FC Schalke 04 face a stern test of their UEFA Champions League credentials when they travel to an FC Ingolstadt 04 side with work still to do to secure their seat at the top table of German football next season.
Buoyed by a 2-1 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach – a result which lifted Andre Breitenreiter's men above the Foals and into that coveted fourth place – the Gelsenkirchen club will not want to let their grip on Champions League qualification loosen as the finish line approaches, and with plenty of high hurdles still to clear.
On paper at least, Saturday's trip to Bavaria represents one of the lowest the Royal Blues still have to cross, with the Revierderby against Borussia Dortmund looming and Bayer 04 Leverkusen due to visit the VELTINS Arena on Matchday 31. A trip to FC Bayern München also beckons as Schalke hit the final straight, they hope at a canter.
"A sportsman always seeks the maximum and we'll do everything we can to qualify for the Champions League," Younes Belhanda said in an exclusive bundesliga.com interview. "That's a realistic goal. We know we're four points behind [third-placed] Hertha Berlin, but I'm convinced we can do it."
It is not necessarily that gap above but rather the one below Schalke which is of greater concern, however. Holding off the likes of Gladbach, Leverkusen, 1. FSV Mainz 05 and VfL Wolfsburg is the challenge Breitenreiter's men face in one of the fiercest battles for Champions League qualification in recent times.
'Never write off a German team'
Belhanda may only have been in the Bundesliga for a handful of months, yet he already knows that there is no such thing as an easy game in Germany’s top division. "You should never write off a German team until the referee blows the final whistle," he said. "In the reverse game against [Ingolstadt], we saw that they're difficult to play against. They're well organised and concede very few chances. They'll play very compactly and hit us on the counterattack. That's why it'll be important to score first, otherwise it'll be difficult to come back from that."
Sascha Riether has much more experience of the Bundesliga landscape, and he can only confirm his team-mate's early impressions heading into the business end of the season. "We shouldn't start getting ahead of ourselves," the 33-year-old told the club’s website. "You can see how quickly things can change when you go two games without winning.
"You can easily slide down to seventh or eighth. It's just as quick to move up, too. It's certainly going to be an interesting conclusion to the season and we've still got a few tough opponents to come to the VELTINS Arena. I've got a good feeling."
Ingolstadt midfielder Almog Cohen also has a good feeling, having made his return to duty with Israel after a four-year absence during the international break. He was one of ten Ingolstadt players away representing their countries over the past fortnight – a sign of how far the Bavarian club have come on in recent years – and he says they have all tanked up on confidence for the crucial conclusion of their maiden season among Germany's elite.
"We've all played well for our countries and I think we can draw energy from that for the final sprint," he said on Die Schanzer’s official website. "Our aim is to stay in the Bundesliga and we all want to prove that we can do it. We've not lost at the Audi Sportpark yet this year. We want to keep it that way this weekend."
With 33 points in the bank already, a few more are nevertheless still needed for Ingolstadt to be assured of another season in the top flight, and Cohen says it does not matter against whom those points come. "Schalke are a top team with great quality and they're challenging for Europe, while we've still got to avoid relegation," he said. "It's going to be a tight, hard-fought match, but we don't care who we're playing against – we're just focusing on ourselves and our aims."