Cologne - It's getting tense at the top of the Bundesliga as the final straight of the season approaches and the finishing line comes within sight.
FC Schalke 04 - TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
With that comes the hope of grasping a ticket to Europe next season, and the scramble for trips around the continent is the focus of this Saturday's Bundesliga action (kick-off 15:30 CET / 14:30 GMT).
bundesliga.com previews three key matches involving Europe-chasing sides…
Schalke's bid to make it a hat-trick of successive appearances in the UEFA Champions League suffered a setback in last weekend's Revierderby defeat, but they are keen to put that disappointment behind them and sharpen their focus on a top-four finish when they host Hoffenheim. "We need everybody to show their character now," said sporting director Horst Heldt.
"We're thinking positive and the thought of losing this game has not even crossed our minds," said a defiant coach Roberto Di Matteo. "I'm convinced the team will deliver a good performance." That is what the 60,000 fans inside the Veltins Arena will be hoping for too as they prepare for a pivotal week in the club's season. After hosting Hoffenheim, the Royal Blues head to Madrid for the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.
Hoffenheim eye third straight win
It has been a successful week for opponents Hoffenheim, on the other hand. A 2-0 win over 1. FSV Mainz 05 in the Bundesliga last weekend was followed by victory by the same scoreline against Bundesliga 2 outfit VfR Aalen in the DFB Cup on Tuesday.
"Now we will give everything we can to get something from Schalke," said their coach Markus Gisdol, who is sweating over the fitness of Tarik Eyounoussi and Jin-Su Kim. "Kim's got a calf strain," explained the 45-year-old. "We hope he'll make it, but it's touch and go. If he doesn't make it, Jeremy Tojlan's definitely an option."
SC Freiburg - SV Werder Bremen
Nils Petersen would have been at the centre of attention when SC Freiburg face SV Werder Bremen this weekend, but a knee ligament injury means he will miss the battle of his current and former clubs.
The former FC Bayern München forward switched allegiances in January and sent out a clear signal of his intent with a hat-trick on his debut, but has since failed to find the back of the net. "Bremen is my second home," Petersen told werder.de."I am in regular contact with a lot of players. I speak on the phone a lot with Clemens Fritz and Felix Kroos. I sent a text saying good luck."
Much has changed since Petersen made the move south with Bremen marching up to mid-table and Freiburg rising just one position in the league standings. "I believe that everyone in Freiburg would happily swap places with Bremen," Petersen added. "I think Werder have given themselves enough of a cushion not to be relegation contenders anymore."
While Freiburg advanced to the last eight of the DFB Cup , Bremen were by third-tier side DSC Arminia Bielefeld. "That game is in the past now," said Bremen coach Viktor Skripnik. "We've got Freiburg now and we're fully focused on this game." Petersen, for one, is expecting a response from die Werderaner at the Schwarzwald-Stadion this weekend: "They will be like a wounded boxer," he predicted. "Viktor Skripnik will fire up his team. For both teams it will definitely be a pivotal match."
FC Augsburg - VfL Wolfsburg
FC Augsburg coach Markus Weinzierl insists his side still have enough air in their lungs to resurrect their unlikely assault on a place in Europe. A run of just two points from their last four league games has seen die Fuggerstädter slip five points behind Borussia Mönchengladbach, who occupy the third and final automatic UEFA Champions League qualifying berth.
"We're not out of breath at all," he said when confronted with his side's dip in form since beating Borussia Dortmund on Matchday 19. "It just happens that things don't always go according to plan." Despite the Bavarians' recent slump, Wolves coach Dieter Hecking is wary of a side that have been beaten just twice at home this season.
"With their fans behind them, they're going to give it everything they can to get back into a positive frame of mind," said Hecking ahead of his team's trip to the SGL-Arena. "We've got to be ready for it." Hecking may opt to rotate his side ahead of Thursday's clash with Internazionale Milano in the UEFA Europa League last 16, with Andre Schürrle likely to come in.
However, Hecking is not letting the prospect of a two-legged encounter with the 2010 Champions League winners distract his players. "I can't see any risk of that," he said. "We need to do our homework in the league and reach our goals there. All the rest is a bonus. A win here would be a huge step towards qualifying for the Champions League, and the players know that."