Munich - The Bundesliga returns after a two-week break, heading into the final straight with European and relegation issues to be resolved over the coming seven weeks.
FC Schalke 04 v 1899 Hoffenheim
And with nine games crammed into the space of little over 24 hours this weekend, a few things could start to look a little clearer come Monday. bundesliga.com previews the Saturday fixtures...
Schalke will show Hoffenheim no mercy as they seek three points to strengthen their UEFA Champions League claim. Captain , who was forced to pull out of the Germany squad in midweek due to a thigh strain, hopes to be fit again to help the Royal Blues back into Europe’s elite club competition.
“I speak on behalf of the whole team when I say: we want back into the Champions League,” he said on his club’s website. “The competition is so interesting and it’s so enjoyable. It’s got to be our aim to play in the Champions League again, and for that goal, only wins will do.”
Down but not out
Meanwhile, Hoffenheim’s only aim is to ensure their Bundesliga survival. Already nine points from safety, only victory will do for the visitors as well. “We’ve got to be courageous and probe them,” said coach Marco Kurz.
The game sees Japanese compatriots Takashi Usami and come up against each other, while all eyes will also be on Schalke midfielder , who has recovered from concussion after a clash of heads while on international duty for Germany.
SC Freiburg v Borussia Mönchengladbach
Both teams are in the hunt for a place in Europe next season, although the contrast in their pre-match form could not be greater.
Freiburg have conceded ten goals in losing their last two games, while their last win dates back over a month. Gladbach, meanwhile, have not lost any of their last four, picking up eight points to boost their European qualification hopes.
Foals at a canter
With the season entering its business end, Gladbach coach Lucien Favre was keen to urge his troops on for one last push. “We’ve got eight games to go and meet lots of our nearest rivals along the way, so we need to be focused,” said the Swiss strategist. “We want to carry on picking up the points.” After a slow start to 2013, the Foals are now at a canter, thanks in part to the blistering form of .
The nippy winger earned a call-up to the senior Germany squad earlier this week and, although he did not feature in the 4-1 win over Kazakhstan, his involvement was recognition of his and Gladbach's rising fortunes. “The second half of the season was hard to start with and the schedule was tough with European games, but the team responded well and the 1-1 with Dortmund, and particularly the win in Frankfurt were good for us psychologically,” said Favre.
FC Augsburg v Hannover 96
FC Augsburg will be out to continue their blistering form in 2013, and hope the international break has not thrown a spanner in the works. Only the league's top two have collected more points since the turn of the year than the Bavarians, but they still have plenty to do to avoid the claws of relegation.
“We want to carry on the momentum we had before the international break and beat Hannover,” said Augsburg coach Markus Weinzierl. “We’ve now created a situation in which we’re capable of reaching our goals, but we still have to put in a lot of effort and push ourselves to the limit in every game we play." and will spearhead the home team’s search for more vital points.
However, with just 11 points collected at the SGL Arena so far this season, Augsburg’s home form has been their Achilles heel. Fortunately for them, Hannover have not fared any better on their travels: Mirko Slomka’s side have the division's worst record on foreign soil.
Club top scorer Mame Diouf misses out through suspension, but with Jan Schlaudraff, Didier Ya Konan, Artur Sobiech and Mohammed Abdellaoue, there is no shortage of options to replace him. “We’ve tried many alternatives and we’ll pick the best,” said Slomka, whose Hannover side has never been beaten by Augsburg.
1. FSV Mainz 05 v SV Werder Bremen
Despite Mainz sitting on the brink of UEFA Europa League qualification in sixth place, coach Thomas Tuchel is taking nothing for granted against free-falling Bremen, who are hovering just six points above the relegation zone.
“There’s always a risk when you face Bremen,” he said. “We’re fully aware that we’ve got to be at our best if we want to beat them.” The hosts are well-placed to do just that having embarked on a six-game unbeaten streak since losing to FC Bayern Munich on Matchday 20.
Bremen can only dream of producing form like that, having earned just two points in their last five outings. “There’s no getting away from it, people are starting to worry,” said coach Thomas Schaaf. “The league table reflects our situation the way it is."
That is not to say the visitors, whose misfiring squad is packed with experienced internationals, are ready to throw the towel in just yet. "The whole team stepped it up a gear in our final training session and played at a good pace. It was good," concluded Schaaf.