Gladbach and Schalke are keen to return to the Champions League, but the Bundesliga table shows that their best chance might be through the Europa League. Both have been handed tough ties in the first knockout stage.
The Europa League is still a couple of rounds away from garnering serious interest from the wider footballing world. However, for Gladbach and Schalke, European competition is a welcome distraction from inconsistent Bundesliga campaigns that see both of them hovering midtable. The Bundesliga's last remaining representatives in Europe's second-tier tournament face off against the top two sides from the Europa League's Group J this Thursday.
Gladbach go again after tough Champions League group
With Barcelona and Manchester City in their group, Gladbach's hope of making the knockout stages of this season's Champions League ended before they started. Being drawn against a Fiorentina side who comfortably won their Europa League group and sit in eighth place in Serie A wouldn't have been their first choice either, but Dieter Hecking has finally steadied Gladbach's ship.
The Foals haven't lost a competitive game since defeat to Hecking's former team, Wolfsburg, at the end of December. A remarkable comeback from two goals down in Leverkusen last month seems to have been a turning point for the club. Whether they can carry that form into Europe against a very different kind of opposition should provide the real insight into just how much Hecking has changed at the club.
"It is always fun playing against sides from Italy, they are always very tactical and know how to make life unpleasant," Hecking said in a press conference on Wednesday. "The team are doing very well right now. They have made a promise to themselves and you can see they are keeping it."
Any promise of retaining form is difficult to believe at a club who have been as inconsistent as Gladbach. They will be without Brazilian striker Raffael on Thursday, he's out with a thigh injury. But the return of Lars Stindl from suspension is welcome, as is the availability of Patrick Herrmann, who has recovered from injury and could be one of the options Hecking turns to.
Bentaleb missing as Schalke face Greek challenge
Whoever Markus Weinzierl turns to for Schalke, the hope is that things will stay calm off the pitch. When Schalke met PAOK in 2013, 89 people were injured when police stormed the Schalke block after some of the ultras refused to remove a flag that PAOK fans felt was provocative. Many onlookers criticized the police's actions as excessive.
"We're excited to step into the lion's den on Thursday evening and we want to set ourselves up to progress in the return leg," Weinzierl said on Wednesday. Looking at Schalke's Europa League campaign, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were one of the most in-form sides in Germany early in the season. Defeat on the final matchday was the only time they dropped points in a dominant campaign that saw them top Group I with more than double the number of points of FK Krasnodar in second.
Nabil Bentaleb's absence through illness truly is a significant loss for the Gelsenkirchen club. The Algerian has been at the heart of everything positive for Schalke this season, but Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting has returned to fitness.
Twenty years ago, Schalke capped off a remarkable UEFA Cup campaign by beating Inter Milan on penalties to lift the trophy in the tournament that was rebranded as the Europa League in 2009.
"The legend of 97 is big. If you look at the pictures of back then, you can feel it," said current goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann. Schalke have six games behind them, but need to get through nine more if they want to match the feat of the team that became known by their fans as the "Eurofighters" two decades ago.