Munich - Encounters between European hopefuls and sides wary of relegation dominate proceedings on Saturday. FC Schalke 04's trip to 1. FC Nuremberg tops the billing as the Royal Blues aim to cement their place amongst the top four after getting eliminated from the UEFA Champions League during midweek.
1. FC Nuremberg - FC Schalke 04
Elsewhere, Eugen Polanski takes on his ex-club as 1899 Hoffenheim host 1. FSV Mainz 05, Hamburger SV welcome FC Augsburg to the Imtech Arena and SV Werder Bremen attempt to return to winning ways against cellar-dwellars Greuther Fürth.
Nuremberg's Grundig Stadion will be the backdrop for two of the Bundesliga's most resilient sides of late, with the hosts unbeaten in their last six games (two wins, four draws) and visitors who have triumphed in their three most recent league outings.
Nuremberg's 2-1 win over Augsburg last week moved the club up to the relative security of eleventh in the standings, ten points clear of the relegation zone. In order to stay there, Michael Wiesinger's troops will once again be relying on Japanese livewire Hiroshi Kiyotake, who has been directly involved in over 40 per cent of his team's goals this season.
Conversely, Schalke will have to make do without their own talisman, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who hobbled off the pitch during his side's 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund last week. It's not all doom and gloom for the Royal Blues, however, as no-nonsense midfielder Jermaine Jones is free to lace up his boots once more following suspension.
The USA captain's experience was sorely missed midweek, as Schalke crashed out of the UEFA Champions League at home to Galatasaray. Nuremberg will need to be on their guard, with the visitors now "concentrating fully on securing fourth or even third place in order to compete in the Champions League again," according to midfielder Julian Draxler.
1899 Hoffenheim - 1. FSV Mainz 05
Relegation battlers 1899 Hoffenheim will be hoping to build on last weekend’s positive result in Fürth in their Bundesliga survival plight, but will be hard-pressed against 1. FSV Mainz 05, who have only lost once since the winter break.
A 3-0 win over fellow cellar-dwellers Greuther Fürth, which moved 1899 within nine points of safety, has done the Sinsheim side a world of good in terms of their confidence. “You could really feel the sense of achievement in training this week,” said head coach Marco Kurz, who will be without American international Fabian Johnson and centre-back David Abraham on Saturday. “The team believe in themselves, their abilities, the club and of course that they will stay up.”
Strong on the road
However, that result will all be in vain if they can’t maintain their momentum at home to their unpredictable opponents this weekend. “Mainz 05 are known for a lot of tactical changes under Thomas Tuchel,” admitted Kurz, whose counterpart was quick to warn his players against becoming complacent. “We shouldn’t pack our bags believing a win is compulsory just because of their position in the table,” said Tuchel. “However, we are required to provide a top performance.”
Adam Szalai and Co. are unbeaten in three on their travels though. “The fact we’re capable of consistently picking up points away from home is a quality that we have earned,” said Tuchel, whose side will be going up against a familiar face in the form of Eugen Polanski, who swapped Mainz for Hoffenheim during the winter break. Talking to bundesliga.com, the 26-year-old admitted the encounter would have a “special” feeling, but was adamant it “wouldn’t play a role on the pitch”.
Hamburger SV - FC Augsburg
Hamburger SV are set to play host to a South Korean showdown on Saturday afternoon as Heung-Min Son and Co. welcome an FC Augsburg side containing Ja-Cheol Koo and Dong-Won Ji to the Imtech Arena on Matchday 26.
Koo and Ji have been instrumental in Augsburg’s rise from the foot of the table since the turn of the year, yet neither were able to work their magic in last weekend's 2-1 defeat against 1.FC Nuremberg in the Bavarian derby, which has left Markus Weinzierl’s side back at square one on their quest for survival. “Last weekend’s defeat means we travel to Hamburg with a fire in our bellies,” said Augsburg’s coach. “We know that we can pick up points there.”
"Great fun playing in the Bundesliga
Augsburg lost 2-0 at home to Hamburg earlier this season, leaving them with a score to settle, according to Koo. “It’s our turn now - we need every point we can get,” he said in a joint interview with Son on his club’s website. “I can understand that, but of course I expect the three points,” replied the Hamburg forward, who is not going to show any mercy on his compatriot. “I want to win every game, plus we are on international duty together next week and I don’t want any winding up (from Koo).”
One thing the South Koreans can agree on, even if they have differing views on the ideal scoreline this weekend, is that more and more fans are switching on to the Bundesliga. “The Bundesliga is one of the best leagues in the world with great clubs, super players and the stadiums are always full with a fantastic atmosphere,” said Koo. “That’s true,” chipped in Son. “It’s great fun playing in the Bundesliga.” Whether he will still have a smile on his face at 17:15 on Saturday remains to be seen.
SV Werder Bremen - Greuther Fürth
There will be a new face in the Bundesliga this weekend when Frank Kramer takes his place on the Greuther Fürth bench for the first time, seeking a start to savour at SV Werder Bremen, without not losing touch with reality.
Kramer is the third coach to try his hand at the Bavarian club this season, and while part of him and the Fürth fans hope it will be a case of third time lucky after Mike Büskens and Ludwig Preis, realism outweighs the optimism. Kramer knows he has ultimately been brought in to mould a side who can return to the Bundesliga at the first time of asking in the event of relegation in the summer.
Pride over glory
“After the match, we want to be able to look in the mirror and be able to say we did all we could,” said Kramer, who is demanding a dignified end to what has been a difficult first season in the top flight of German football for the Clover Leaves. “We want the fans, the club and everybody around to be able to identify with what we have got to show them in the next few weeks. The lads have got to give it all they’ve got. We want to make things uncomfortable for Bremen.”
Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf is taking that for granted, admitting he has no idea what to expect from the former 1899 Hoffenheim reserve-team coach. “Everybody’s written them off already so now they’ve got no pressure on them at all,” he said. The pressure is on his own side, on the other hand, after picking up just a single point from their last four matches. Schaaf can therefore be glad that Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Sebastian Prödl are both available again after suspension.