Munich - The Bundesliga is back and many questions are only halfway to being answered. The scramble for European places is hotter than ever, and as Bayer 04 Leverkusen get set to host Eintracht Frankfurt, while SC Freiburg travel to fellow surprise package 1. FSV Mainz 05. Meanwhile, strugglers Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg will be out for vital points against Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfB Stuttgart respectively.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs. Eintracht Frankfurt
With 25 goals in 24 games, 2012 was a productive year for the Bundesliga's most prolific goalscorer Stefan Kießling, but the slate has been wiped clean in 2013. The same goes for his club Leverkusen, who must forget their first 17 games and concentrate on starting the new year with victory over Frankfurt. "Nobody expected that we would be second now, but we can't get anything for it," he told Kicker magazine. "We're in a position which we now have to maintain; it's somewhat of a duty."
Goal explosion warning
2012's most potent striker is also topping the charts for the current season, and has set his sights on winning the Torkanone for the league's top goalscorer. "That's every striker's aim,” he said. Ten more goals would equal a club record of 22 goals for a season, set by Ulf Kirsten, but the team's success, and the possibility of a place in the UEFA Champions League, is more important. "Would I have to say the season has been a failure if I don't get 22?" he asked. "It would be great, but it's not the priority."
The Eagles have a serious challenger for Kießling's mantle among their ranks too. Alexander Meier is not your ordinary striker, though. In fact, he is not a striker at all. The midfielder, who turned 30 on Thursday, has found the back of the net 11 times already this season and he makes Frankfurt a particularly tough team to defend against, yet like Kießling, his priority is not scoring goals. "Winning the Kanone is not my aim," he said. "The only thing which matters is that we are still playing in the Bundesliga next season. That is the aim of all of us."
1899 Hoffenheim vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach
Two of Germany's top goalkeepers will be aiming to upset the supporters at the Wirsol-Rhein-Neckar Arena tomorrow by keeping the goalscoring to a bare minimum when Hoffenheim host Gladbach. Tim Wiese has been reinstated as the home team's number one by new coach Marco Kurz, and he comes up against the man who appears to be a contender to replace him in the Germany set-up, Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
On the up
Both had difficult phases during the first half of the season, as did their clubs, but the pair are now ready to set the record straight in 2013 and prove to Germany coach Joachim Löw that they are worthy of a place in his squad selections during the new year. "It's important to experience a phase like that so that you know what’s required," said ter Stegen. "I'm glad that I kept my cool and now I can see that I mustn't doubt myself."
Wiese's first half of the season was blighted by injury, but after a five-week winter break, he has convinced new coach Marko Kurz of his worth. He may have passed the captain's armband on to Andreas Beck, but that will enable him to concentrate even more on keeping the ball out of the back of the net. "Tim's been very engaged and professional in training, as have the other goalkeepers, but with his class and experience, he will provide a great foundation for our team in the second half of the season," said Kurz, who sits on the Hoffenheim bench for the first time on Saturday.
FSV Mainz 05 vs. SC Freiburg
Mainz are set to rock the Bundesliga once again in 2013, according to their in-form striker Adam Szalai, who says it is no coincidence that they, along with Saturday's opponents Freiburg, are on course for a place in Europe next season. "Our position reflects our performances," Szalai told bundesliga.com. "You don't get up to sixth in the Bundesliga on pure luck. We've shown for a long time that we're a team with real quality and we aim to continue in the same vein."
Keeping things real
The real task will be to confirm that over the last four months of the season, but the Hungarian is optimistic that's possible. "I'm very pleased with my preparations [during the winter break]. The training camp was good, we've played well in friendlies and we're in great shape," he said. "When things are going well for the side, everyone benefits. [The first half of the season] went well for me. I'm 25 now and hopefully I can play as well as I did before the winter break in a lot more games."
Freiburg's first half of the season has boosted confidence in the Black Forest, only coach Christian Streich is not getting carried away. "Maybe I'm just different to the lads," he said. "I'm not a huge optimist, but I think it's great that we're self confident. The real trick is putting that self-confidence into action. I don't need to bring the lads back down to earth - they should be allowed to fly a little. It gets you nowhere when you pull them down to earth and bury them - it's dark down there."
VfL Wolfsburg vs. VfB Stuttgart
Diego and his Wolfsburg team mates are accustomed to change, and the Brazilian forward is hoping it will be a case of third time lucky in terms of head coaches. After struggling under Felix Magath, the Wolves started to rise under Lorenz-Günther Köstner, and now it is Dieter Hecking's turn to lead them back into Europe. "I'm very optimistic that we're going to play a good second half of the season," said Diego to the WAZ newspaper. "I am a winner and I would like to be higher up the table, and I mean that with this team. Of course I'd love to play in Europe again, but we have got to achieve that as a team."
As things stand, however, opponents Stuttgart have a greater chance of appearing in the UEFA Europa League next season. They come into the second half of the campaign just a point behind fifth-placed SC Freiburg and on course for what their coach Bruno Labbadia says is the aim of "cementing a place between fifth and tenth". However, they are without their top goalscorer Vedad Ibisevic on Saturday, meaning Shinji Okazaki should lead their attack. "I hope he causes a furore," said Labbadia of the Japanese striker.