fuchs, but believes his side are "on the right track" after banishing thoughts of a club crisis by putting together a three-game unbeaten run in all competitions. "We once again have to implement the positives from recent matches," stated Keller. "We're travelling to Wolfsburg to pick up points."
Michael Wiesinger has gone about his business quietly but successfully since taking over the reins at Nuremberg during the winter break. In six games, his team has won once, lost once and drawn four times, including their last three.
In 14th place, wins would seem to be the order of the day, but such is the quality of their opponent this weekend that Wiesinger described Freiburg as favourites: “We have a lot of respect for them. Regardless of whether they’re playing at home or away, they have their philosophy and they stick to it”, commented the 40-year-old.
Indeed, not many would argue with that evaluation. Freiburg sit in fifth place and are on course for a first appearance in Europe since the 2001/02 season. They also come into the game having sensationally reached the last four of the DFB for the first time in their history after winning at Mainz in extra time on Tuesday night.
Christian Streich played down his side’s form, however, and was equally praiseworthy of Saturday's hosts. “They have changed a few things and against Stuttgart last week they played good football. They also don’t lose often, and that points to stability.”
Only three teams have collected more points since the winter break than Hamburger SV, but upon their return to home comforts this weekend, life is likely to be made difficult by a Greuther Fürth outfit scrapping for their lives at the foot of the table.
As a result HSV head coach Thorsten Fink has demanded a response from his players following their 5-1 humbling at the hands of Hannover last weekend. "We've got to go for it, create chances for ourselves and demonstrate more concentration and discipline in contrast to the match against Hannover," stated the 45-year-old, whose players trained with a "fire in their bellies" after the result.
A win against the cellar-dwellers would move Hamburg a step closer to realising their dream of European qualification, but Fink was quick to warn his players of the threat Fürth pose. "Of course we're the favourites, but our opponents have nothing to lose and will be highly motivated as a result," he said.
Fürth's resilience, coupled with Wolfgang Hesl's man of the match performance, earned the last-placed side a point in interim boss Ludwig Preis' debut against Bayer Leverkusen. Greuther, who have collected nine of their 13 points on their travels this season, are now hoping to follow it up with another positive result. "We want to annoy Hamburg and start being taken seriously," declared Preis.
After being hit for six by FC Bayern Munich last weekend, the last opposition that Werder Bremen will want to face this week would be another side from Bavaria. The fixture schedule is such, however, that that is precisely what awaits them this time around in the form of FC Augsburg.
Despite conceding 28 times in the Rückrunde alone, Schaaf was quick to note the positives his team displayed against Bayern. “For 20-25 minutes we were very energetic. When we’ve had that that type of application, we’ve always delivered a decent performance,” he said.
Augsburg have been one of the most competitive sides in the division, especially since the turn of the year, earning an impressive haul of nine points from their last six matches. They also sealed their only win of the first half of the season at home to Bremen in October.
The possibility of securing a solitary league double for the die Függerstädter is motivation enough for coach Markus Weinzierl. “We want to win a game that not everyone would think we are capable of winning”, he said in his pre-match press conference. “We’ll certainly be confident of going there and getting a result.”
James Thorogood and Bernie Reeves