Love is in the air — and so is German football. February 14th sees four Bundesliga teams competing in the knockout stages of Europa League, while Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich, and Schalke take on the Champions League this week and next. And right in the midst of all that action comes Match Day 22 with plenty of high stakes fixtures of its own. So to all the Bundesliga lovers out there, this preview is for you.
VfL Wolfsburg vs. Bayern Munich
“We simply can’t lose the title now,” said Arjen Robben last week, and one would be hard-pressed to contradict the Dutch winger’s words. With a +48 goal difference and only one loss to their name, the red-hot fury masquerading as Bayern Munich blitz on to ever-escalating heights. The earliest-ever conclusion to a Bundesliga title race: April 26th. The fewest goals conceded during a season: 21. Bayern will be eyeing both records: they are 15 points clear after 21 match days, and have conceded only 7 goals, with nearly two-thirds of the season already gone.
Wolfsburg would be right to be terrified. So far only Leverkusen have escaped unscathed from this Bavarian firestorm, and whereas Leverkusen are challenging for second, Wolfsburg only recently clawed their way back to a midtable position. The Wolves are currently holding their highest table position since match day 5 — when, coincidentally, they were beaten 3-0 at the Allianz Arena. Exacting revenge would be, at best, a tall order. But then, Wolfsburg have been known to rise to the occasion: they took out Leverkusen 3-1 on match day 11, and defeated Dortmund 3-2 at Signal Iduna Park. Now with the added edge of home turf advantage, could Wolfsburg be set for a hat trick of top-three giant slayings?
Bayern have a big Champions League match coming up next week. Jupp Heynckes resting key players may give Wolfsburg enough opening to get a goal in edgewise, and Bayern must remain constantly vigilant lest they stagger beneath the weight of their own staggering achievements. It’s a long shot, for Wolfsburg, but the Bundesliga would not be the Bundesliga without a shock to the system at least once a month.
Borussia Dortmund vs. Eintracht Frankfurt
The title race may be all but wrapped up in Bavarian wrapping paper with a bow on top, but the excitement is far from over. With only two points separate Borussia Dortmund from Eintracht Frankfurt, the race for direct Champions League qualification is still very much live as the reigning champions host the Eagles on Saturday.
Jürgen Klopp will be working around a few key absences for this fixture. Robert Lewandowski misses the match through red card suspension, though Dortmund are set to appeal the rest of their super striker’s three-match ban. Kevin Grosskreutz is sidelined, and Ilkay Gundogan is suffering from a thigh and toe injury which may keep him out of action this weekend. Worryingly, Dortmund are only 1 for 8 without Gundogan this season, and have lost all 5 Bundesliga matches without him. The reasons are not difficult to discern. Pulling the strings match after match as Dortmund’s deep-lying playmaker, the 22-year-old Gundogan is quickly becoming invaluable — if not outright irreplaceable.
The last clash between these two sides yielded a 6-goal draw, and this encounter could well produce another draw. For one, Dortmund’s mid-week draw at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League found the center back pairing of Mats Hummels and Felipe Santana uncharacteristically unsettled. For another, Eintracht Frankfurt recently brought in Srdjan Lakic as reinforcement for top goalscorer Alexander Meier. With two goals in his debut against Hamburg, Lakic immediately proved his ability to add an extra dimension of aerial threat to the game, and the ex-Kaiserslautern man may be just the edge Frankfurt need to stay sharp and see out the rest of a dream season.
Hamburger SV vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach
At the moment, there are as many Bundesliga teams jockeying for a Europa League spot as there are playing in Europe altogether. Saturday sees Hamburg host a key clash in the EL race, as they play host to Borussia Mönchengladbach. With only three points between 5th and 11th place, and 12 match days to go, it could still be anyone’s game — and Hamburg and Gladbach are right in the thick of it, occupying 7th and 8th respectively.
Gladbach have stayed steadily on track in recent months, most recently claiming a hard-fought 3-3 draw against Leverkusen last weekend. Hamburg meanwhile have been 0 for 3 when it came to chances to move into the top 6 this season. The home side will be without Jeffrey Bruma, thanks to a red card picked up during Hamburg’s 4-1 win over Dortmund last week.
The two sides last played out a 2-2 friendly during winter training camp in Dubai, in something of a repeat performance from their 2-2 draw on match day 5. In the September match, Hamburg controlled the game against a 10-man Gladbach, but ultimately failed to hold on to a precarious 2-1 lead as Alvaro Dominguez equalized in stoppage time. Hamburg will have to make their dominance count, this time around, if they want to avoid a third straight draw against the Foals.
Werder Bremen vs. SC Freiburg
Amidst all the hoopla about Eintracht Frankfurt’s stand-out season, fellow over-achievers SC Freiburg have often been overlooked. This little team from Baden-Württemberg are punching far above their weight: once touted as relegation favorites, Freiburg currently occupy 6th and are continuously demonstrating the efficacy of physical fitness as well as coach Christian Streich’s tactical acumen.
