Third against second promises to be a blockbuster this weekend as Bayer 04 Leverkusen welcome Thomas Tuchel's Borussia Dortmund to the BayArena on Sunday (kick-off: 15:30CET/14:30GMT).
bundesliga.com takes to the director's chair to cast an eye over an encounter that promises drama and excitement in equal measure...
Clash of Europa League contenders
Both clubs took to training on Friday with the realistic expectation that they will be in the hat for the last 16 draw of the UEFA Europa League next Friday. Dortmund are in pole position having dispatched FC Porto 2-0, while Leverkusen will defend a 1-0 lead against Sporting Clube de Portugal at the BayArena. Both clubs will be confident of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League by finishing in the division’s top four spots this season, but they will both welcome the extra option of doing so by winning the Europa League and adding to their trophy cabinets in the process.
Aubameyang’s T-squared problem
One of the game’s most intriguing sub-plots will be the contest between the league’s second-most prolific striker in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and a central defensive pairing that have become the bedrock of Leverkusen’s success under coach Roger Schmidt. The understanding between Ömer Toprak, a veteran of 161 Bundesliga appearances – 123 of them for Die Werkself – and youngster Jonathan Tah has improved immeasurably in recent weeks, with the pair keeping four clean sheets in ten matches together and shutting out league leaders FC Bayern München on Matchday 20. Will they be able to shackle 20-goal man Aubameyang as well?
BVB’s explosive front three
Indeed, it is not just the Gabonese international of whom Tah, Toprak and Co. must be aware. Marco Reus has nine league strikes this season, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan has eight, with the Armenian also the leading assist-maker in Europe’s top five leagues in all competitions in 2015/16. As a collective, Leverkusen will have to be at their very best to frustrate one of the deadliest attacking trios in world football.
No Chicharito, no party?
And Schmidt’s charges will also be up against it at the other end. Marshalled by Mats Hummels, Borussia's defence has kept four consecutive clean sheets after a run of conceding at least once in every Bundesliga game between Matchdays 10 and 18. Leverkusen’s task in breaching that rearguard will potentially be even tougher without Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, who is rated as doubtful because of a gluteal muscle injury. Considering he has scored 22 times for the club this season, Bayer could do with a 'magic sponge' effect this weekend.
Bayer 04’s top-four credentials tested
Without the Mexican marksman, Sunday’s match will again be a useful yardstick with which to measure Leverkusen’s mettle as they bid to return to the Champions League next term. Schmidt’s team have so far fared well without their talismanic goal machine, sneaking a hard-earned 2-1 win at SV Darmstadt 98 and winning in Lisbon in midweek, but Dortmund on their current form will be a different test altogether. It will not be lost on the coach that should results conspire against his side, Hertha Berlin, FC Schalke 04, 1. FSV Mainz and Borussia Mönchengladbach could all leapfrog Bayer in the table this weekend.