After a month of shopping and relaxation, the artists of the Bundesliga will be eager to get off their comfortable couches and on to a green surface to do what they love the best, playing football. The league season gets underway this weekend and with it brings to its loyal fans all the excitement and emotions of the German Championship. The title contenders will look to get closer to the ‘salad bowl’ and the bottom dwellers will put in all their effort to extend their stay in the top division.

An interesting aspect to watch out for will be the fight to stay in contention for the European spots. Just 4 points separate 12th placed Werder Bremen and 5th placed Freiburg and a mere 5 points separate 2nd placed Leverkusen from the latter. Germany wrestled away the 4th Champions League spot from the Serie A last season and with 7 European places up for grabs , the fight in the middle of the table will get more interesting post the winter break. The Hard Tackle previews match day 18 at the beginning of the “business end” of the season.

Bayern Munich vs Greuther Fürth

Returns from injury, but will he start?

Its bottom meets top when Greuther Fürth make the short trip to Munich to face fellow Bavarians Bayern Munich on Saturday. Hosts Bayern have been in brilliant form during the pre-season friendlies demolishing the likes of Schalke and Basel 5-0 and 3-0 respectively. Jupp Heynckes will be glad to have the services of midfielders Luis Gustavo and Emre Can and of course the much awaited return of mercurial winger Arjen Robben. The only causality Bayern will have to do with is that of center back Holger Badstuber who is ruled out for the season with a crucial ligament injury.

Their opponents on the other hand have had a disastrous introduction to life in the top division so far. Sitting bottom of the table with just 9 points from 17 games, Fürth look destined for life in 2.Bundesliga next season unless they can pull of a miracle in the second half of the season. Of course starting the second leg against a rampant Bayern Munich isn’t what Mike Büskens wanted in a bid to keep his team up. Club captain Mërgim Mavraj will not take part on account of serving a suspension and long term causalities Sebastian Tyrała and Issa Ndoye will still be watching the game from their hospital beds.

Bayern though will be keen to start on the right note to maintain their healthy lead at the top of the table. Expect the same scoreline as last time; 3-0.

Werder Bremen vs Borussia Dortmund

Match day one saw Bremen paying a visit to the then red hot reigning champions Borussia Dortmund hoping to avoid a serious hiding. But what followed was a spirited display from the men in green and only a late winner from Mario Gotze gave the champions all three points. Jurgen Klopp will know his team face the same kind of resilience from the hosts when Dortmund take on Werder Bremen on Saturday at the Weserstadion.

Will they miss him?

Dortmund were dealt a cruel blow during the winter break when star defender Neven Subotic was ruled out for a period of 5 to 6 weeks due to injury. The Ruhr club inspite of their excellent performances in the Champions League have fallen behind the pace set by Bayern and find themselves 12 points behind the table toppers.

Bremen have been quite disappointing so far and the maximum disappointment will be amongst their loyal followers after much was expected of them at the beginning of the season. Inconsistency has been their major issue this season. After hammering Hoffenheim 4-1 on match day 15, Bremen slumped to defeat by the same scoreline the following week and ended the Hinrunde with a disappointing draw against Nurnberg which sees them in the lower half of the table. Schaaf will have to do without the services of midfield duo Predrag Stevanović and the influential Philipp Bargfrede, but given the form of Aaron Hunt and Kevin De Bruyne, he shouldn’t be worrying much.

Dortmund to run out winners

Schalke vs Hannover

The Blue side of the Ruhr Valley kick of Bundesliga’s second leg when they take on  Hannover 96 at the Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen. After a stellar start to the campaign, Schalke have nose-dived down the table, failing to win their last 6 Bundesliga games which eventually led to the sacking of manager Huub Stevens before the winter break. Caretaker manager Jens Keller will have a tough job on hand in trying to revive Schalke’s weathering season and getting them back into champions League spot contention. His task is not going to be made easy with the suspensions and injuries his squad faces on match day 18. On loan midfielder Ibrahim Afellay fell victim to a tear in his muscle on his right thigh which will keep him out for two months. Giving him company will be fellow midfielder Christoph Moritz and key defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos. Compunding Keller’s misery are the suspensions of the ‘Hunter’ and American Jermaine Jones. New boy and ex-Hertha Berlin attacker Raffael might get the nod in the absence of Huntelaar.

