No let up for Schalke, Bayern next in Bundesliga
Runaway leader Bayern Munich can take another step toward the Bundesliga title with a win at home over Schalke, chastened by Wednesday's 6-1 rout at home by Real Madrid in the Champions League. Bayer Leverkusen hopes to end its alarming slump against Mainz while Borussia Dortmund hosts improving Nuremberg, and Werder Bremen clashes with Hamburger SV for the Bundesliga's 100th northern derby. Here are five things to know ahead of the 23rd round of games this weekend:
NO RESPITE FOR SCHALKE
Schalke needs to get over its Champions League humiliation quickly to avoid more at Bayern on Saturday. Schalke general manager Horst Heldt believes Bayern is ''maybe even a tick better'' than Madrid and he called on his young side to take lessons from losing to the Spanish league leader. It was Schalke's heaviest ever defeat in Europe but the players want to forget it as quickly as possible.
''We have no choice but to write off the game,'' Schalke midfielder Julian Draxler said. ''We have to get it out of our heads and prepare for the duel with Bayern.''
Schalke's woe was compounded by injuries to attacking midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng and defender Sead Kolasinac.
Defending champion Bayern is well on its way toward wrapping up its 22nd Bundesliga title. Pep Guardiola's side enjoys a 19-point lead over Leverkusen, is unbeaten in a league record 47 games and has only dropped points twice in 22 games so far this season. No other side has had such an advantage at this stage in 51 seasons of the Bundesliga. Bayern can theoretically seal the title on March 15, though the end of the month looks more likely. Either way, Bayern looks set to better last year's quickest ever title won after 28 games on April 6, 2013.
Bayern is also in a good position to become the first side to complete a Bundesliga season unbeaten and the first Bundesliga side to win all its home games. It can also set records for points gathered, fewest goals conceded, the most clean sheets, the most wins within a season, and - depending on further slip-ups from Leverkusen and Dortmund - the biggest gap over the runner-up.
HIGH-STAKE NORTHERN DERBY
Bremen hosts Hamburg with pride and - more importantly - points at stake on Saturday, with both sides fighting relegation. Bremen has one win from 11 games and hasn't won any of its last five, leaving it just three points above Hamburg in the relegation playoff place. Hamburg looked doomed after seven successive league losses but revived hopes under new coach Mirko Slomka last weekend with a 3-0 win over Dortmund.
''It will be a very special game,'' said Bremen coach Robin Dutt, who has to adjust for suspended defenders Felix Kroos and Luca Caldirola.
Slomka intends to build on last week's surprise win. ''It's the result of hard work,'' Slomka said. ''We're not going to stop working now or relax any day.''
Eintracht Frankfurt hosts Stuttgart for another relegation six-pointer on Sunday. Stuttgart has lost seven in a row and coach Thomas Schneider is in danger of sharing his predecessor Bruno Labbadia's fate. Labbadia was fired after three league games.
''The trust is absolutely there,'' Stuttgart sports director Fredi Bobic insisted. ''It's essential to think from game to game, nothing else. The ultimate indicator is how the team presents itself.''
Frankfurt is arguably paying the price for its good Europa League run. Last week's frustrating 0-0 draw with Bremen came after a commendable 2-2 draw at Porto. The return leg is to be played Thursday, and will likely affect preparations for Stuttgart. Frankfurt is already without Pirmin Schwegler (suspended) while fellow midfielder Sebastian Rode has been ruled out for the rest of the season with a right knee injury.
LEVERKUSEN AT A LOSS
Bayer Leverkusen is undergoing a crisis of faith after four successive defeats across all competitions, seven losses in nine games.
''They were the worst 10 days,'' said striker Stefan Kiessling, referring to the German Cup loss to second-division Kaiserslautern, the 2-1 league defeat to Schalke, the 4-0 humiliation at home by Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League and last weekend's 3-1 loss at Wolfsburg.
Individual mistakes, a lack of concentration and a shaky defense have all contributed to make Leverkusen's best-ever start to a Bundesliga season all but a distant memory.
''We haven't lost our belief,'' said defender Philipp Wollscheid, who won't be accompanied by Gonzalo Castro or Emir Spahic against Mainz due to suspension.
Mainz has lost only one of its last eight games, putting it firmly in the running for a Europa League qualification place.