Matchday 21 features intense battles for Champions League places, with Bayer Leverkusen hosting Schalke 04, and Wolfsburg taking on Hertha BSC Berlin. At the other end of the table, free-falling Hamburg try to stave off relegation when they travel to rock-bottom Eintracht Braunschweig.
In-Form Schalke Challenge Leverkusen
Despite winter speculation that Schalke trainer Jens Keller was on his way out, his team has soared since the restart, becoming the second best team of the Rückrunde thus far (behind the machine of Bayern Munich). After their topsy-turvy form, they have settled into a steady, dominant rhythm, winning four and drawing one, with a goal difference of nine to one, in the last five matches.
Though a winter injury to young star Julian Draxler seemed to spell disaster, the Royal Blues have thrived without him, with 18-year-old Max Meyer and leading scorer Jefferson Farfán shining the brightest. The energetic Farfán scored against both Hannover 96 and Hamburg, and played well in the bitter struggle against Wolfsburg. Against Leverkusen on Saturday evening, Keller will be hoping his star midfielder can add to this tally of eight goals in 15 games, as Schalke look to pull themselves within three points of their rivals in the race for second. This game kicks off a difficult run of fixtures that see them face Real Madrid in the Champions League and Bayern in the league. A victory over Leverkusen would give them a huge boost in momentum going into those even bigger clashes.
Leverkusen, though sitting in second, are just the opposite of Schalke. Despite their tally of 43 points, they have looked shaky and uninspired of late, losing to the likes of Frankfurt, Bremen, and Freiburg in a row. On Wednesday, they were dumped out of the DfB-Pokal by second-division Kaiserslautern. Whether this run of bad form will be enough to galvanize them against Schalke, or simply make them even shakier opponents, remains to be seen. They will be without influential midfielder Lars Bender, who picked up an injury in their midweek tie, as well as long-term injury Stefan Reinartz and striker Eren Derdiyok.
Part of Leverkusen’s problem is that last season’s top scorer, Stefan Kießling, has been relatively goal shy of late, scoring only once since the end of November. Though they managed to eke out a win over Borussia Mönchengladbach last week, Sami Hyypia’s men must be looking over their shoulders nervously, as Dortmund and Schalke both edge closer to them in the table. Should they lose to the men from Gelsenkirchen (and Dortmund win), they would be only one point above Jürgen Klopp’s side.
In the reverse fixture this season, Schalke beat Leverkusen, 2-0, with Kevin Prince-Boateng the star of the show. While Leverkusen will have the home advantage this time around, it is difficult to see them pulling out a victory against a Schalke side that is simply flying too high.
Bayer Leverkusen: Leno—Hilbert, Toprak, Spahic, Guardado—Can, Rolfes, Castro—Sam, Kießling, Son
Schalke 04: Fährmann—Höwedes, Santana, Matip, Kolasinac—Boateng, Neustädter—Farfán, Meyer, Obasi—Huntelaar
Leverkusen 1-2 Schalke
Hertha Berlin Look to Leapfrog Wolfsburg
Just a few places down the table, Wolfsburg and Hertha are separated by only two points— at sixth and seventh, respectively. In many ways, they are similar: they have each conceded only 24 goals, scored a similar amount of goals, and have been inconsistent of late. Dieter Hecking’s team has collected only four points of the possible 12 in the last four games, while Hertha suffered back-to-back defeats to Frankfurt and Nürnberg before managing to beat struggling Hamburg.
As such, this will be a scintillating, tense game, with both sides threatening and neither wanting to make a mistake. Hertha play the more attractive football, featuring a sleek attack spearheaded by striker Adrian Ramos, who is enjoying the form of his career. He sits at the summit of the Bundesliga scoring charts—14 goals in 20 matches—and has attracted interest from the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Atlético Madrid, and Monaco. Wolfsburg, however, captured arguably the signing of the transfer window when they lured Belgian talent, Kevin de Bruyne, from Chelsea. The baby-faced midfielder shone against Mainz and Schalke, and will be hoping to capitalize on the absence of Hertha’s injured defenders, Lustenberger and van den Bergh, to grind out a victory for his team. Wolfsburg also boast Maximilian Arnold, who, along with Schalke’s Max Meyer and Stuttgart’s Timo Werner, has been a breakthrough young player of the year.
