Bundesliga Weekend Preview: Round 18 – Bayer Leverkusen Hope To Cut Gap On Borussia Dortmund

Leverkusen Host Dortmund on Friday before Bayern visit Wolfsburg on Saturday. Later, Schalke try to leapfrog Hamburg and slip into the top half of the table.
Friday (all times local)
20:30 Bayer Leverkusen – Borussia Dortmund

15:30 Wolfsburg – Bayern Munich
15:30 Werder Bremen – Hoffenheim
15:30 Nuernberg – Borussia Moenchengladbach
15:30 St Pauli – Freiburg
15:30 Stuttgart – Mainz
18:30 Schalke – Hamburg

15:30 Eintracht Frankfurt – Hannover
17:30 Kaiserslautern – Koeln

Bayer Leverkusen – Borussia Dortmund

As the spring campaign kicks off, Leverkusen face arguably their most important game of the season. Die Werkself won their fall opener against Dortmund, and could cut the gap to seven points behind the leaders with a similar result on Friday. Michael Ballack is approaching full fitness and Stefan Kiessling is back at 100%, but Burak Kaplan is still struggling with an Achilles' heel problem and will be sidelined.

Dortmund only dropped points three times in the fall as the Ruhr side came within minutes of tying a Bundesliga record for points in a fall campaign. With a ten-point lead over their closest rivals, BvB are runaway favourites to win the title. They could take a great step towards wrapping it up with a win in Leverkusen. This may be difficult, however, due to the absence of playmaker Shinji Kagawa, who is with the Japan squad at the Asian Cup. Additionally, Patrick Owomoyela, Sebastian Kehl and Florian Kringe are not yet fit and will miss Friday's game.

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Wolfsburg – Bayern Munich

Wolfsburg start the spring term in quite a predicament. Having drawn their last six matches before the break and sold striker Edin Dzeko to Manchester City, the 2009 Bundesliga champions are not far from the relegation zone. Expectations for this spring will be low, but die Woelfe will need to improve if coach Steve McClaren is to keep his job. Ahead of Saturday’s clash, he Englishman has a fully fit squad, but will have to do without Makoto Hasebe, who is on international duty with Japan, as well as suspended pair Karim Ziano and Caiuby.

After experiencing a false start to the season, Bayern appear to be in stellar form thanks to a productive training camp in Qatar. More than six months after his last competitive match, Arjen Robben is fit again and ready to join the first team, as is newcomer Luiz Gustavo. Bayern have plenty to prove this spring, and will play for three points against a Woflsburg side that has proven tough to beat in recent months. Ivica Olic, Toni Kroos, and Edson Braafheid will have to watch in the stands, but Louis van Gaal will have an otherwise full squad of first-team players.

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Werder Bremen – Hoffenheim

Bremen’s crisis has pilled over into the new year, if results of recent friendlies are indicators. The Hanseaten drew one match and suffered multi-goal defeats in two more. To make matters worse, influential Brazilians Naldo and Wesley have been ruled out for at least a few more weeks as they recover from persistent injuries. Sebastian Boenisch and Dominik Schmidt will also have to miss out on the action due to injuries.

It’s been an eventful winter break for Hoffenheim, who added David Alaba and Roberto Firmino to their ranks but also lost Christian Eichner and Luiz Gustavo. The sale of the latter caused coach Ralf Rangnick to resign, and with Demba Ba refusing to play as he tries to force a transfer to West Ham, it’s plain and clear that a very different Hoffenheim will face Bremen on Saturday. In addition to Ba, Hoffenheim will be without injured forward Chinedu Obasi as well as suspended midfielder Sejad Salihovic.

Nuernberg – Borussia Moenchengladbach

Nuernberg are seven points ahead of the drop zone, but the Bavarians still are not safe from danger. They could take an important step towards finishing ahead of Gladbach as they take on the table-bottom side. Rising star Ilkay Guendogan will miss out on the match due to a metatarsal injury, and in addition to the playmaker, Per Nilsson, Mike Frantz, Marek Mintal, and Albert Bunjaku have also been ruled out.

After conceding a league worst 47 goals in 17 matches, Gladbach were proactive in the transfer market, and signed defenders Havard Nordtveit and Martin Stranzl. Die Fohlen also added striker and super substitute Mike Hanke for good measure, and despite their 18th place standing, will look to improve as the second half of the season begins. Roel Brouwers, Dante, Karim Matmour, Logan Bailly, Paul Stalteri, and Marcel Meeuwis are unfit, and will miss out on the action.

