Mönchengladbach - Matchday 32 of the Bundesliga's 50th season gets underway with Borussia Mönchengladbach playing host to FC Schalke 04 at a long since sold-out Borussia Park on Friday evening (kick-off 20:30 CEST).
Tight tussle for fourth
The Foals, currently seventh in the table on 44 points, can move to within two of their fourth-place visitors with a victory and take a significant step closer to qualification for the Europa League in the process. For their part, Schalke need the win every bit as much to keep Frankfurt, Freiburg - and indeed Gladbach themselves - at arm's length in the race for the Champions League qualifying slot.
The Royal Blues are also the only team now capable of overtaking Leverkusen to squeeze into the top three, although to do so, they would have to overturn a seven-point deficit and far inferior goal difference over the three remaining rounds of action. That, then, would be a distinct bonus but skipper has made it clear where the priority lies: "The battle for fourth place is still wide open...[..]... At Mönchengladbach we need to be as committed and single-minded as we were against Hamburg."
Last weekend's 4-1 home win against the Red Shorts got Schalke back on the rails after disappointing back-to-back contests with two direct rivals. A 2-2 draw at home to Leverkusen, albeit more of a point earned than two lost as they battled back from two goals down, was followed by a single-goal loss on the road at Eintracht Frankfurt. That left the Eagles breathing right down Schalke's neck again, engendering the inevitable talk of a mini-crisis in the making.
Hunter on target again
Instead, the Royal Blues pulled one of their best performances of the season out of the bag against yet another European aspirant, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar returning with a bang after seven weeks on the sidelines as he set up Schalke's first goal before scoring the other three himself. It has been a frustrating campaign for last season's Bundesliga top scorer, but he is as determined as his team-mates to end it on a high by securing Champions League qualification, to which end "we still need to win three more matches, starting at Gladbach on Friday."
Lucien Favre meanwhile has the recipe for success against Schalke mapped out and it's a simple one, although with quality ingredients: "We have to play like FC Bayern did at Barcelona." Above all, the Foals coach wants to see his charges emulate Bayern's strategy when their opponents had possession, where "they tracked back really quickly, and always had ten men behind the ball."
Gladbach on the rebound
Opponents Schalke, says Favre, are "one of the best teams in Germany," particularly effective on the break and from set pieces, but "like every other side in the world, they have their weak points as well." Havard Nordtveit will not be among the players trying to exploit those, the Norwegian midfielder having missed training all week due to illness.
As to whether Mike Hanke and Peniel Mlapa will once again spearhead the attack, as they did for last weekend's disappointing 3-1 loss at Wolfsburg, Favre was keeping those cards close to his chest at the pre-match press conference. One thing he did make clear, however, was that on the subject of possible qualification for Europe, "There's no point in conjecturing about all the various scenarios. We've got to focus solely on this game."
Mönchengladbach: ter Stegen - Jantschke, Stranzl, Alvaro Dominguez, Daems - Marx, G. Xhaka - Herrmann, Arango - Hanke, Mlapa
Schalke: Hildebrand - Uchida, Höwedes, Matip, Kolasinac - Neustädter, J. Jones - Michel Bastos, Raffael, Draxler - Huntelaar