Munich - After some engrosssing action in the DFB Cup in midweek, during which all but one of the top-flight sides in action made it through to round three, Bundesliga action returns this weekend, with some mouthwatering games in store.
1899 Hoffenheim - FC Schalke 04
Schalke 04 travel to 1899 Hoffenheim riding the crest of a wave, having emerged as serious contenders for the Bundesliga crown after winning their last five outings in all competitions. "With each win, our self-belief grows [...] There's lots of potential in our team," affirmed midfielder Julian Draxler.
After overcoming a stubborn 1. FC Nuremberg outfit last time out, die Knappen's title credentials face another stern test in Sinsheim, a place where they have never won a competitive fixture. "Of course we want to chance that, but it won't be easy," Draxler added.
Having managed only two shut-outs so far this season, Markus Babbel's Hoffenheim hold the unenviable record of shipping the most goals (20) of any team in the Bundesliga. Eight of those have come in their last three outings alone, with 17 conceded by Tim Wiese, while Hoffenheim are now winless since their Matchday 5 success in Stuttgart.
Schalke certainly won't take any prisoners, should the hosts put on the kind of display that saw them slump to a 3-0 at Mainz last weekend: "We can't afford to play like we did in Mainz. That really annoyed me. We want to see passion and commitment from every single player, from the first until the last minute," said team manager Andreas Müller. A victory for Schalke would take them, at least for a few hours, to within a point of Bayern.
1. FC Nuremberg - VfL Wolfsburg
Stopping the rot has to be Nuremberg coach Dieter Hecking's primary concern after last Saturday's defeat in Gelsenkirchen saw der Club slip even further down the table to 15th. Hecking's men last picked up a win on Matchday 3 and have failed to find the net in their last four Bundesliga encounters.
"We have to be realistic. Everyone must have the belief that we can cement a place in the middle of the table. I am sure our perseverance will be rewarded. We want to end a run of six games without victory. Despite a strong 70 or 80 minutes against Schalke, it didn't happen, but the curve is on the up," said team manager Martin Bader.
Wolves ready to roar
One team seemingly on the up are VfL Wolfsburg under interim coach Lorenz-Günther Köstner. They notched only their second win of the campaign last time out. "That's how things go - success breeds confidence," said Köstner following back-to-back wins in the league and DFB Cup this past week.
A change in coach has also brought about an upturn in the performances of midfielder Diego and summer arrival Bas Dost, who've scored five of their side's six goals since Köstner took charge. "We're all happy that it's working for him [Diego] and the team want to play with him," beamed the coach. "For me, though, Nuremberg is the toughest of the lot [...] but it's really important we end such a difficult week on a high."
Borussia Mönchengladbach - SC Freiburg
Gladbach have not been anything like the well-organised and defensively solid unit they were last season, shipping a whopping 18 goals in their nine league games so far and scoring only 12. They also go into this game possibly fatigued after Wednesday’s extra-time defeat to Fortuna Düsseldorf in the DFB Cup.
However, the hope among Lucien Favre and his players will be that last week’s 3-2 victory away at Hannover 96 – achieved after they went 2-0 behind – marks a turning point in their season. It was a victory inspired by talismanic midfielder Juan Arango, scorer of the winning goal and creator of the other two. If he is on form, the home side could well be celebrating consecutive league wins for the first time since February.
Freiburg will themselves be no pushovers, however. Christian Streich’s team have an enviable recent record against Mönchengladbach, having lost just once in their last seven league encounters, and they come into the game on the back of an accomplished performance away at Eintracht Braunschweig in the DFB Cup.
Some had predicted Streich’s men would struggle at high-flying Braunschweig, especially after losing an exhausting, snow-affected clash with champions Borussia Dortmund last Saturday. Die Breisgauer made short work of a potentially tricky tie, though, with Max Kruse particularly effective in an advanced midfield role. The Foals will do well to limit the supply to him, in open play as well as from set-pieces.
Hannover 96 - Augsburg
After surrendering their 23-match unbeaten run at home last week against Mönchengladbach, Mirko Slomka’s Hannover side came perilously close to losing two on the trot in the AWD-Arena, eventually needing a penalty shoot-out to overcome Dynamo Dresden in Wednesday’s DFB cup tie. Extra time was hardly what a team that has already played 18 competitive matches this season needed.
The return of Hungarian wing wizard Szabolcs Huszti, rested against Dresden, should be a major boost for the home side on account of his seven assists and three goals this season. His likely return to the starting eleven will probably see Christian Pander relegated to the bench.
Point to prove
Hannover have, however, found Augsburg to be curiously stubborn opposition since the Függerstädter were promoted to the Bundesliga in 2011. Last season, the Reds were held to a 0-0 draw in Augsburg and then conceded a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw at home towards the back end of the campaign.
Augsburg, for their part, will be buoyed by two draws and two clean sheets in their last two away games on the road in Hoffenheim and Nürnberg, as well as the 1-0 Cup win over Preußen Münster. Yet, facing a team eager to make up for losing their first home game since April 2011, Markus Weinzierl’s troops may well find themselves on the receiving end of a Hannover backlash.
Christopher Mayer-Lodge and Bernie Reeves