There are only four matches to go in the Bundesliga, and much is still to be decided. Who will avoid the drop? Will it be league dinosaur, Hamburg, or shaky VfB Stuttgart? Will Schalke overtake Dortmund for second? Matchday 31 will tell.
Stuttgart Face Uphill Battle Against Schalke
It’s not over until it’s over. For VfB Stuttgart, this cliché is all too unfortunately true. Hanging precariously over the drop in 15th place—only one point above Hamburg and two points above Nürnberg—Stuttgart’s season has come to be defined by an uncanny ability to concede goals in the dying minutes of a match. In their last 10 games, they have won only twice, but also only failed to score twice (both resulting in defeats). In the other six matches (three losses and three draws), the Swabians were either leading or tied until the last 10 minutes before conceding a last-gasp goal (or two) to drop three points rather gain one (against Dortmund, Frankfurt, and Hertha), or secure only one point when three were in hand (against Braunschweig, Bremen, and most recently, Gladbach). Had they held on in all of these matches, they would have 46 points, a tally that would see them in eighth place and in European contention rather than 15th and struggling to survive.
But it is truly not over until it is over, and VfB Stuttgart still have the chance to save their season—and themselves—when they host Schalke on Sunday evening. It’s a difficult, even herculean, task before them, though, as Schalke are very much the team of the Ruckründe, having lost only once and conceded 10 since the restart. In fact, they boast a better record than Borussia Dortmund in the second half of the season, and have won only one point less than Bayern Munich. Sitting only three points behind Dortmund, with mostly bottom sides left to play, Schalke fancy their chances of overtaking their bitter rivals and will be in full force against the Swabians.
VfB will look to the attacking prowess of Gladbach-bound Ibrahima Traoré, who has been excellent in the past few matches, the long-injured Daniel Didavi, whose return has given his club a boost, and senior striker Vedad Ibisevic, who has not scored in seven matches. The good news for Stuttgart is that Schalke will be without star midfielder Julian Draxler, who timed a new muscle injury perfectly with a one-match suspension. The Royal Blues will also be missing Jefferson Farfán, who had marked his comeback from injury with a last-gasp goal against Frankfurt last week, but is once again sidelined with a knee problem.
The odds are stacked against VfB Stuttgart, but as they have shown all too well these past months, their problem isn’t scoring. It’s holding on until the bitter end, and there’s no better time to start than this weekend against Schalke.
VfB Stuttgart: Ulreich—Schwaab, Rüdiger, Niedermeier, Boka—Gentner, Gruezo—Traoré, Didavi, Harnik—Ibisevic
Schalke 04: Fährmann—Hoogland, Matip, Ayhan, Kolasinac—Boateng, Neustädter—Obasi, Meyer, Goretzka—Huntelaar
VfB Stuttgart 1-2 Schalke 04
Dortmund Look to Maintain Momentum
Things are looking up at Borussia Dortmund. After a season dominated by unprecedented injury woes, Robert Lewandowski’s transfer saga, and a dip in form that saw a promising start and the title challenge disappear, the media narrative surrounding BVB was one of a club in decline, a small club that had punched above its weight but could no longer hold on to its players or even, in the views of some audacious journalists, its manager.
After a string of highly impressive wins within the span of two weeks, BVB seem determined to finish the season on a high and refute all the naysayers. First there was a difficult win over Wolfsburg in the league, the club’s first victory over a top side at home this season. Then came the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Real Madrid, a match pundits had largely written off as a formality. Dortmund, led by Marco Reus, would have none of it, and stormed to a 2-0 victory that saw them one Henrikh Mkhitaryan miss away from the semifinal. A 3-0 win would have put them through, but they got a 3-0 win only four days later when they beat Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena to prevent the champions from breaking their record points tally from last year. Finally, they booked their place in the DfB-Pokal final in emotional fashion against Wolfsburg on Tuesday with a 2-0 home win.
On Saturday, they will look to continue this run of excellent form when they host overachievers Mainz, who will not make it easy for the Schwarzgelben. Jürgen Klopp’s former side, which he served as both a player and a coach, are one of the surprises of the season, sitting in seventh and in prime position to clinch a spot in the Europa League. They have been in erratic form of late, however, losing 3-1 to Braunschweig and 2-0 to Frankfurt while beating Hoffenheim in a 4-2 thriller and drawing both Schalke and Hertha Berlin. One of the outstanding players in that high-scoring match, midfielder Nicolai Müller, will be unavailable for selection on Saturday, as is left-back Joo-Ho Park. Thomas Tuchel’s team is good on the road, however, and have already secured more points in the Ruckründe than they did in the first half of the season. They will push Klopp’s team and hope to avenge the 3-1 defeat they suffered in the reverse fixture.
Klopp, on the other hand, may choose to rest a few players ahead of the meeting with Bayer Leverkusen, though he will surely play Lewandowski as the clock winds down on the Polish striker’s Dortmund career. Milos Jojic could make his first league start after turning in a massively impressive performance against Real Madrid, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Jonas Hofmann, who did not feature against Wolfsburg in the cup semifinal, could also return, particularly after the latter’s well-taken goal against Bayern last week.
Should BVB beat Mainz, they will mathematically secure Champions League qualification, but perhaps more importantly, they will be proving to everyone in Europe that they are not a spent force, but a team that has weathered horrific injuries and unimaginably bad luck to turn a grueling season into a success.
Borussia Dortmund: Weidenfeller—Piszczek, Hummels, Sokratis, Durm—Jojic, Sahin—Hofmann, Mkhitaryan, Reus—Lewandowski
Mainz: Karius—Pospech, Noveski, Bungert, Diaz—Geis—Moritz, Soto—Malli—Okazaki, Choupo-Moting
Borussia Dortmund 3-1 Mainz
Elsewhere in the Bundesliga…
Matchday 31 has an usual Thursday kick-off with an evening clash between 11th-placed Eintracht Frankfurt and 13th-placed Hannover. On Saturday, Werder Bremen host in-form Hoffenheim, who have not lost in five matches, while tenth-placed Hertha Berlin travel to eighth-placed Augsburg in what should be an entertaining clash. Bottom club Eintracht Braunschweig, hit with the injury of top scorer Domi Kumbela, face the tall order of inflicting a third straight league defeat on champions Bayern Munich. Freiburg look to put more distance between themselves and the relegation zone when they host Borussia Mönchengladbach, who are chasing the Champions League. Hamburg continue their fight against relegation when they host Wolfsburg, who are just one point behind Leverkusen in their hunt for a Champions League spot. But Leverkusen will try to edge closer to rebooking their place in Europe by taking three points against Nürnberg on Sunday.