Augsburg - Nestled promisingly in sixth spot ahead of Matchday 25’s curtain-raiser, FC Augsburg are in for a true test of their Bundesliga credentials as they host FC Schalke 04 on Friday night (kick-off 19:30 GMT/20:30 CET).
A run of form including just has propelled Augsburg up the standings and, having picked up points against Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach, they will be keen to do the same against a Schalke side desperate to cement their spot in the top four.
Markus Weinzierl’s charges could well determine whether they settle for mid-table mediocrity or push for European qualification in the coming weeks, with their next five fixtures pitting them against teams in the top seven, starting with the Royal Blues. “We’re yet to win against a side in the top four,” admitted Weinzierl. “We need to change that and we want to take a point at the very least. We want to give Schalke a real battle.”
Indeed, Augsburg have proven on several occasions this season that a relative lack of household names on paper doesn’t necessarily equate to a weaker team on the pitch, especially at the SGL Arena. “We’re playing at home and are well aware that we can put in a very strong performance in front of our fantastic fans,” explained Jan Moravek in an interview with bundesliga.com. “We want to use our game against Schalke to gauge where we’re at and show exactly what we’re capable of.”
Keller’s injury headache
Augsburg's rise has been nothing short of extraordinary and “a result of our dedication and hard work”, according to veteran forward Halil Altintop. However, head coach Weinzierl knows there’s plenty left to be done. “In the last ten years no team has been relegated after collecting 38 points,” said the 39-year-old, who is still without first-team regulars Paul Verhaegh and Sascha Mölders. “However, we’re not about to sit back and relax. We want to collect as many points as possible.”
The Royal Blues, however, present a considerable roadblock on their point-guzzling path this weekend. Head coach Jens Keller admitted that Augsburg have done a “superb job and deserve their place in the table”, but wants his side to “impose [our] attacking quality” on Friday night. Easier said than done considering the club’s current injury crisis, with Keller forced to make do without seven first-team regulars, including Atsuto Uchida, Felipe Santana and Jefferson Farfan.
Royal purple patch
Despite the numerous absentees, Schalke have managed to collect five league wins from a possible seven since the turn of the year, firing themselves back into the UEFA Champions League qualification spots. A 4-0 win over 1899 Hoffenheim last weekend, thanks in large part to Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s hat-trick, not only served as the perfect response to a drubbing at the hands of league leaders FC Bayern München but also moved them five points clear of fifth-placed VfL Wolfsburg.
That was of little interest to Keller in his pre-match press conference, however. “It’s important that we do our own homework first,” said the 43-year-old. “I’m expecting a very, very difficult game. Andre Hahn and Tobias Werner, in particular, play at an incredible pace. We’ve got to make sure we give Augsburg absolutely no room to manoeuvre.”
Augsburg: Manninger - Vogt, Callsen-Bracker, Klavan, Ostrzolek - Baier - Hahn, Moravek, Halil Altintop, T. Werner - Bobadilla
Schalke: Fährmann - Hoogland, Höwedes, Matip, Kolasinac - K.-P. Boateng, Neustädter - Obasi, Meyer, Draxler - Huntelaar
Check out how Klaas-Jan Huntelaar almost squandered the chance to bag his hat-trick against Hoffenheim on the Bundesliga's official YouTube channel: