This weekend's Bundesliga action centers around one of the country's most storied derbies. Elsewhere, Hamburg welcome Cologne to the Volkspark, while Gladbach aim to bounce back from European disappointment in Frankfurt.
Derby or not: three points count
There is more than just bragging rights at stake when rivals Schalke and Borussia Dortmund meet at the Veltins Arena on Saturday in the 150th Bundesliga edition of the Revierderby.
The yellow-and-blacks are fixed in a battle to qualify automatically for the group phase of the UEFA Champions League where every point matters. Dortmund are one point clear of Hoffenheim in fourth and three points behind RB Leipzig, who are at home to Darmstadt this weekend.
Unbeaten in his three experiences of the Revierderby, head coach Thomas Tuchel has a lucky charm in the form of Japanese attacking-midfielder Shinji Kagawa. Since joining Dortmund for the first time in 2010, Kagawa has scored four times against Schalke, including twice on his derby debut in a 2-1 win over the Royal Blues in Gelsenkirchen.
With the experienced pair of Marco Reus and Mario Götze missing, Tuchel's hopes rest upon the impressive young pairing of Ousmane Dembele and Christian Pulisic. The American returns from international break off the back of a goal and three assists in World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama.
"There is a different set of criteria for these matches. Things like ambition, determination, commitment and willingness to fight on the field," said Schalke captain Benedikt Höwedes, who appears in his 13th derby game, winning on four occasions.
The situation remains precarious for the Royal Blues, who are six points above the relegation zone. Markus Weinzierl's side have spent most of the campaign in the bottom half of the Bundesliga, but two wins on the bounce against Augsburg and Mainz have set Schalke up nicely for the visit of their arch rivals.
"We picked up some very good results in the spell before the international break," noted Höwedes in an interview with the club's website. "We have qualified for the Europa League quarter-finals and we have put a couple of wins together in the Bundesliga against Augsburg and Mainz. With that, we are going into the derby with confidence."
Hamburg feel the wind in their sails
Hamburg may still be in the relegation playoff position in the Bundesliga, but there is a feeling of a resurgence at the Volksparkstadion. Head coach Markus Gisdol's impressive work was rewarded during the international break with an extended contract at the northern German club. Fourteen points since the start of the new year has afforded Hamburg an eight-point cushion above 17th-placed Ingolstadt.
Backed by a strong fanbase, Gisdol's Hamburg have flourished on home soil this season and are unbeaten at the Volksparkstadion since November. "Everyone connected and not connected to the club have seen that we have had our “12th man” behind us in our home games. They screamed us forward in every home game and we have a great relationship between the team and our fans."
But sixth-placed Cologne presents one of the toughest tests of the second half of the campaign. With Anthony Modeste increasing his scoring tally to 22 for the season, the Billy Goats arrive in Hamburg with the league's second-highest scorer. Restored as the team's first-choice goalkeeper following lengthy injury lay outs, Timo Horn is targeting a place in the UEFA Europa League next season. "We have the ambition to defend our current place, and have the courage to say so."
Stindl returns for Frankfurt visit
Borussia Mönchengladbach's rapid turnaround under Dieter Hecking has slowed down a little following elimination in the Europa League against Schalke, a fortnight ago. Though there's still a German Cup semifinal against Eintracht Frankfurt to come, the pair are equally committed to qualifying for European competition next season. The Foals are four points off the Eagles, who are one behind Cologne in the battle for a top six finish.
Gladbach's free-scoring midfielder hadn't trained for nearly three weeks before Tuesday and should be in contention to return on Saturday evening. "I'm glad to be back on the training ground with the team," said the 28-year-old. Christoph Kramer and Fabian Johnson are still on the sidelines, while Frankfurt are without Japanese midfielder Makoto Hasebe.
Bundesliga Matchday 26 Fixtures:
Hertha BSC vs. Hoffenheim (Friday)
SC Freiburg vs. Werder Bremen (Saturday)
Schalke vs. Borussia Dortmund
RB Leipzig vs. Darmstadt
Hamburg vs. Cologne
Bayern Munich vs. Augsburg
Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach
Ingolstadt vs. Mainz (Sunday)
Leverkusen vs. Wolfsburg