Schalke 04 will clash with Werder Bremen on Saturday in what is shaping up as a key Bundesliga encounter for both clubs.
The last match between Bremen and Schalke ended 1-1
In recent years the two teams have been leading contenders for the title of national champion, but so far this season both have suffered under ailing campaigns.
If either team is to improve its chances of playing in the next European soccer season it will need to produce a run of good form, starting this weekend at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen.
Also on Saturday, championship leaders Hoffenheim, who are sitting snugly on 38 points, travel to last-placed Borussia Moenchengladbach, while third-placed SV Hamburg, who are only two points adrift Hoffenheim, head to Karlsruhe, who sit only two points above Moenchengladbach.
Hertha Berlin, who also have 36 points but sit in second place on goal difference, could move top on Friday evening with a win at Arminia Bielefeld. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich, who are fourth with 35 points, will be aiming to recover from defeat last weekend to Hamburg when they host Borussia Dortmund on Sunday.
Pride at stake
Both Bremen and Schalke have underachieved considerably this season. Bremen, who lifted the Bundesliga trophy in 2004, have not finished out of the top three for the last five seasons, while Schalke have consistently placed in the top four since the 2004-05 season.
Bielefeld's win over Bremen put them in 14th place in the table
But at the moment both teams are sitting vulnerably mid-table -- Schalke are in ninth place, while Bremen are in 10th -- with Wolfsburg, Stuttgart and Dortmund immediately above them and very much in the way of a UEFA Cup allocation. A spot in the next Champions League edition would require they leapfrog a further two teams into third or second place.
A 2-1 home defeat to Bielefeld last round left Bremen -- a side depleted by injuries, sickness and suspensions -- looking helpless to stop their downward slide on the table. Since that loss, speculation has been growing over the future of coach Thomas Schaaf, and a loss to Schalke could be injurious to his stay at the Weserstadion.
The talk prompted Bremen sports director Klaus Allofs to dismiss any suggestion that Schaaf -- who will be 10 years in the job in May -- could be ditched if the poor run continues.
"There is no coaching issue. We have said repeatedly that we are very happy with Thomas Schaaf's work, and that's the way it stays," he told Kicker sports magazine.
"The season is not over for us," he added. "We are still in the DFB Cup, we are still in the UEFA Cup. And in the league we want to work step by step in the direction of an international place."
Some injury concerns at the club have eased, with Brazilian defender Naldo expected back following a calf problem, but compatriot Diego in midfield is still suspended, as is striker Claudio Pizarro.
New page at Schalke
Kevin Kuranyi doesn't know if he's coming or going
Over at Schalke, who were beaten 1-0 at Hanover on Saturday, several unsettled players have been released and the club says it is hopeful of building a younger squad under Dutch coach Fred Rutten.
Speculation has surrounded striker Kevin Kuranyi, who caused confusion by saying recently that he felt unappreciated at the club and wanted to leave, before reversing his position and announcing he wanted to stay.
"No one becomes a really great player by running away when times are tough. I don't run away from problems and I aim to win through here at Schalke," he said on the club's Web site.
But Kuranyi will be lucky with a place on the bench against Bremen after injury hampered his winter training program.
Pressure on Bayern
Munich head coach Juergen Klinsmann will be under pressure for the rest of the season
Champions Bayern will be tested by sixth-placed Dortmund, with coach Juergen Klinsmann anxious to show that last Friday's 1-0 loss in Hamburg was only a minor slip-up.
The defeat has put Bayern under pressure in the lead up to their clash with Hertha Berlin in two rounds' time. Club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said on Bayern's Web site that the remainder of this season would not be a walk in the park for his team.
"We'll be under pressure for the rest of the season," Rummenigge said. "We want to win the league, but there are three teams ahead of us for now.
"We always knew a restart program of Stuttgart (in the cup), Hamburg, Dortmund and Berlin wouldn't be easy. But we're optimistic, and we want to go top of the league as soon as possible."
Elsewhere Saturday, fifth-placed Bayer Leverkusen face Stuttgart, Wolfsburg meet Bochum and Eintracht Frankfurt entertain Cologne. In Sunday's game, second-last Energie Cottbus are at home to Hannover.