The Bundesliga delivered its usual dose of high-octane football on Matchday 20, with a number of surprises thrown in to boot.
bundesliga.com wraps up another intriguing weekend of top-flight action.
Rising star: Joshua Kimmich
Hope can spring from an emergency and that has been the case at FC Bayern München, where injuries to Jerome Boateng, Javi Martinez, Medhi Benatia and Serdar Tasci forced coach Pep Guardiola to improvise and pull Joshua Kimmich out of the hat. The midfielder by trade played his second game alongside Holger Badstuber at the heart of the Bayern defence, and was faced with the in-form pairing of Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez and Stefan Kießling. "Just look who he was up against, yet neither of them got a sniff," said Guardiola of the VfB Stuttgart youth product, who turns 21 on Monday. "Kimmich played a fantastic game. I have to pay him a huge compliment."
Boateng in disguise?
Germany's assistant coach Thomas Schneider was at the BayArena on Saturday, taking a closer look at Jonathan Tah, a man earmarked to fill in for Boateng if the Bayern stopper does not recover from injury in time for UEFA EURO 2016. The 19-year-old's dominant display enhanced his burgeoning reputation. "Yes, I knew he [Schneider] was here, but I'm just focused on Leverkusen," Tah said after taming Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller. "Yes, Germany is my aim. Right now, though, we have important DFB Cup, Bundesliga and [UEFA] Europa League games, and my focus is on those." More barnstorming displays and the former Hamburger SV star will be a prime candidate for a ticket on the plane to France.
Hertha's solid foundations...
Speaking of defensive solidity, Hertha Berlin proved masters of the art on Saturday by preventing free-scoring Borussia Dortmund, including the league's top-scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, from finding the net in the capital. BVB coach Thomas Tuchel correctly predicted that Hertha would not play with a five-man defence on home turf, but the alternative proposed by Pal Dardai was equally efficient, if not more so, in keeping Die Schwarz-Gelben at bay. "We did a lot right and got a point against a top team," said Sebastian Langkamp, who was at the heart of that barricade. "It's a sign of quality when you can keep a really good Dortmund team in check."
...leave Dortmund short of ideas
Langkamp and Co. did not just keep a really good Dortmund team in check, but became the first side to stop Tuchel's men from scoring all season in the Bundesliga. "We had problems finding our rhythm," said Tuchel. "We also had problems finding the spaces to create danger in the opponent's half and so it took us a while to get into the game." After an uncharacteristically poor display against FC Ingolstadt 04 on Matchday 19 and then this stalemate in Berlin, there could be more nerves than expected among the BVB fans who travel to watch their side face in-form VfB Stuttgart in the DFB Cup on Tuesday evening.
Stuttgart on a roll
Stuttgart climbed to 11th - their highest position of the season - on Matchday 20 with an emphatic 4-2 win at Eintracht Frankfurt. Since Jürgen Kramny took charge prior to the winter break, Die Schwaben have not looked back: Four wins in a row mean they are now closer to the top six than the bottom two. Attacking midfielder Daniel Didavi, who equalled his best haul for a single season with his ninth goal of the campaign on Saturday, is leading the merry dance, with Filip Kostic on the left humming the same tune. The arrival of Kevin Großkreutz has brought more zip down the wing, while captain Christian Gentner is pulling the strings in the middle. "You can see we have considerably more self-confidence," said Didavi by way of explanation for his side's recent purple patch.
Schalke to the fore
With the top four sharing a point apiece in their meetings, FC Schalke 04 were the major beneficiaries this weekend, throwing their hat into the ring for a return to the UEFA Champions League next season. A 3-0 win over VfL Wolfsburg was as impressive as they come, with Die Königsblauen celebrating back-to-back wins for the first time since a four-game winning streak between Matchdays 4 and 7. Andre Breitenreiter's troops currently sit fourth with just two points to make up on Hertha above them and - more importantly - have momentum building. "This is bound to give us a lot of self-confidence for our upcoming tests," said the coach. "It was a fantastic performance."
Gladbach end Friday hoodoo
Coming into Matchday 20's opener against SV Werder Bremen, Borussia Mönchengladbach had failed even to score in any of their previous six Friday night encounters (D1, L5). Andre Schubert's men ended their hoodoo in eye-catching fashion, however, putting Die Grün-Weißen to the sword and notching a 5-1 victory at BORUSSIA-PARK. Young centre-half Andreas Christensen added to the hype currently surrounding him with an excellent brace, while forward pairing Lars Stindl and Raffael also got on the scoresheet. There may be tougher tests to come, but with their Friday night struggles at an end, Gladbach have little to fear in the second half of the season.
Little light at the end of the tunnel for Schaaf
Thomas Schaaf was aware he was accepting a challenge when he took the reins of Hannover 96 during the winter break, but perhaps not even he expected things to turn as bleak as they have for the Reds. Three defeats in a row since the turn of the year, and three on the spin at the end of 2015 mean they are on a six-game losing streak. "It was total fear," Schaaf said of his side's 1-0 defeat at home to 1. FSV Mainz 05. "There was not one bit of conviction in any situation; no self-belief." That is something Schaaf needs to find fast if he wants to see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, although it is easier said than done with a visit to Dortmund up next on Matchday 21.
Mainz flying high
Mainz, the club who gave Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel to the world, appear to be at it again. Martin Schmidt is the latest tactician on the touchline who has taken the best of his predecessors and blended it into his own brand of Gegenpressing football which has Die Nullfünfers once again knocking on the door for a place in Europe. "We managed to keep Hannover away from our goal while demoralising them with our strength in the tackle," said Julian Baumgartlinger, putting his finger on what makes Mainz such a difficult team to face: their never-say-die attitude.
SV Darmstadt 98's Aytac Sulu once again underlined his credentials as one of the Bundesliga's finest centre-halves with a match-winning display in the Lilies' 2-0 win at fellow relegation strugglers TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. The 30-year-old netted his fifth goal of the season in the first half to become the top-flight's highest-scoring centre-back this term - a strike which doubled up as the 500th goal of the season so far. Victory for Dirk Schuster's side was rounded off when Sulu's centre-half partner Slobodan Rajkovic poked home from close range with five minutes remaining. Beware of Darmstadt's dangerous defence.