Munich – In terms of the top of the standings, the best is saved for last on Saturday as Bayer 04 Leverkusen entertain fellow UEFA Champions League aspirants FC Schalke 04 in the Matchday 21 late kick-off (18:30 CET) at the BayArena.
Cup setback for Bayer
Leverkusen go into the contest second in the table on 43 points, six clear of their Royal Blue visitors, whose own excellent start to 2014 has got them back within touching distance of the top-three berth that remains their season target. The Werkself meanwhile have recovered well from a restart loss at SC Freiburg, going on to rack up back-to-back wins against VfB Stuttgart and at Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Their preparation for this key encounter was far from ideal, however, as they quarter-finals at home to Bundesliga 2 promotion chasers 1. FC Kaiserslautern in midweek. “Losing's part of football, but the way we lost on Wednesday was very disappointing. The team need to show their character against Schalke now,” Bayer head coach Sami Hyypiä made clear at the pre-match press conference.
One player who will not have the opportunity to do so however is Sidney Sam, who is swapping Leverkusen for Gelsenkirchen this summer. “I've decided not to include Sid because Schalke are one of our direct rivals,” Hyypiä explained, stressing that “it has nothing to do with his performance level... It's better for Sid that he's not in the squad, I want to protect both him and ourselves.” With Eren Derdiyok definitely ruled out after straining a thigh muscle against Kaiserslautern, the coach does not have all too many options remaining to him up front, where Stefan Kießling is at any rate set to make his 300th Bundesliga appearance all-told.
Keller wary of 'tremendous individual class'
In fact, last season's league top scorer has been involved in each of the last 106 matchdays, the longest current sequence of any player in the top flight and the longest ever for a centre forward. That, Bayer's club record return of 14 wins from their opening 20 matches and all the other statistical peripherals will be put aside though once the action gets underway against Schalke, whose own head coach Jens Keller has made clear that the cup loss to Kaiserslautern “makes no difference to the high opinion we have of Leverkusen. They've got tremendous individual class and we need to find a way of disrupting their tactical order.”
The skill and leadership of Kevin-Prince Boateng is likely to be central to that endeavour and according to the midfielder, Schalke are in a very good place altogether right now: “We're enjoying it, everyone's looking for the ball and fighting for it. That's what the fans want to see. We feel we're a match for anybody right now.” Keller will be making a late call on the fitness of a few players, midfielder Roman Neustädter and forward Chinedu Obasi included. Playmaker Julian Draxler and full-back Christian Fuchs also rejoined full training during the week, but both remain highly doubtful for Saturday. On the upside, skipper Benedik Höwedes is recovering faster than expected from a thigh problem and could yet return to the heart of the defence for the big game.
Leverkusen: Leno - Hilbert, Spahic, Toprak, Can - Reinartz - Bender, Rolfes - Castro, Kießling, Son
Schalke: Fährmann - Ayhan, Matip, Felipe Santana, Kolasinac - Boateng, Neustädter - Farfan, Meyer, Obasi - Huntelaar