Munich - The battle for those highly sought-after European places is set to reach fever pitch on Saturday afternoon, with VfL Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, 1. FSV Mainz 05 and VfB Stuttgart all in action (kick-off 15:30 CET). Fortuna Düsseldorf stand in the way of Hannover 96, while cellar-dwelling pair Greuther Furth and FC Augsburg collide, desperate for some festive cheer.
VfL Wolfsburg - Eintracht Frankfurt
VfL Wolfsburg go in search of only their second home win of the season with the Matchday 17 visit of Eintracht Frankfurt. Their first, a 3-1 success over Bayer 04 Leverkusen on Matchday 11, signalled a turning point in the Wolves' faltering campaign, with Lorenz-Günther Köstner's side's steady climb away from the drop zone punctuated by last weekend's surprise 3-2 win against champions Borussia Dortmund.
"We are no longer concerned about going behind because we managed to come back and draw against Werder [Bremen] and HSV, even managing to come from behind to win against Dortmund. We need to concentrate and defend better because it's a huge ask to come from behind and won’t always go our way," warned the Wolfsburg coach.
"Going there to win"
Saturday's visitors are no strangers to turning the tables either, themselves hitting back from a goal down to beat Leverkusen on the opening day of the campaign. A three-match winless run at the end of November threatened to derail their high-flying Bundesliga return, before Armin Veh's men showed they're in it for the longhaul with a resounding 4-1 win over Bremen last time out.
Veh spent the best part of eight months as coach at the Volkswagen Arena during 2009-10, but doesn't believe his past dealings with the club make the game any more special than it already is: "No, not really. That was a long time ago. I had a great working relationship with the team bosses. It was just the wrong time to be there," he explained.
1. FSV. Mainz 05 - VfB Stuttgart
“We have the opportunity to turn a good first leg into a very good first leg,” stated Mainz head coach Thomas Tuchel ahead of his side's showdown with Stuttgart. "We're ready to give all we've got. But we have to show more desire than we did last weekend," he added in reference to the 2-0 defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach.
The 05ers were actually the better side for much of the game, but the recent fixture pile-up appeared to get the better of them as they were picked apart in the second half. "At the moment our threadbare side is at its limit," explained Tuchel, whose Mainz team remain in the thick of things in the race for Europe after winning all but two of their home fixtures so far this season.
Eleventh-placed Mainz are just two points adrift of the in-form Swabians, so it's little wonder Stuttgart head coach Bruno Labbadia is bracing himself for a "tough battle" against one of the Bundesliga's "most passionate teams that play intensive football and put their opponents under real pressure."
Nevertheless, Stuttgart go into the game full of confidence, having cruised past FC Schalke 04 last weekend coutesy of a hat-trick from Bundesliga joint-top scorer Vedad Ibisevic. The Swabians have now won five of their last six domestic encounters and trail second-placed Leverkusen by just five points.
Fortuna Düsseldorf - Hannover 96
Fortuna coach Norbert Meier can go into his side's final match of the calendar year quietly pleased, following an impressive return to the Bundesliga. 18 points mark a fine return for what, on paper, looked like a rather patchwork side of old heads and summer dealings, as well as one that had been away from the top flight for 15 years.
The visit of Hannover 96 will provide a further indication of exactly where Meier's men are at, but what matters most is the Bundesliga table which, at present, makes for pleasant reading. Six points separate the men in red and white and 16th-placed 1899 Hoffenheim, with FC Augsburg and Greuther Fürth a further four points worse off in the bottom two.
"Up the table"
"Düsseldorf are a very strong team and have proved with their cup win against Gladbach that they deserve to be here," said Hannover coach Mirko Slomka of Saturday's opponents. "We want to build on our good performance against Leverkusen in the last game. The game against Düsseldorf requires our full concentration because we can climb up the table," he added.
Hannover have already matched their pre-winter break points tally of last season, but face much stiffer competition this time round in what is looking every bit an intense tussle for the European places. The Reds are not the best travellers, but the absence of Düsseldorf lynchpin Robbie Kruse (suspended) might just swing the pendulum in their favour.
Greuther Fürth - FC Augsburg
What better way to round off the final round of fixtures before the winter break? The Bundesliga's bottom two clubs have shared a similar fate thus far, with each side only picking up eight points, recording one victory and with an equally poor goal difference of minus 17. Your proverbial six-pointer and a Bavarian derby at that, defeat is unthinkable for both of these southern strugglers.
"We hope that the fans will play their part and get behind us. We want to give everything to make this game a success," said Fürth head coach Mike Büskens. Despite seeing their side put in some battling displays over the course of the Clover Leaves' 16 league outings to date, the Trolli faithful still await a first Bundesliga win of the season on home soil.
"Bring the points back"
Unlike Saturday's hosts, Augsburg have managed to win at home; although that Matchday 7 victory against Werder Bremen must now feel like an eternity ago. Markus Weinzierl's men have collected just three points from their subsequent eight encounters, most recently falling prey to league leaders FC Bayern Munich on Matchday 16.
"You only have to look at the table to know what it is all about," said Weinzierl. "Whatever people are calling the game [...] we will put a team out that will do everything to bring the points pack to Augsburg," he added. Striker Aristide Bance may, however, miss the short trip to the Trolli Arena after putting his back out in training on Thursday.