The visitors on the other hand will look to pile more misery on the Royal Blues and a win on Friday will see them jump from 11th to 5th in the table. Long term injury causalities Felipe, Leon Andreasen and Lars Stindl are still unavailable but defender Christian Schulz could make a return to the match day squad. Arsenal loanee Johan Djourou could also make his first start for the Lower Saxony club.

Expect a tight game with both sides looking to climb up the table.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs Eintracht Frankfurt

Leverkusen will be raring hit the right note

Match day 18 will witness another enthralling upper table battle on Saturday when 2nd placed Leverkusen entertain 4th place Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday. Newly promoted Frankfurt have taken the Bundesliga by storm with their attacking displays and will be keen to maintain the momentum when they visit the Bay Arena. Match day 1 saw the Eagles shock Leverkusen when midfielder Martin Lanig latched on to an excellent cross from Stefano Celozzi in the 82nd minute to give the home team all three points.

Leverkusen to their credit bounced back from that early season defeat and haven’t looked back since then. An excellent late run of form and slip-ups from Dortmund and Schalke have allowed Leverkusen to maintain their position in the table and much of this has been aided by the attacking trio of Stefan Kießling, André Schürrle and Gonzalo Castro.

Leverkusen to edge out the visitors by 2 goals to 1.

VfL Wolfsburg vs VfB Stuttgart

The Wolves have been extremely quite this season and have been surprisingly tame in their own territory. Their woeful home record of just 1 win in 8 games speaks volumes of their poor season thus far and manager Dieter Hecking will be looking to reverse this trend when they welcome a rejuvenated Stuttgart on Saturday. Ivan Perišić was their big signing from Dortmund in the winter break and he should get a starting role considering Václav Pilař and Ferhan Hasani are out due to injuries. Brazilian duo Naldo and Josué are also set to miss the tie due to suspensions.

Stuttgart will travel without their top scorer Vedad Ibisevic and defender Gōtoku Sakai both of whom will sit out due to suspensions. The injury list for Die Schwaben remains the same.

Stuttgart to pile more misery on Wolfsburg.

Hoffenheim vs Borussia Mönchengladbach

The hosts hold the worst defensive record in the 2012-2013 Bundesliga season having conceded 41 goals in their 17 games played. Things don’t look too bright for the hosts as an in form Gladbach travel to the Rhein-Neckar Arena on Saturday. Gladbach have no major injury concerns and should come out comfortable winners.

Mainz vs Frieburg

Mainz and Frieburg face of at the Coface Arena in yet another crucial midtable battle. Firburg lie a surprising 5th in the table and have been in very good form. The hosts will be without key defender and Bayern Munich bound Jan Kirchhoff who serves out a suspension. An enthralling contest which should finish honours even.

Nürnberg vs Hamburg

Hamburg make the long trip down south to face Nurnberg in Sunday’s first fixture. Talisman Rafael Van der Vaart will be back to full fitness and should start the game while Paul Scharner is a doubt for the game. The Dinosaur will face a very good Nurnberg side who on their day can surprise the visitors. Hamburg to win this tie by 3 goals to 1.

F. Düsseldorf vs FC Augsburg

Augsburg found themselves in a similar situation last year but managed to pull things together in the 2nd half of the campaign to escape the dreaded drop into the 2.Bundesliga. Markus Weinzierl will want to see the same kind of resolve and determination from his team this time around as well if they want to stay put in the league next season. Augsburg remain 17th in the table level on points with Greuther Fürth.

Hosts Dusseldorf should win this comfortably.