Cologne - In terms of both heavyweight status and current aspirations there is little doubt as to the standout fixture of Bundesliga Matchday 2, with FC Schalke 04 playing host to FC Bayern München in Saturday's late kick-off (17.30 GMT / 18:30 CEST).
Höwedes and Co. out to make amends
Having successfully negotiated VfL Wolfsburg for starters, defending champions Bayern now straight away face another of the sides widely expected to be in the mix at the sharp end of the action over the months ahead in the form of Schalke, third-place finishers last season. The Royal Blues, for their part, have made a less than auspicious start to the current campaign, following up on a DFB Cup first round exit at the hands of 3. Liga side Dynamo Dresden with a 2-1 defeat at Hannover 96 in their opening league assignment.
FIFA World Cup winner was certainly none too thrilled with the overall showing at the HDI Arena, where the visitors had gone in front through Klaas-Jan Huntelaar early in the second half. “We were careless about protecting our lead. There was too much egotism and not enough teamwork up front. I find that inexplicable,” the skipper said bluntly. In front of a home crowd at the packed-out Veltins Arena, Schalke now have the ideal opportunity to turn things around in high style but needless to say, against Bayern that is a lot more easily said than done.
At any rate, and notwithstanding the straight-talking post-match criticism by Höwedes, Huntelaar and “extremely annoyed” head coach Jens Keller among others, the performance against Hannover was in itself already a step up from the evening of cup woe in Dresden. With the other Schalke member of Germany's triumphal squad in Brazil, also getting back up to speed after having missed the bulk of pre-season training, the players have swiftly refocused on the very different task in hand against Bayern. Home advantage notwithstanding they go into this one as clear underdogs, a position which may actually suit them just fine under the circumstances, particularly after they were drawn in a tough UEFA Champions League group along with Chelsea FC, Sporting Clube de Portugal and NK Maribor.
World Cup warriors up and running already
Bayern meanwhile, themselves up against Manchester City FC, PFC CSKA Moskva and AS Roma in the Champions League, are on a seven-game home-and-away winning roll against the Gelsenkirchen outfit, a streak they are naturally enough intent on further extending this Saturday. By default, the events of the summer have had a singularly disruptive effect on the record champions' own preparations. Six of the side who started against Wolfsburg made the semi-finals or beyond at the World Cup and consequently went into the new Bundesliga campaign with just a couple of weeks training under their belt.
Two of them, Thomas Müller and Arjen Robben, bagged the goals that downed the Wolves and although head coach Pep Guardiola has more than once stressed that it will be some time yet before his charges can be expected to hit anything like top gear, Bayern appear to be shifting rapidly upwards at an impressive rate already. One of Germany's new world champions who missed out on the start of the campaign, due to suspension, was Jerome Boateng. The central defender hopes to be back in the thick of the action at Schalke, however, renewing the on-field acquaintanceship with his brother Kevin-Prince. The Royal Blues' midfielder maestro has himself been struggling with an early-season combination of a stomach bug and ankle injury, and his return to fitness and influential form can hardly come soon enough for player and club alike.
Familiar territory for Neuer
On the subject of returns, Gelsenkirchen is of course the home town of Manuel Neuer, and Schalke the club where he progressed through the youth ranks to domestic and international stardom before swapping the Ruhr district for Munich in 2011. Running out at his former stomping ground is and will always be “something a bit special” for the world keeper of the year.
But while he is looking forward to meeting up again with fellow World Cup winners Höwedes and Draxler, not to mention numerous former clubmates, Neuer will be putting the nostalgia firmly on ice for the duration of what has all the makings of a pulsating Bundesliga encounter.