Cologne - As it begins, so may it continue. Back from the winter recess, the Bundesliga takes its 2015 bow in high style as second-placed VfL Wolfsburg lock horns with defending champions FC Bayern München at the Volkswagen Arena this Friday evening (kick-off 19:30 GMT / 20:30 CET).
Crunch games for big-name strugglers
With 11 points currently separating the sides it may not exactly be the most high-stakes top-of-the-table tussle in the history of the top flight, but neither is the race for the title by any means won or lost yet. For the Wolves it is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate further their credentials as the coming force in German football – preferably by inflicting a first league defeat of the campaign on the visitors.
While Bayern's now traditional January jaunt to Doha passed off without a hitch, the Wolfsburg players and staff had to absorb the shock of the tragic death in a motorway accident of their young Belgian midfielder Junior Malanda. That remains an on-going process, begun at their own training camp in South Africa – a commitment which players and management latterly agreed it had been right to honour, despite the difficult circumstances.
The action continues apace on Saturday, with a couple of particularly intriguing encounters between high-fliers and big-name strugglers. In the afternoon, fourth-placed Borussia Mönchengladbach travel to VfB Stuttgart, currently hovering just above the bottom three. Lucien Favre's Foals have been in fine fettle this season and while the same can hardly be said of Stuttgart, who have hired Huub Stevens for the second year running specifically to haul them clear of the drop zone, a win for the home side would tellingly take them to within seven points of their UEFA Champions League-chasing opponents.
Every point counts
In a tightly-packed division it is a similar scenario at the BayArena, where second-from-bottom Borussia Dortmund hope to finally kick-start a thus far astoundingly unsuccessful league campaign. Hosts Bayer 04 Leverkusen, sandwiched between Wolfsburg and Gladbach in the third automatic Champions League qualifying berth, naturally enough have no intention of contributing to the earmarked BVB revival. The other Ruhr district giants, FC Schalke 04, also very much in the Champions League mix, meanwhile have home advantage against eighth-place Hannover 96, whose somewhat improved form on the road this season leaves them in with a shout of claiming the win that would pull them level with the Royal Blues on 27 points.
Sunday's games both pitch direct rivals in the standings head-to-head. First SV Werder Bremen, currently occupying the relegation play-off slot, go up against Hertha Berlin, three places but just a single point above them. Then FC Augsburg, sitting pretty in sixth, round out the Matchday 18 programme at home to 1899 Hoffenheim, a place and a point below them, in an intriguing clash of two provincial clubs gunning for a possible first appearance on the European stage.
To be continued, post-haste
And that's that... until Tuesday, which, in a novel move so early into the restart, sees the first half of a full midweek Bundesliga programme. FC Bayern have another classic heavyweight encounter in store when Schalke come calling at the Allianz Arena. The Gelsenkirchen outfit were one of only three sides able to take a point off the record champs in the Hinrunde and a repeat performance in the Bavarian capital would likely qualify as a satisfactory day's work for Roberto Di Matteo's charges.
Elsewhere, Wolfsburg travel to Eintracht Frankfurt, who under Thomas Schaaf are proving anything but dull. The first game between the sides ended 2-2, accounting for four of the eventual 68 goals in Frankfurt's 17 pre-winter break matches – a division high. On Wednesday, Hamburger SV have something to make good on when they travel to SC Paderborn, who racked up a maiden top-flight win by clouting them 3-0 in their own backyard on Matchday 2. Dortmund, meanwhile, run out in front of the famous Yellow Wall for the first time in anger this year against in-form Augsburg. That promises to be another real test of resilience for the struggling powerhouse, in this most fiercely contested league of world champions.