Werder Bremen meanwhile are having an aggressively midtable season, oscillating constantly between 7th and 12th place with little consistency save for a four-match winless streak bookending the winter break. But since, Thomas Schaaf’s side have earned two good wins over Hannover and Stuttgart and will be looking for a third against Freiburg. Bremen will be Theodor Gebre Selassie, however, as the defender broke a bone in his left hand during training on Tuesday.
Freiburg have not defeated Bremen since 2001, and this year have not managed many wins against top-half teams. A draw is doable, and even desirable for Freiburg, though Bremen will be hungry for all three points to lift themselves above midtable.
Fortuna Düsseldorf vs. Greuther Fürth
They were promoted to the Bundesliga together, their paths diverged, but now Fortuna Düsseldorf and Greuther Fürth are slowly converging again — at least in the league table. Not good news for Norbert Meier’s side, given that Fortuna had occupied a lofty 7th for the first stretch of the campaign, before slipping as low as the relegation play-off spot in November. But Fürth have yet to even crawl out of the Bundesliga’s relegation cellar: the last time the Bavarians saw daylight was back on match day 4.
For this fixture Fortuna will be without Andreas Lambertz and Adam Bodzek, while Fürth make do sans Milorad Pekovic, who are all serving yellow card suspensions. Fürth did manage a shock win at the Veltins earlier this month, but unless Fortuna’s patron goddess frowns long and hard on Saturday, this should be a straightforward win for the home side.
Bayer Leverkusen vs. FC Augsburg
Bayer Leverkusen have not won a match in nearly a month. The situation sounds more dramatic than it actually is, given that Leverkusen are comfortably en route to Champions League qualification, a clear 7 points above fifth place Freiburg. Their opponents, however, have everything to play for. Relegation candidates Augsburg are undefeated in their last 5 matches, managing draws against Schalke, Wolfsburg, and Mainz in quick succession. If Augsburg can take at least four points from these next two match days, they could leapfrog 16th place Hoffenheim and move out of the automatic relegation zone on goal difference.
It is a tall order that faces Augsburg as they visit Leverkusen, who have lost only once at home this season. Furthermore, with Frankfurt away at Dortmund this week, a win over Augsburg would allow Leverkusen to put some distance between themselves and third place — or even regain second, should Dortmund falter.
Mainz 05 vs. Schalke 04
A fixture destined to involve the race for European competition — now with a twist, as Mainz look to hold on to a Europa League berth when they play hosts to a wounded Schalke. Quite literally: the Schalke injury list currently includes Obasi, Huntelaar, Uchida, Moritz, Papadopoulos, Marica, and Afellay, while Jefferson Farfan also missed training midweek due to a cold. Jens Keller has been told his job is secure through the end of the season, but job security will not help with the coach’s day-to-day woes. Away at Mainz this weekend, Keller will need something special to inspire his royally blue side to a win. The last time Mainz defeated Schalke at home in the Bundesliga was 2006, but given the two sides’ current forms, this six year record looks to be over come Saturday.
1.FC Nuremberg vs. Hannover 96
Fun fact: Nuremberg and Hannover have played 33 times in the Bundesliga, with the record deadlocked at 11 draws and 11 wins apiece. But Nuremberg will be looking to edge ahead in this head-to-head on Sunday. Hannover are currently the only Bundesliga team not to have managed a draw on the road; with a record of 2 wins and 8 losses, and 25 goals conceded, Hannover’s miserable away form is second only to Hoffenheim. Which lends Nuremberg a golden opportunity for picking up three more points to distance themselves from the drop zone.
Hannover are without Sebastien Pocognoli, who is suspended, while Nuremberg’s Timo Gebhart will also miss the fixture due to a groin injury. The two sides present an interesting contrast. Hannover matches have so far produced 78 goals this season (39 scored and 39 conceded), the highest of any Bundesliga side. Nuremberg, on the other hand, are the lowest scoring Bundesliga team currently outside the relegation zone, and since the January restart have seen only 10 goals; Hannover’s first Rückrunde match alone had 9 goals. This match is the toss-a-coin moment of the week. It may not be high scoring, but it will be unpredictable.
Hoffenheim vs. VfB Stuttgart
2013 does not agree with Stuttgart. Since the new year, Bruno Labbadia’s side have lost four straight matches, conceded 14 goals, and plunged from 9th to 14th in the table. And now, another away match. The good news for Stuttgart is that they have been impressive on the road: in the away table, they currently stand 5th. Sunday would be a good time to revisit that record, especially as Hoffenheim have been slowly narrowing the gap between themselves and the world above, and a win this weekend would put them only 4 points behind the Swabians. A bit too close for comfort.
Hoffenheim go into this match without Roberto Firmino, who is serving a yellow card suspension, as well as Salihovic, Rudy, Thesker, and Schipplock due to injury. Stuttgart’s defense looks to be without Tim Hoogland, who is recuperating from an ankle injury. With both teams fighting against the drop and Stuttgart’s penchant for fouls, expect a cagey encounter with more cards than goals.