Cologne - Saturday could prove to be a crucial day at both ends of the Bundesliga table, with European hopefuls Bayer 04 Leverkusen, FC Schalke 04 and FC Augsburg all taking on sides scrapping for their lives near the foot of the standings (kick-off 15:30 CEST / 13:30 GMT).
FC Schalke 04 - SC Freiburg
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Time is running out for Schalke if they are to secure their place in next season’s UEFA Champions League. The Royal Blues trail fourth-place Bayer 04 Leverkusen by eight points going into this weekend’s encounter with struggling SC Freiburg, who have eased their relegation fears in recent weeks with two straight victories in the league.
“Freiburg give you very little space, they are very compact with two banks of four and are also strong on the counter-attack,” said Knappen head coach Roberto Di Matteo. “For us, it’s important that we create space in order to fashion goalscoring opportunities.” Di Matteo has yet to decide whether Julian Draxler, who has been sidelined since November with a thigh injury, will feature against the Black Forest club, but Jefferson Farfan could be handed a starting berth for the first time in over a year.
Schalke ‘can explode’
Despite successive league wins over FC Augsburg and 1. FC Köln, Christian Streich’s Freiburg could find themselves back in the bottom three if they lose at the Veltins Arena and other results go against them this weekend. However, die Breisgauer travel to Gelsenkirchen buoyed by their performance in Tuesday’s , in which the hosts struggled to break down their well-organised opponents.
“I think we played a good game and can take a lot of confidence from that match,” said midfielder Felix Klaus. “[Our performance] gives us a lot of belief for the relegation battle.” Head coach Streich, meanwhile, is wary of the threat posed by the Ruhr district club, despite their indifferent league form. “Schalke are always hard to predict,” he said. “But with the players at their disposal, they can explode at any time.”
1. FSV Mainz 05 - Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Leverkusen will be looking to bounce back from Wednesday’s when they visit a Mainz side unbeaten in their last four league games. Indeed, the carnival club have lost only one of their six Bundesliga outings under Martin Schmidt, establishing a six-point cushion between themselves and the bottom three in the process.
“Mainz are one of the trickiest teams in the division,” Werkself coach Roger Schmidt said at his pre-match press conference. “They are a very hard-working side, particularly in front of their own fans. We’ve got a very tough match in front of us.” Apart from the suspended Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Schmidt has no fresh injury concerns ahead of the trip to the Coface Arena.
‘Home advantage’ could be key for Mainz
The 48-year-old’s namesake Martin, meanwhile, is without the services of Niko Bungert (calf), Jonas Hofmann (knee), Gonzalo Jara and Christian Clemens (both groin) for the visit of Leverkusen. However, only one of the injury-stricken quartet - Bungert - was involved in last weekend’s goalless draw at SV Werder Bremen, meaning the Mainz boss could field a similar team to the one that left the Weser-Stadion with a point.
“We have to try and counterbalance Leverkusen’s strengths with hard work and passion,” explained Schmidt, who replaced predecessor Kasper Hjulmand in February. Leverkusen are one of the strongest teams in the league and they are used to englische Wochen. We have to make the most of our home advantage.”
SC Paderborn 07 - FC Augsburg
Beleaguered Paderborn go into their clash with Augsburg searching for their first league victory - and their first goal - since Matchday 21’s win over Hannover 96. Last season’s Bundesliga 2 runners-up have been dropping like a stone since that 2-1 success back in February and currently find themselves in 17th place - four points from guaranteed safety.
“We were very disappointed after the defeat to Hertha [on Matchday 27],” admitted head coach Andre Breitenreiter on Thursday. “But it’s important to keep a cool head in our current situation. We need to look forward, stay positive and believe in ourselves. The team will give their all again on Saturday, backed by our fantastic fans.”
Weinzierl eyes return to winning ways
Sixth-place Augsburg, meanwhile, are enduring a barren spell of their own, having failed to find the back of the net since their 1-0 victory over VfL Wolfsburg on Matchday 24, but Markus Weinzierl’s side could be boosted by the return of Abdul Rahman Baba, who has shaken off a toe injury and is likely to be handed a starting berth at the Benteler-Arena.
“I’m expecting a very intensive, hard-fought game,” said Weinzierl ahead of the trip to East Westphalia. “Paderborn will do everything to get the three points in front of their own fans, but we need to make sure we get back to winning ways in order to stay in touch with the teams above us.”