The Bundesliga will return this weekend after a week of absence while the international teams took center stage. Battles at the top and the bottom of the league are key, while a new face is finally welcomed.
The lay-off from club football during any international break always feels longer than it actually is. However for one player in particular who is expected to return to normal action in this weekend, the time away from club football has been a difficult experience.
Having joined Bayer Leverkusen from Internacional in the summer, Chilean international Charles Aranguiz is in line to make his club debut this Friday, against Wolfsburg. The 26-year old ruptured his Achilles tendon in August and has been selected in the matchday squad for the first time this weekend. Club captain Lars Bender is also set to return for the first time in almost five months.
"We've been able to build them both up in training and it's a very positive situation when injured players return," Leverkusen head coach Roger Schmidt told a press conference on Thursday. "Of course neither of them are yet 100 per cent, but they are only going to get there by getting minutes under their belts, and I intend to give them those minutes in our coming games.”
As well as focusing on returning players, some that are set to depart are also in the spotlight ahead of the fixture at the BayArena. Danish striker Niklas Bendtner, who scored in the reverse fixture earlier this season (a 2-1 win for Wolfsburg), has been told that he is no longer welcome at first-team training and is expected to have his contract with the club terminated. This news comes in the midsts of reports over Wolfsburg's dissapointment in striker Max Kruse's recent off-field behavior.
Despite the off-field news, an entertaining match is expected between these two teams chasing European qualification, as we saw in the same match last year. In one of the most dramatic matches of the season, Wolfsburg prevailed in a nine-goal thriller, 4-5 at the BayArena, with another of the club's strikers, Bas Dost, scoring four goals by himself.
"Bayer are in a similar situation to ours. Both of us had had problems with injuries in the second half of the season and were unable to find our rhythms," explained Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking on Thursday. "It’s a trend-setting game for both sides.”
Wolfsburg will welcome back goalkeeper Diego Benaglio from a rib injury, while Bas Dost and Luiz Gustavo will have to wait to see if they can play, with the Brazilian midfielder returning late from international duty and Dost's fitness still a doubt.
Key battles at the top and bottom
As well as a battle at the top on Friday night, Sunday will also see two European contenders meet for what is another vital encounter as teams jostle for qualification spots. Capital club Hertha Berlin travel to the side six points adrift of them in fifth place, Borussia Mönchengladbach, with the Foals' chances of Champions League football next season possibly hinging on the result at Borussia-Park
When the two sides met earlier in the season, Gladbach recorded its sixth consecutive win under new head coach Andre Schubert with a 1-4 demolition in Berlin. Once again momentum appears to be with the away side, as the Foals have lost five of their ten Bundesliga matches in 2016, while Hertha have lost just two of their ten coming into this fixture.
"We're a very hard side to beat once our game plan is implemented and when we play to our strengths," Oscar Wendt, who is expected to return from injury on Sunday, told the Borussia Mönchengladbach club website.
“It is in our hands rather than theirs. It would be great to get a convincing win at home like we did last time, but Hertha have been one of the best teams in the league this season."
At the bottom of the table, key relegation clashes between Hannover and Hamburg and Darmstadt and Stuttgart stand out. Hannover head coach Thomas Schaaf told a press conference on Thursday that he would leave his position if the club, who are 10 points adrift at the bottom of the club, are relegated.
Hamburg, meanwhile, are just four points ahead of Hoffenheim who sit in the relegation play-off spot. The Bundesliga dinosaurs, who are still yet to be relegated from Germany's top division, could be drawn into a third consecutive relegation play-off tie if wins don't come soon.
At the Merck-Stadion am Böllenfalltor, two teams looking to avoid a late relegation dog-fight collide. Darmstadt, who were widely tipped as a team to be in the relegation places come the end of the season face Stuttgart, whose surge of form under Jürgen Kramny has seen them climb out of what looked to be a position they would struggle to escape from.
Matchday 28 fixtures:
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Wolfsburg (Friday)
Bayern Munich vs. Frankfurt (Saturday)
Hannover vs. Hamburg
Mainz vs. Augsburg
Ingolstadt vs. Schalke
Darmstadt vs. Stuttgart
Borussia Dortmund vs. Werder Bremen (Saturday late)
Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Hertha Berlin (Sunday)
Hoffenheim vs. Cologne