The battle for those ever important Champions League and UEFA Cup spots is beginning. Top teams like Berlin and Hamburg face each other while league leaders Bayern Munich meet lowly Freiburg on the weekend.
Bayern Munich's aspirations (black) are clear -- the Bundesliga title
The cream is slowly rising to the top in the Bundesliga. The traditionally strong such as Bayern, Bremen and Leverkusen are amongst the top five while early pretenders like Wolfsburg, Hanover and Bielefeld are sinking into the middle of the standings, neither threatened by relegation nor threatening the elite.
On Saturday, the top game pits two teams lying in wait: Hertha Berlin (seventh place, 36 points) against the guests from Hamburg SV. Both clubs have been on a tear since mid-autumn, yet last week, Berlin's 11-game unbeaten string was halted by Stuttgart. Defender Nico Kovac already let out the next battle cry on Monday: "We have to start our next streak," Kovac told kicker magazine.
No matter how hard Kaiserslautern (right) challenged Hamburg, it didn't suffice. Hamburg won 2-1 at home
Since Thomas Doll took over the Hamburg reins in September, the team has enjoyed a steady rise from the bottom to sixth-place. The offense is clicking in the Hanseatic city. They haven't been shut out since a 3-0 loss to Bayern on Jan. 21. A loss for either side would put a damper on that club's chances to play in European competition next season.
Both Hertha and HSV will be closely watching the Sunday match between fourth-place Leverkusen and fifth-place Stuttgart. Matthias Sammer's side easily dispensed of Leverkusen in the first leg, winning 3-0 at home. Yet, Leverkusen must do without the services of defensive captain, Jens Nowotny, who tore the ACL in his left knee and will be out the remainder of the season.
Leaders with easier assignments
The top two clubs in the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich and Schalke 04 (both 44 points) face easier competition on the weekend.
The good old days for Freiburg in the top division are numbered. Bayern Munich won't make it easier for them
Munich, coming off a 3-1 Champions League victory over Arsenal London, travel to Freiburg who are fighting tooth and nail for their top division standing. Stranded in 17th-place, Volker Finke's side must do without goalkeeper Richard Golz (red card in last game) and a number of starters, Andreas Ibertsberger, Alexander Iashvili, Sascha Riether, Youssef Mohamad and Wilfried Sanou have fallen victim to that which is crippling many Germans this winter -- the flu.
Bayern also have complained of player illnesses but have a much deeper bench. The last Freiburg victory against their larger southern rivals was nine years ago.
Schalke's Ailton (left) single-handedly beat Mönchengladbach last Sunday with a hattrick
Schalke host Hanover on Sunday. After some heady play in the second half of the first leg, Hanover were riding high. In the second leg, they have fallen on hard times and lie in ninth-place. Their 20-year old defensive star, Per Mertesacker, is back in action this weekend. He himself is coming back from a bout with the flu which coach Ewald Lienen blames German national coach Jürgen Klinsmann for. Mertesacker played a full 90 minutes in the friendly against Argentina although he was not feeling well.
A Schalke win is a must if Ralf Rangnick's troop wants to keep pace with Munich.
Please click on the second page to continue