Cologne - As the Bundesliga heads into the second half of the season, there are only a few teams that can afford not to look nervously over their shoulders as what promises to be the tightest relegation scramble on record comes to a head.
Only four points separate the bottom nine clubs, with Eintracht Frankfurt and eighth-placed Hannover 96 not entirely out of the woods yet either. This weekend sees some intriguing battles at the bottom end of the table and with half of the Bundesliga still fighting for their lives, bundesliga.com takes a closer look at what's at stake on Saturday.
Hamburger SV – 1. FC Köln
All eyes will be on the returning Ivica Olic when Bundesliga strugglers Hamburger SV and 1. FC Köln lock horns at the Imtech Arena. The Croatian international completed his return to the Red Shorts from Wolfsburg on Friday, just in time to make his second debut for the north German club. "I'm delighted to be coming back home," said Olic, who will wear the number eight shirt in his second stint for the Bundesliga ever-presents. During his first spell on the banks of the River Alster between 2007 and 2009, Olic netted 29 goals in 78 appearances – just one more than the number he scored in the same amount of games for the Wolves.
In a Sunshine State of mind
Bidding to keep him at bay on his 79th appearance for Hamburg will be Timo Horn, who was not beaten for a total of 365 minutes at the start of the season, laying the foundations for the Billy Goats' solid first half year back in the big time. That was followed by an eye-catching triumph in the Florida Cup over the winter, and expectations are understandably high going into the Rückrunde. "We're very positive and are looking forward to the challenges ahead," said coach Peter Stöger who, despite harbouring hope for one more signing to arrive this winter, says he has "total faith in our current squad" to realise their aims.
SC Freiburg – Eintracht Frankfurt
Eight points separate Freiburg at the foot of the table from Frankfurt in ninth and with the games coming thick and fast in the Bundesliga this week - Matchday 19 takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday - a couple of victories could soon haul the hosts up the standings. That would be an ideal scenario for Freiburg captain Julian Schuster, who is taking things one step at a time. "We've got big challenges ahead," he said. "We've got to be incredibly united as a team in order pick up our points." And that first task is to stop the league's top scorer Alexander Meier and the most prolific attack in the Bundesliga after FC Bayern München.
With 13 goals in 16 appearances this season, Meier is in the form of his life. Indeed, both he and his club can reflect on plenty of positives so far this term, but the Eagles are taking nothing for granted given their recent history. In the 2010/11 campaign they had 26 points on the board and were flying high in seventh place at the midway stage of a season which ended in relegation. "We only managed to pick up eight points over the course of the Rückrunde so we were relegated," Meier told bundesliga.com in an exclusive interview. "Lose a couple and the teams below win, it can get really tight."
1. FSV Mainz 05 – SC Paderborn
The respective goal tallies of Mainz and Paderborn this season stand at 19 and 21, meaning Saturday's clash at the Coface Arena can hardly be described as one between the Bundesliga's biggest hitters. Nevertheless, Mainz coach Kasper Hjulmand is optimistic that the dam will soon break. Shinji Okazaki netted five goals in Mainz's first five games of 2014/15 as they hit the ground running back in August, but the Japanese international has since found the back of the net only three more times. "It's like a bottle of ketchup," Hjulmand said. "It may take a while to get something out of it to start with, but when it comes, it really comes."
Lakic on board
His Paderborn counterpart Andre Breitenreiter will be hoping for something similar given that his side lies in acute relegation danger. There is one pertinent difference between the two sides, however: Paderborn were favourites to go down at the start of the season, Mainz were not. "We're still the number one relegation candidates," said Breitenreiter. "But we want to defy that. We've got a big heart, team spirit and are staying calm." They also now have a new forward to lead the line after the arrival of Srdjan Lakic from 1. FC Kaiserslautern. "He's a top-class goalscorer who's great in the air, from crosses or set pieces and he's going to make us more potent," said Breitenreiter.