Leverkusen - They were two of the more impressive sides of the first season-half, but Bayer 04 Leverkusen take on Hertha Berlin on Sunday (kick-off 13:30 GMT/15:30 CEST) with each having won just one of their last nine games in the Bundesliga.
Lewandowski eyeing fresh tactical options
In the hosts' case, that form slump has seen them slip from being odds-on favourites for a direct UEFA Champions League berth to finding themselves in the midst of a three- or four-way tussle for a qualifying shot at Europe's top table. That in turn led to the parting of ways with head coach Sami Hyypiä last week, with his former touchline partner Sascha Lewandowski given the task of getting Bayer back on track and hopefully helping them secure that precious fourth-place finish.
Best acquainted as he already is with the senior squad, Lewandowski has devoted his first days in the job to “some intensive, detailed work. The team have responded well, but the acid test will come with our performance out on the pitch on Sunday.” Without giving too much away at the pre-match press conference, he did indicate a possible change in strategy, noting: “We want to get a bit more flexibility into our play and we've already taken a small step in that direction over the course of the week.”
On an individual level, Lewandowski stressed that “everyone's starting from scratch again and needs to show a willingness to go right to the limit” - starting post-haste with the “first of five finals,” as striker Stefan Kießling put it, against Hertha. Last season's Bundesliga top scorer will be looking to add to his own current tally of 14, while Sidney Sam could be good for at least a place on the bench again after completing full training on Thursday and Friday. On the downside, midfielder Stefan Reinartz has a calf operation upcoming next week and has already been ruled out for the rest of the season.
Hertha with handy BayArena formsheet
Opponents Hertha are meanwhile having to come to terms with the fact that their own top goalgetter, Adrian Ramos, will be plying his trade for Borussia Dortmund next season. On 16 goals, the Colombian is still in with every chance of taking his leave of Berlin with the individual top scorer's cannon in his luggage, but he is sidelined for the trip to Leverkusen with a thigh muscle injury. That could open a rare starting berth for Sandro Wagner, while further back the pitch Tolga Cigerci is set to resume midfield duties following suspension.
Theoretically, Hertha could still squeeze into a Europa League place – as indeed, they could yet be relegated. Steering definitively clear of the latter scenario remains the priority for Jos Luhukay's men and a win at Leverkusen would take them a huge step closer to that goal. With just one defeat in their last seven away games against Bayer, and none in the four most recent, Hertha can head west in reasonable hope of spoiling Lewandowski's first day back in the hotseat. On the other hand, Luhukay himself has faced Leverkusen five times as a player and coach in the Bundesliga – and lost the lot.
Leverkusen: Leno - Donati, Spahic, Toprak, Can - L. Bender, Rolfes - Brandt, Castro, Son - Kießling
Hertha: Kraft - Pekarik, S. Langkamp, Brooks, J. van den Bergh - Hosogai, Cigerci - Allagui, Skjelbred, Ben-Hatira - Wagner