A hard fixture to predict, it will be an entertaining match whichever way it goes. Both sides are under serious pressure to reach a Champions League place, though a victory for Berlin would see them overtake the Wolves. The top four grows increasingly distant, but a win for either side would help them stay in the chase.
Hertha BSC Berlin: Kraft—Ndjeng, Kobiashvilli, Langkamp, Pekarik— Hosogai—Allagui, Cigerci, Skjelbred, Schulz—Ramos
VfL Wolfsburg: Benaglio—Ochs, Knoche, Naldo, Rodriguez—Gustavo, Träsch—Arnold, de Bruyne, Perisic—Dost
Hertha BSC Berlin 2-2 VfL Wolfsburg
Dogfight in the Basement: Braunschweig Take On Hamburg
While the top teams duel it out this weekend, the same occurs at the very bottom. Braunschweig, the Bundesliga’s anchor team this year, are in some ways the opposite of Hamburg, the only team in the Bundesliga never to have been relegated. Under Torsten Lieberknecht, Braunschweig are a disciplined, well-drilled team who give it their all every week, but simply do not have the quality to compete with the big boys. Hamburg, on the other hand, are a high-profile team with star power, but look completely rudderless and uninspired as they plunge deeper into relegation.
“I am visiting HSV tomorrow,” tweeted former Eintracht Frankfurt and Norway striker Jan Aage Fjortoft, last Friday, “It’s like visiting the Titanic two days before the iceberg.” But at least the crew of the Titanic did not know it was about to sink. The Hamburg players know exactly where they’re headed. Hamburg have lost six games in a row in the league, were thrown out of the DfB-Pokal midweek by Bayern Munich, and have suffered serious dressing room drama. Striker Jacques Zoua burst into tears after his team’s 3-0 defeat to Hertha, the fans took to the streets in protest, and 17-year-old Wunderkind Jonathan Tah could be leaving for Manchester City after it was discovered his Hamburg contract was actually illegal.
With so much chaos and drama, Hamburg are ripe for the taking, even for Braunschweig, who have mustered only three wins this season—albeit against surprisingly talented opposition. They took down Hoffenheim, Leverkusen, and Wolfsburg, and gave Borussia Dortmund a serious run for their money on both occasions. It took more than a large dollop of luck two weeks ago for Dortmund to secure their victory, with Braunschweig threatening to the last minute, and such performances show that they are not a force to be easily dismissed.
After these two teams faced each other in the Hinrunde—Hamburg won 4-0—Braunschweig trainer Lieberknecht unleashed a tirade against his own team, calling them a “Pissverein,” or “piss team.” Braunschweig, here’s your chance to secure another, more positive nickname.
Eintracht Braunschweig: Davari—Kessel, Bicakcic, Dogan, Reichel—Elabdellaoui, Kratz, Theuerkauf, Hochscheidt—Bellarabi, Ademi
Hamburger SV: Drobny—Lam, Tah, Westermann, Jansen—Arslan, Rincon, John, Calhanoglu, Ilicevic—Zoua
Eintracht Braunschweig 1-0 Hamburg
Elsewhere in the Bundesliga…
Mainz host Hannover 96 in a solidly mid-table clash, while Borussia Dortmund look to repeat their difficult mid-week victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the DfB-Pokal. A victory would see Dortmund securely back to winning ways, as they hope to capitalize on their rivals’ clashes to edge closer to second. Bayern Munich host SC Freiburg, against whom they dropped their first points in a 1-1 Hinrunde draw in August. Borussia Mönchengladbach will be desperate to end their recent downward slide when they travel to Werder Bremen, while embattled VfB Stuttgart will be without the banned Vedad Ibisevic in their trip to Hoffenheim. Finally, on Sunday, struggling Nürnberg will take on in-form neighbors, Augsburg.