St Pauli – Freiburg

At the midway point, St Pauli are looking anything but capable of avoiding the drop. The promoted side stands 15th, with the worst attacking record in Germany. Hamburg’s cult club will have the benefit of playing at home as the Bundesliga restarts, but will be under plenty of pressure to claim three points against Freiburg. Holger Stanislawski has ruled out Davidson Drobo-Ampem, Marcel Eger, Jan-Philipp Kalla, Dennis Daube, and Fabio Morena, who are unfit.

One of the many surprise teams of the fall term was Freiburg, who finished just a point behind defending champions Bayern. Led by the brilliant Papiss Cisse, the southwestern team stands sixth in the table as the second half of the season begins. As they head to the intimidating Millerntor stadium, Freiburg will be without the services of Simon Pouplin, Pavel Krmas, Oemer Toprak, Jonathan Jaeger, Alain Junior Olle Olle, Daniel Williams, Tommy Bechmann, and Stefan Reisinger.

Stuttgart – Mainz

Though Stuttgart tend to underperform in the fall, the Swabians reached new lows this year, and experienced two coaching changes before entering the winter break in 17th place. They nonetheless have opted to be quite reserved in the transfer market, and evidently hope to succeed in 2011 with an unchanged squad. Khalid Boulahrouz, Johan Audel, Mohamadou Bah, and Martin Harnik are injured, and will be unable to take part in Saturday’s match.

Mainz shocked a plurality of Bundesliga fans with a record-tying run of seven consecutive wins to start the season. The oh fives fell back into orbit after the streak was broken, but nonetheless managed to finish the fall term in the nosebleed-causing heights of second place. Thomas Tuchel has been hesitant to pressure his team, but Mainz could yet compete for a European berth. Martin Pieckenhagen, Eugen Gopko, Zsolt Loew, Bo Svensson, Jan Simak, and Petar Sliskovic are unfit, and have been ruled out of the action.

Schalke – Hamburg

It was a very difficult start to the fall for Schalke, who struggled to integrate a largely changed squad, and sat near the drop zone for much of the fall. Die Knappen improved vastly in December, however, and climbed to within two points of the top half of the table. Felix Magath’s men have plenty of work to do, but nonetheless should not be estimated. They face a tough challenge in Hamburg, and the task will be made all the more difficult in the absence of Tim Hoogland, Levan Kenia (both unfit), Hao Junmin, and Atsuto Uchida (both at Asian Cup). Jermaine Jones, Hans Sarpei, and Alexander Baumjohann remain relegated in Schalke II.

As has become increasingly common in recent years, injury-hit Hamburg disappointed in the fall term. After having the majority of a month to recover, die Rothosen are at nearly full strength. Nonetheless, will face resurgent Schalke without Dennis Diekmeier, Joris Mathijsen, Romeo Castelen, Jose Paolo Guerrero, and Mladen Petric who have not yet reached full fitness. Heung-Min Son is also away on international duty with South Korea.

Eintracht Frankfurt – Hannover

Led by the heroics of Bundesliga top scorer Theofanis Gekas, Frankfurt enjoyed an outstanding start to the 2010-11 campaign. In round 17, die Adler became just the second team to defeat leaders Dortmund, allowing for a seventh place finish to the fall term. As play resumes, coach Michael Skibbe will be unable to select Chris, Maik Franz, Marco Russ, Alexander Vasoski, Nikola Petkovic, and Zlatan Bajramovic who are injured. As well, Marcos Alvarez and Cenk Tosun have not been called up.

Hannover were among the few teams to exceed expectations more than their opponents, Frankfurt. Despite playing a rather tactically limited game, die Roten ended the first half in fourth place after nearly earning their entire 2009-10 points total. Mirko Slomka still does not have his eyes on Europe, but will nonetheless aim for as many points as possible. As the new year kicks off, injured Markus Miller, Leon Andreasen, Carlitos, and Valdet Rama will be unable to feature.

Kaiserslautern – Koeln

Kaiserslautern experienced mixed results in their first semester since being promoted back to Germany’s top tier. Die roten Teufel were strong early in the campaign, but struggled later. They currently stand 12th, but still have plenty to do to avoid a quick relegation. As the second haf of the season kicks off, FCK will be missing Jan Simunek (injured), as well as Christian Tiffert and Alexander Bugera (both suspended).

Even managerial and coaching changes during the fall campaign could not save Koeln from a very disappointing 16th place finish. Die Geissboecke have added a number of reinforcements, however, and will hope to climb from the depths of the table. In their first test, Miso Brecko, Youssef Mohamad, Kevin McKenna and Kostas Giannoulis will be missing due to the H1N1 virus, and will be joined in the stands by injured quintet Alexander Ionita, Taner Yalcin, Adil Chihi, Manasseh Ishiaku and Jose Pierre Vunguidica.

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