Two giants of German football desperate to reach loftier heights will meet when Schalke host Werder Bremen on Saturday. How have they coped with life in Bundesliga 2? And how likely are they to get promoted?
With four games left in the campaign, bundesliga.com assesses the state of play at a pair of fallen giants plotting a route back to the big time.
Both Schalke and Bremen plumbed new depths in 2020/21. Managing just three wins in 34 matches, the Royal Blues finished bottom of the Bundesliga and were relegated for the first time since 1988, having been in the top tier since 1991. Bremen fared little better, and as the other team to go down automatically they dropped out of the top flight for only the second time in their history.
Relegation brought major upheaval and a shock to the system both on and off the pitch. With less-acclaimed clubs relishing the chance to have a pop at them in a famously competitive division, both Schalke and Bremen started slowly - they were eighth and 10th respectively after Matchday 8. Now, though, they are in a position of strength.
Watch: Bremen and Schalke drew on Matchday 14
Being a big name brings expectation and pressure - just look at how Hamburg have struggled to bounce back after slipping into Bundesliga 2 in 2018. It also brings with it an aura and a huge fan base, however, meaning the weight of history can be turned to your advantage.
Schalke were seven-time German champions before the Bundesliga was formed in 1963, and they have since been top-flight runners-up on eight occasions. The 1996/97 UEFA Cup winners and 2010/11 UEFA Champions League semi-finalists were second to Bayern Munich as recently as 2017/18.
Bremen, meanwhile, are the fourth most successful club in German top-flight history. They were crowned champions in 1964/65, 1987/88, 1992/93 and 2003/04. The Green-Whites were also seven-time runners-up, won the DFB Cup six times and lifted the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1991/92.
"I think Bremen against Schalke is always a big game, regardless of the table," Bremen's defender Marco Friedl said this week.
And everyone is aware, he added, of just how important the latest clash between the two will be.
Watch: Schalke beat Darmstadt to go top
Giants back in the big time?
It took a while this season but two sleeping giants have finally woken up - after playing out a dramatic draw in Bremen along the way. Most of Schalke's six defeats in the first half of the campaign came against promotion rivals, but thanks to Simon Terodde and his regular goals they still sat fourth at the halfway point.
They slumped to sixth as a result of a 4-3 home loss to Hansa Rostock on Matchday 25, however, after which interim head coach Mike Büskens replaced Dimitrios Grammozis.
The late-season change has had the desired effect. Heading into the home game against Bremen, Schalke have reeled off five consecutive victories - scoring fifteen goals in the process. The last two came against would-be rivals: 3-0 at home against Heidenheim and a 5-2 rout at Darmstadt.
Bremen, meanwhile, came to life after Ole Werner replaced Markus Anfang in the hotseat. He took over when they were 10th after Matchday 15, having posted a consistently inconsistent record of five wins, five draws and five losses.
The Green-Whites were 12 points behind leaders St. Pauli when Werner arrived, but he started with seven successive wins to reduce that gap to nothing. That run became nine wins and one draw in the first 10 matches to put his new team top by a point after Matchday 25.
Saturday's visitors to Gelsenkirchen have faltered slightly since then during a tough run of fixtures, recording one win from five games. The victory came against fellow promotion hopefuls Darmstadt, however, and their current streak of three consecutive 1-1 draws included matches against Pauli and Nuremberg.
Werner, who lost a promotion play-off with Holstein Kiel in 2020/21, knows that what he has achieved so far counts for little. The 33-year-old's sensational impact so far, though, has put his side within touching distance of a return to the elite.
Lots of players have contributed to Schalke becoming league leaders - they sit two points above Bremen - and the league's leading goalscorers - with 64 from 30 matches. Marius Bülter grabbed the headlines at Darmstadt, with the former Union Berlin attacker's hat-trick getting him into double figures for the season. Bülter also has nine assists this term, meaning he has directly contributed to 19 of his team's goals.
Watch: Terodde's top 5 Bundesliga 2 goals!
Rodrigo Zalazar has weighed in with four goals and five assists, while Japanese defender Ko Itakura has proven his worth at both ends of the pitch by scoring four times. Dutch wing-back Thomas Ouwejan has been impressive too, getting three goals himself and making eight more.
Terodde, however, has been the most important signing of all. The veteran striker knows how to get the job done at this level, having been promoted with VfB Stuttgart in 2016/17 and with Cologne in 2018/19. The 34-year-old has been working his magic again, getting 24 goals in 26 games so far to not only lead the scoring charts but also become the record goalscorer in Bundesliga 2 history.
"Strikers are there to decide games for their teams," as he put it following his recent double in Darmstadt.
Whereas Schalke call on Terodde and Bülter, Bremen look to Marvin Ducksch and Niclas Füllkrug. That pair have combined for 31 league goals this season, with Ducksch getting one for Hannover before adding 16 - and eight assists - following his early-season move further north. Füllkrug - who was promoted with Hannover in 2016/17 - has 15 goals and four assists. A proven top-flight goalscorer blighted by injury until this season, he has got 10 of his goals in 2022.
With Jiri Pavlenka between the posts and veteran former Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund defender Ömer Toprak captain of the club, Bremen also have experienced players at the other end of the pitch who could make all the difference in the closing stages.
The Bundesliga 2 promotion battle has been epic so far, and the fact that so many direct rivals are meeting so late in the season only adds to the suspense. Schalke could take a huge step to securing one of the two automatic promotion spots by beating Bremen, while the visitors would go top by a point - and gain huge momentum - if they win.
Both now have matters in their own hands, although it's still likely to go to the wire. After this weekend, Schalke travel to Sandhausen, a team who are not quite out of relegation trouble and have already drawn with high-flyers Bremen and Pauli in April. The Royal Blues' last home game is a huge one against third-placed Pauli, and on the final day they have another tough assignment. Currently fifth, Nuremberg could need a win on Matchday 34 to seal a top-two finish or the promotion play-off place that comes with ending in third.
Bremen, meanwhile, have home games against mid-table Kiel and Jahn Regensburg to play. A trip to Erzgebirge Aue - who could be relegated by then - is sandwiched in between on the penultimate day. It's a kind set of fixtures on paper but - as both Bremen and Schalke have now learned - nothing comes easy in Bundesliga 2.
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