With three matches left in Germany, the big question remaining at the top of the Bundesliga is which teams will claim the remaining two European spots. With 58 points, Schalke look to have secured third, but Bayer Leverkusen remain within striking distance with 54 points. Wolfsburg, only one point behind, have a definite chance of unseating Leverkusen, while Borussia Mönchengladbach remain a distant possibility with 49 points. All four teams face stern challenges this weekend in a match day that could see Schalke leave even more space for the chasing pack, Wolfsburg take fourth, or Bayer Leverkusen move closer to third.
Leverkusen Look to Hold On to Fourth
After a nightmarish dip in form that saw the dismissal of trainer Sami Hyypia, Bayer Leverkusen have recovered just in time to save their season, but it might not be enough when they host Borussia Dortmund, who are storming to season’s end in rampant form. Leverkusen are coming off back-to-back wins, their first since 7 February, and will go into this game with renewed confidence and the knowledge that their remaining two games are against much weaker opposition. They will also remember that they defeated Dortmund in the reverse fixture this season, 1-0, though they came against a black-and-yellow side that was struggling to field 11 healthy players at the time.
One of the brightest spots of Leverkusen’s bumpy season has been the emergence of 17-year-old talent Julian Brandt, who has made two starts out of two under new coach Sascha Lewandowski. He has already scored twice in only three league starts this season, and will hope to do so again on Saturday to help his team to victory. Should Leverkusen manage to beat Dortmund, they could potentially move within one point of third place to make the last two weekends of the league an intense battle with Schalke for third. Ironically, BVB could do the most damage to their bitter local rivals, Schalke, by losing this match to Leverkusen.
However, Dortmund still have something at stake in this match, as a win would mathematically secure second place. Though they will be without injured captain Sebastian Kehl, veteran Oliver Kirch has deputized excellently in the past few weeks, putting in a disciplined and classy performance in the center of the pitch against Mainz. Goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller should make his return after sitting out that match due to injury, while Kevin Großkreutz will likely replace the injured Erik Durm at left-back. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, rested last week, may also return to the starting lineup. He would join Marco Reus and Robert Lewandowski in attack, who seem determined to make the most of the last days of their fruitful partnership, running, passing, and scoring with such incredible vision and precision that Dortmund fans are more unwilling than ever to see the Polish striker go. If these two are in the same creative mood this Saturday, it will certainly be difficult for Leverkusen to make it three wins in a row.
Bayer Leverkusen: Leno—Donati, Toprak, Spahic, Boenisch—Bender, Can—Brandt, Castro, Son—Kießling
Borussia Dortmund: Weidenfeller—Piszczek, Hummels, Sokratis, Großkreutz—Kirch, Sahin—Aubameyang, Mkhitaryan, Reus—Lewandowski
Bayer Leverkusen 1-3 Borussia Dortmund
Wolfsburg Chase the Champions League Dream
Hot on Leverkusen’s heels are VfL Wolfsburg, who will fancy their chances to wrest fourth away when they host SC Freiburg on Saturday. But Christian Streich’s men have proven time and again this season that they are not to be written off lightly, having catapulted from 17th place to 13th in only seven match days. They pulled off a shock 4-2 win against Borussia Mönchengladbach last week in a match that featured a long-range dream of a goal from Freiburg defender Oliver Sorg that left even Streich speechless. In fact, in the Rückrunde, Freiburg have secured 21 points—a mere two points less than Wolfsburg. A win here would guarantee them safety and could potentially move them as high as 11th place, a fantastic spot for a resilient team that was toiling in the relegation zone only a few weeks ago.
Wolfsburg have proven themselves very capable of defeating bottom-half sides, however, having beaten Hamburg, Nürnberg, Frankfurt, and Bremen in recent weeks. Club top scorer Ivica Olic has scored in four matches in a row, while January signing Kevin de Bruyne has excelled in the past few games. With the young Belgian pulling the strings in midfield, the Freiburg defense will have a difficult time keeping Wolfsburg’s potent attack under control.
But what Wolfsburg has in attack, they often lack in defense, having conceded the most goals of any team in the top six. Freiburg have scored 17 goals in their last seven matches, including the four last weekend, setting the stage for what could be a high-scoring duel between two teams that have much to play for.
VfL Wolfsburg: Grün—Träsch, Naldo, Knoche, Rodriguez—Polak, Luis Gustavo—de Bruyne, Arnold, Perisic—Olic
SC Freiburg: Baumann—Sorg, Ginter, Höhn, Günter—Kerk, Schuster, Fernandes, Darida—Mehmedi, Guedé
VfL Wolfsburg 2-2 SC Freiburg
Schalke and Gladbach Duel for Europe
In some ways, this is a match of opposites. Gladbach were one of the best teams of the Hinrunde, lording over the league at Christmas in third place, scoring plenty, conceding few, and boasting one of the best home records in the league. Since then, they’ve lost to the likes of Freiburg, Frankfurt, and Hannover, and have only 16 points and 19 goals to their name in the Rückrunde. Schalke, on the other hand, celebrated Christmas in seventh place, but have been one of the best teams in the league since, trailing only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
But as the two sides go into this Sunday evening clash, they will know that everything is on the line. Jens Keller’s side is well aware that third place is not yet safe, while Lucien Favre’s men have an outside chance of taking fourth, should both Leverkusen and Wolfsburg falter in the run-in. Both teams are coming off defeats at the hands of teams from Baden-Württemberg: Schalke gave a poor performance in their 3-1 loss to VfB Stuttgart last weekend, while Gladbach were demolished 4-2 by Freiburg. This Westphalian affair, however, is likely to be much cagier and less free-scoring, with neither side looking to take risks against speedy opposition primed for counter-attacking.
Schalke will welcome back young star Julian Draxler after his one-match suspension and injury last week, while Gladbach will be without Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka following his red card against Freiburg (which is pending further punishment from the DFB after his post-match criticism of the referee.) Whatever their problems in the Rückrunde, Gladbach remain a disciplined team, well-drilled in defense and with plenty of options in attack. Schalke cannot afford to take them lightly, and this clash of neighbors should be an entertaining one for the neutral.
Schalke 04: Fährmann—Hoogland, Matip, Ayhan, Kolasinac—Boateng, Neustädter—Goretzka, Meyer, Draxler—Huntelaar
Borussia Mönchengladbach: ter Stegen—Korb, Jantschke, Brouwers, Dominguez—Hermann, Kramer, Nordtveit, Arango—Raffael, Kruse
Schalke 04 1-2 Borussia Mönchengladbach
Elsewhere in the Bundesliga…
Kicking off Matchday 32 on Friday night, 14th-placed Hannover play host to 15th-placed VfB Stuttgart, who must win in order to put more distance between themselves and the drop. On Saturday, Werder Bremen travel to Bavaria, where Bayern Munich will probably field a second-string team, with their eyes already on the return leg of their Champions League semifinal. Ninth-placed Hoffenheim host twelfth-placed Frankfurt, while Mainz look to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat at Dortmund and strengthen their hold on a Europa League position by beating relegation-bound Nürnberg.
Eintracht Braunschweig, still in last place but only two points behind 16th-placed Hamburg, remain optimistic that they can claw their way to the playoff place by winning their final three games—the first of which is away to Hertha BSC. On Sunday, Hamburg, who have never been relegated, will try to ensure that they at least have the chance to save themselves in a playoff, traveling to eighth-placed Augsburg, who are still hoping to catch Mainz for the final Europa League spot.